Colts COO Pete Ward Reflects On 36-Year Career
Writer / Suzanne Huntzinger
Photographer / Brian Brosmer
No one will ever forget that snowy March morning in 1984 when the former Baltimore Colts rolled into town and changed the city of Indianapolis forever. Few people can say they were a part of the ball club from its Indianapolis beginnings. Chief Operating Officer and Zionsville resident, Pete Ward, was part of that unforgettable experience that brought the Colts to a rebirth in Naptown.
“It was March 28, 1984,” Ward says. “They called me into the office and said, ‘take care of your personal business and be back here at 10 p.m. ready to roll.’”
Ward was shocked.
At one point, Colts’ staff were sorting through a possible move to Arizona, but the deal fell apart.
“All hell broke loose,” Ward says. “Fans were furious with us.”
The fire died down, then rumors of a possible move to Memphis started flying, followed by more rumors about Indianapolis. Since it was already late March, staff dismissed it all as a ploy to be used as a bargaining tool.
Reality hit fast for Ward, a young bachelor who’d been working for the Colts for just three years. Employed as the organization’s administrative assistant, Ward was hired not long after graduating from the University of Virginia. His degree was in Sports Business, a degree for which Ward designed his own course of study since schools didn’t offer a Sports Management degree at the time.
As a young boy living in Virginia, the Washington Redskins’ team headquarters was close. So, when Ward wanted a summer job, he asked the team if they needed volunteers. They had no openings, so he went up to Baltimore and knocked on their door.
The Colts welcomed Ward and put him to work in any spot that needed a job to be done. When it was time for Ward to go back to school, the team still needed help, so they asked him to stay on. So, he took a semester off of school and learned first-hand as much as he could about the business.
Ward returned to school and finished his degree, returning whenever possible to the Colts to do whatever the team asked him to do. Upon graduation, he sent out resumes, but no teams were hiring. Ward returned to the Colts to help as he had in the previous summer. His lucky break came one day when the team’s administrative assistant resigned. Ward was hired on the spot.
Ward’s new title meant that his duties were a “catch-all,” involving any job that needed to be done. Sometimes he was asked to take players to and from the airport, fill in at someone’s desk or work in the ticket office. No task was too great or too small for Ward because as far as he was concerned, he was building his dream career.
So, on that fateful March day when Ward was asked to take care of his personal business and be ready to depart for Indianapolis, saying no was impossible. The idea of leaving his family, friends and life behind for a city he’d heard of as “Naptown” gave him pause, but Ward was excited by the idea of a fresh start and the promise of pursuing his dream.
The team rolled out of town on schedule, and the news broke to the public around midnight.
“I had mixed emotions about leaving the devoted Baltimore fans,” Ward says. “We were leaving a huge fan legacy behind.”
But when the team arrived in Indianapolis, Ward says, “We were treated like royalty. The celebration was a bit like the liberation of Paris.”
Ward described the time that followed in those early days as a blur because there was so much to do.
“It was the hardest time of my life,” he says. “We had the hours of a college kid working long days and getting very little sleep.”
The Colts quickly settled into its first headquarters, occupying the former Fall Creek Elementary School on the northeast side. Ward dove right in, helping grow the organization, figuring it all out as he went along. His hard work paid off and he was quickly promoted to Director of Operations.
Though there was little time to stop and consider his first impressions of his new city, Ward says, “I do remember noticing how little traffic Indy had compared to metro Baltimore and the DC area. On my first commute to work I thought it must be a state holiday. One night I drove downtown, and pretty much everything was shut down after dark. I remember thinking this city really is Naptown.”
But Ward saw the city transform before his eyes. Union Station was revitalized, and soon the entire downtown area seemed to follow suit. Circle Center Mall arrived and everything else grew up around it.
“It was nice to think that the Colts were part of that rejuvenation and change,” Ward says.
As things changed around him, Ward became more settled. He found a small starter home in Zionsville village in 1987.
“I liked the small-town feel and charm of the area,” Ward says. “Plus, the house was $54,000.
He had no idea the area would grow so fast or the location of his first home in the village would later become prime real estate. The small-town charm of Zionsville never lost its appeal to Ward. So, he stayed, eventually marrying and raising his family there.
“The community is wonderful,” Ward says. “Everyone knows you, and the people are friendly.”
The Colts saw many changes in the years that followed. Moving into their new headquarters on 56th street, coaching changes and more kept Ward constantly on his toes.
“After the challenges of the big move, everything else that came our way seemed like a piece of cake,” Ward says. “But times always change. You can’t be complacent. You’ve got to stay ahead of the curve.”
The team definitely stayed ahead. With the arrival of Colts’ legend Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Coach Tony Dungy and others, the team’s popularity and success skyrocketed.
It was around that time when Ward was named Vice President of Administration. Among the many memories Ward has of the Manning era, he has two that are his favorites. The first was in the 2006-2007 season.
“I’ll never forget winning the AFC championship game over the ‘evil-empire’ New England Patriots,” Ward says. “We were down 21-3 and came back to win it in the final minute, earning our first trip to the Super Bowl. It was Hollywood at its finest.”
Another favorite memory is a 2009 game, against the Patriots once again. With two minutes left in the game, the undefeated Colts stopped the Pats on an infamous fourth-and-two attempt and came back to win the game in the final seconds. With a broad grin, Ward says, “The drama and adrenaline in this business is unmatched.”
Through the team’s ups and downs, Ward has seen far more successes than failures. Winning Super Bowl XLI and helping host Super Bowl XLVI just a few years after opening the beautiful, new Lucas Oil Stadium (a stadium which Ward played a key role in designing) were certainly proud moments for Ward.
“Indianapolis has proven over and over that it can compete on the world stage with the big dogs,” he says. “It is extremely fulfilling to see the Colts playing a role in that.”
The Colts compete with the big dogs off the field too.
Colts ownership, players and coaches bring their A-game by sharing their winning spirit with the team and by staying involved in the community.
“We’re aggressive on all fronts,” Ward says. “We try to touch all parts of our state and even Louisville, with fanfests, school shows themed around such topics as bullying or literacy, fitness camps and youth football clinics. We are also fortunate to have the Irsay family so involved with our community. And of course, now we have Andrew Luck, approaching his sixth season with the team, and he’s an incredible ambassador for us.”
As nice as it is to reflect on the many successes, Ward never stops thinking about what is next.
“I want to see us win the Super Bowl again, and I’d love to see Indy host it again,” Ward says. “I have yet to see anything excite and bond our community more than our Super Bowl run in 2007, and that’s a feeling you cannot get enough of.”
The Indianapolis Colts are now in their third generation of fans, making their time here longer than their time in Baltimore. The fan landscape has changed from the early days when fans in Indy were divided in their loyalties to the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers or the Cincinnati Bengals. Now, of course, Indianapolis fans are united behind the Colts.
“It’s fulfilling to know the Colts are a pillar in this city and help make it a place where good people want to live and companies want to come and grow,” Ward says. “It’s also terrific to know Indiana is now a football state just as much as we are a basketball state.”
No matter what the next play of the game is by the Colts, Ward is here to stay.
“I’m proud of this city and what it’s become,” he says. “People are friendly, and they come together for a cause. I’m proud to say I live here.”