This simple black and white press guide introduced the Capitols during their championship season. (Image: Amazon)
Monday night kicks off another exciting slate of home games for the Indianapolis Colts. The nation’s eyes will be on the Circle City for what will be one of the most watched sports programs of the week. Expectations are high for the home team, which has become woven into the fabric of the community over the past two generations. But it hasn’t always been this way in our basketball hotbed. Many remember when the Colts arrived under the cloak of darkness in 1984, but did you know that this was not the city’s first flirtation with professional football.
Professional football in 1968 would be completely unrecognizable to today’s fan. Although the merging of the major league AFL and NFL in 1966 would bring added credibility to the sport, teams often played in stadiums designed for major league baseball in front of smaller crowds. Football players earned around $25,000.00 annually, and the first Super Bowl included nearly 40,000 empty seats. Even during these simple times, an effort was made to establish minor league football as a way to develop players for future NFL careers, and Indianapolis featured a short-lived team during this era.
The Indianapolis Capitols fielded teams in the Continental Football League beginning in 1968, lasting a whopping three seasons. Despite this brief tenure, a couple of historic moments can be credited to their existence. In 1969, running back O. J. Simpson was fresh out of college and had a bright future ahead of him. He signed on with an Indianapolis-based agent by the name of Chuck Barnes to negotiate his NFL contract. After coming to an impasse with the Buffalo Bills, the hometown Capitols offered Simpson an unheard of $400,000.00 to play in the Continental Football League. This canny publicity stunt didn’t pan out, and Simpson eventually came to terms with the Bills.
The 1969 season brought the first football championship to Indianapolis under an unlikely hero. Starting quarterback John Walton came to Indianapolis as a castoff from the Los Angeles Rams. After taking over under center during the middle of the season, the Capitols stormed through the playoffs, eventually taking the championship in a thrilling game over the San Antonio Toros as Bush Stadium. This is notable, as Walton was one of the first African Americans to be given the chance to play quarterback in the professional ranks.
After the 1969 season, the CFL was no more. Crowds averaged fewer than 6,000 per game, and no television contract existed. The Capitols limped through one season in the Atlantic Coast League before folding. John Walton went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles for three seasons. To this day, upstart minor league football leagues have failed to gain any traction, perhaps due to the popularity and dominance of college football. Do you have any memories of seeing the Capitols on West Sixteenth Street?
U.S. News and World Report, September 22, 1969
Indianapolis Star, April 1, 1969
Indianapolis Star, April 24, 2009