KRAVITZ: Diary of a super fan: William Pickering finds joy in his beloved Colts and Pacers

William Pickering, 55, at 10th Street & Shadeland Avenue in Nov. 2017 (WTHR Photo/Bob Kravitz)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS - This is a love story, of sorts. It’s a love story about a special man, a 55-year-old super fan from the east side named William Pickering and the local teams that fill his life with joy and purpose. It’s a love story about a man who has faced challenges most of us could never imagine – a 1982 car crash that nearly killed him, then an infection that forced the more-recent amputation of both of his legs – a man who has spent decades painstakingly chronicling the ups and the downs of the Colts and the Pacers.

“Here,’’ he said, sitting with his roommate in the Taco Bell at 10th & Shadeland. “Here are some of my notes.’’

He pulls out a loose-leaf notebook, rifles through the many pages contained within it, gently places his notes from the recent Colts-Cardinals game on the table.

“See what I do?’’ he said.

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Yes, I see. The game notes are six pages, written on both sides of the page, some of it in pen (different colors for different quarters) and some of it in pencil “so it won’t bleed through to the other side,’’ he said. Even journalists do not take notes like this. Every play of every game – every game for nearly 40 years, with some missed games due to health issues – is painstakingly written out in long-hand.

In blue pen: #23 F. Gore Center Run 1 yd. In red pen: #41 A. Bethea tackle. In blue pen: 3rd & 1 @ AZ 16

And on it goes, for one loose-leaf page after another after another, every play, every tackle, every situation.

“And if I see a great individual play, I put a big star next to it,’’ he said. “Not just the Colts. If somebody from the opposing team makes a great play, I give them a star, too.’’

Every Colts game, the Warren Central grad sits in Section 527, in the handicapped area, looking over the field from his favorite vantage point in the north end zone. Every Pacers game, he is in Section 201, taking his notes, rooting for his beloved Pacers. He’s not exactly sure how long he’s been doing this, but figures it’s been about 26 or 27 years for the Pacers and almost 30 years for the Colts.

Pickering possesses an outgoing personality, loves telling stories about his brushes with Indianapolis sports royalty over the years, but during a game – DO NOT BOTHER HIM!

“During a timeout or halftime, fine, you can talk to me, but not during the game,’’ he said. “I don’t mean to be mean to people, but when I’m writing down my stats, I don’t want people interfering with me. Especially football and ESPECIALLY when a team is in the no-huddle, because then I’ve really got to concentrate…People see me with my notebooks at games and they ask, `Do you put that in a blog or something?’ No. I do it for myself. I keep all my notes in a closet, look back at different games once in a while. Although back in the 1980’s, when [the Colts] weren’t very good, sometimes I would give my notes to a fan of the team that just beat us. But I don’t do that anymore."

Pickering derived his love of sports from his mother, Dorothea, and grandfather, William, both of whom are since deceased. His mom grew up in Chicago during the Depression, and her father would give her a quarter to attend Cubs games on Ladies Days. “It was 10 cents to get to the ballpark, 10 cents for a program and a hot dog and a Pepsi for a nickel,’’ Pickering said.

He wasn’t an athlete as a kid. “I was 6-foot, 280 pounds in high school,’’ he said. “But I’ve been to almost every Warren Central game the last 40 years. I saw every game Jeff George played.’’

His fandom and his notes keep him tethered to his beloved teams. Most fans now, they’re discerning, get angry and send off missives to the local columnist calling for everybody’s firings. Pickering is different. His love for the Colts and Pacers is unconditional. He cheers and keeps his notes during the good times and the bad times.

The Colts and Pacers "mean everything to me," he said. "I know we live in a different sports world today. I understand that and I have no problem with that, but I’m old school – I just root for my home teams."

Even when they stink?

"Even when they stink," he said with a smile. "Because it's so gratifying to support them when they're bad, and then when they're good again, it's so satisfying."

We are talking in the middle of the week, but already he is getting excited about Sunday. The Colts play the Steelers at 1 p.m. The Pacers play the Houston Rockets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse at 6.

