MINUTES AFTER the Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC championship game, Tony Dungy made an offhand remark about the upcoming Super Bowl between Indianapolis and Chicago. "It's a shame we have to go to Miami," the Colts coach said on CBS. "We should just go to Fort Wayne and play it off there." And this is what happened next: In Hartford my houseguest father, born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, lunged for the TiVo remote and shouted, "What did he just say? Rewind that! Rewind that!"
In Pleasanton, Calif., Rod Woodson, born and raised in Fort Wayne, saw his phone nearly jump off the end table as if in a cartoon. "When Tony said 'Fort'—the 'Wayne' wasn't even out of his mouth yet—the phone started ringing," says the 11-time All-Pro safety, now an analyst on the NFL Network. "It was my mom in Fort Wayne. She was yelling, 'Did you hear what Tony said?!'"
In Westlake, Ohio, Eric Wedge had just returned from a weekend trip to his hometown of Fort Wayne, which is roughly equidistant from Chicago and Indianapolis—a part-Indy, part-Windy mix of Colts and Bears fans. "Anybody familiar with Fort Wayne knows how proud the town is," says Wedge, the young manager of the Cleveland Indians. "And when Tony said that, we all bowed our chests out a little bit."
"A lot of people sat up in bed," says Dan O'Connell, president of the Fort Wayne Convention & Visitors Bureau, which sent Dungy a gift basket in gratitude for the good publicity that often eludes this city of 248,341, its citizens unsung or undersung throughout history.
Called the Dumbest City in America (by Men's Health in 2005) and the Fourth Fattest City in America (by the Centers for Disease Control in '02), Fort Wayne has attractions that are somewhat subtler than Miami's. "They have South Beach, we have Southtown Mall," says O'Connell. And yet no American city would be a more fitting host for the Super Bowl, and not merely because that Sunday is the biggest day of the year in television, whose inventor, Philo T. Farnsworth, lived there throughout the 1940s, '50s and '60s—and had to sue RCA to get credit for his creation.
Super Sunday is among the worst days of the year for drunken driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Breathalyzer was invented by Fort Wayne's own Robert F. Borkenstein.
Fort Wayne hosted professional baseball's first night game, lit by Jenny Electric in 1883. And the NBA was, in a manner of speaking, conceived on a kitchen table here in 1949, when Fort Wayne Pistons owner Fred Zollner brokered the merger between the BAA and the NBL in his home.
The U.S. soccer star Damarcus Beasley is from Fort Wayne, but it's American football that runs through Fort Wayne's arteries—literally so, if the city follows through on its plan to dye the St. Mary's River Colts blue and the St. Joseph River Bears navy-and-orange, so that when the two meet to form Fort Wayne's third river, the Maumee, all bets will be covered.
"Good talent comes from everywhere," says Woodson, who attended Snider High, "and Fort Wayne has shown that." This small city has four players in the NFL: Steelers lineman Trai Essex (Harding High), Cowboys tackle Jason Fabini (Bishop Dwenger), Panthers punter Jason Baker (Wayne) and Chiefs defensive back Bernard Pollard (South Side).
On the south side there's a little park at the end of Reynolds Street, where Woodson grew up. The Bears and the Colts could get it on there. "I know Tony was joking," says Woodson, "but the Super Bowl gives kids a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the big hoo-rah in their own town."
And what better town to host America's biggest hoo-rah? After planting the rest of this nation, he was himself planted, beneath Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne. "There's a great sense of pride in America there," says Wedge, who won a state baseball championship at Northrop High. "It's a Midwestern town that's held onto its values while still moving forward into the 21st century."
But not too far forward. "We don't have the hotel rooms for tens of thousands of people," says O'Connell. "But I guarantee you, we'd put everybody up in our homes. And they'd all get a hot meal, family-style."
Fort Wayne's favorite son returns every summer to run a football camp. "People are so rooted and humble there," says Woodson, a veteran of three Super Bowls.
Like Woodson, my father (Central Catholic High) left Fort Wayne at 18, to accept a football scholarship to Purdue. But it wasn't until I saw him go glassy-eyed at a single throwaway line uttered on national TV that I knew my father's full story: Not how he left Fort Wayne. But how Fort Wayne never left him.
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No city deserves the Super Bowl more than Fort Wayne, equidistant from Chicago and Indianapolis—a part-Indy, part-Windy mix of Colts and Bears fans.