INDIANAPOLIS – Jeff Saturday checked out the grass on the other side. It wasn't nearly as green. Or should I say blue?
“Back in blue, that's a good thing today,” Saturday said as he retired from the NFL on Thursday with a one-day contract with the Indianapolis Colts.
Saturday spent 13 of his 14 NFL seasons as a center with the Colts, and one less-satisfying one with the Green Bay Packers. As he returned to Indy – he's a Colts “ambassador” now, with all the vagueness the title implies – he shared perspective that only time away can provide.
The Packers are a good franchise. No one disputes that. They're a winning franchise with great fans. But the experience hit Saturday in an illuminating way.
The Colts have their own niche, their own culture, in Indianapolis. That's the gist of what I gathered from Saturday's farewell (or welcome back) speech.
“You could not ask for a more classy organization,” Saturday said, and then he singled out owner Jim Irsay, the fans and the community. “I've had my share of going other places. I've played on the road a number of times, and there's not a better group of people who support a football team than Colts fans. Every time I walked on the field, I knew it was a blessing to be in front of (them).”
The Colts during Saturday's 13 years turned Indianapolis into a football town. Much of that credit goes to quarterback Peyton Manning, of course, a teammate Saturday calls one of the greatest leaders he's ever been around. But there was a togetherness of like-minded players, many of whom Saturday named in his long “thank you” list.
The legacy of building a model franchise is the one Saturday and his contemporaries have left with the Colts. It was telling that Saturday listed his “Colts Hall of Fame” teammates and included not only Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dwight Freeney, but less-prominent players such as punter Hunter Smith, long-snapper Justin Snow and backup quarterback Jim Sorgi. The inclusiveness made his claim of the team as "family" ring true.
“The players and the camaraderie in the locker room is unlike anything else on the planet,” Saturday said.
His fondness for the Colts goes beyond the blood, sweat and tears on the field, or fun in the locker room.
Irsay wanted Saturday to retire after the 2011 season, to join the Colts' off-field team, but Saturday wanted to play one more season. So Irsay encouraged him to pursue that goal. It didn't turn out the way Saturday envisioned, nor did it change Irsay's view of Saturday.
“In my heart, when I think of one player (as) the heartbeat of those 12 to 13 years, you just think about Jeff, his integrity and always trying to be a better man, a better person, a better example, truly the leader of our team,” Irsay said.
Irsay encouraging Saturday to pursue his final season last year was an example to Saturday of Irsay being a different type of owner and the Colts being a different type of franchise.
“This organization is what I hope all the NFL teams strive to be,” Saturday said. “In every negotiation I was involved with the PA (players association) and the NFL, I used us (the Colts) as an example of what you should strive to and I make no bones about it. This organization is the best in the business and it will continue.”
Saturday said he followed the Colts last season even as his official ties to the team had been severed. He and his wife, Karen, and their three children maintained their home here even when Saturday went to play at Green Bay.
Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano attended Thursday's news conference although they took over as Saturday's time as a Colts player was ending.
“I watched what they did last year all the time and I'm excited about it,” Saturday said. “I've had the opportunity to meet (Andrew) Luck and some of the guys that I have relationships with anyway. It's incredible. This train is just starting to get rolling. I'm excited to keep on the journey and keep rolling as a Colt.”
Saturday's return to sign and retire with the Colts could be seen as a publicity stunt, something to keep the team in the spotlight during the offseason. But the Colts, as much as any franchise, come across as sincere as any pro team.
There's something to be said about a player like Saturday coming back. Remember, after the 2011 season, the Colts told Saturday his time was over, his playing paycheck finished. How easy would it be to have hard feelings in that scenario?
Saturday's time away made his heart grow fonder for the Colts. There's a statement there about the way the Colts operate. It's a positive one, too.