"A perfect day," he said with a smile. "It doesn’t get much better for me than that."

* * *

He mentioned the car accident in passing.

"I almost died," he said. "It happened right over here on Shadeland, heading northbound, and a drunk driver hit the wall. A woman was killed. I was hurt badly. I just...uh...I just...you know, I don't want to deal with it because of the woman who died. Everybody has dark things in their life they don’t want to talk about. I’m sorry."

No reason for apologies, I tell him. Sorry I brought it up.

He will, however, talk about the amputations, both of which occurred in the last few years.

"I was doing construction work [in 2013] and lost the big toe on my left foot," he said. "I was stupid, I didn't have my steel-toed shoe on and stepped on a nail that went right through my toe. They eventually amputated the left leg because I'm Type 2 diabetic and there was an infection. My neurologist told me that I might lose my other leg, and two years later, they took the right leg."

During his long, six-month recovery at a nursing home, he would commandeer the TV in the community room to watch his Pacers and Colts.

"I got complaints about that all the time," he said. "But honestly, it got to the point where I feel like I brightened the days of some of the people who were there for the rest of their lives because of how energetic I was about watching the games. We'd have pizza parties. I got all the staff interested, gave away Pacers tickets to the staffers."

Now, he is free to attend every Colts and Pacers game, taking the bus from the east side, then stopping at the Transit Center and wheeling his way over to Lucas Oil or Bankers Life. Sometimes he goes by himself. Sometimes he brings his brother (with whom he lives) or his other roommate, who is sitting silently with us at the Taco Bell. Always, there are the notes. Copious, multi-colored, and painstakingly accurate.

"One of my favorite things, going to the games, is the joy I get meeting up with the people who work at the venues, people who I've known for years," he said. "And let me tell you something: The job everybody does for handicapped people, it's amazing. They'll do anything for you. I have no problem getting around. I truly appreciate what they do, especially the Colts because you can be dropped off on the street corner and they will wheel you anywhere that you want to go."

Indianapolis Colts defensive end Margus Hunt (92) sacks Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) during the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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He already had his Sunday game plan sketched out for the Colts and Pacers doubleheader.

"I'll go to the Colts, use the tunnel that connects the stadium to the convention center, go up to the Georgia Street entrance and then just go across Georgia Street," he said. "Think about this, Bob: How blessed is this city to have two world-class facilities like this in downtown Indy? Most cities don't have this."

The smile never leaves the man's face. He has faced death, dealt with the amputation of both legs, but he's got his one roommate and his brother and Chico, the head of the household, and, of course, he's got the Colts and the Pacers.

"You know what? Life is what you make of it," he said. "When you sit in a nursing home for six months like I have, it gives you a whole new perspective on life. It makes you appreciate the little things, and the people who love you and take care of you."

Pickering is on a fixed income, but somehow, he finds a way to scrimp and save for his season tickets to both teams. He pays $100 per month for the Pacers, but the Colts are a bit more of a challenge, one he meets every season. "The Colts will send you an invoice in February and they want the check by March," he said. "So next month, I'll start saving for that."

In the end, love has no price.

* * *

He is telling stories now. Pickering loves talking about his adventures, his days and nights with the Colts and Pacers.

“We had a defensive lineman, Skip McClendon, a long time ago, and I don’t know how I found his card but I did, and it was a collegiate card from Arizona State [where McClendon went], so I asked him to sign it one time,’’ Pickering said. “So he said, `Where did you get that card? Can I have it?’ Look, if a player wants a card, I always give it to him; I think that’s the least I can do.

“So guess what? At the end of the season, he gave me an autographed football from the entire team. That meant a lot to me, you know? And I think I meant something to him.’’

His all-time favorite Indianapolis athlete was Reggie Miller.

“At the old Market Square Arena, we used to hang outside in the parking garage at Level 3 and I’d sit and talk to Reggie. Chuck Person, too. And Clark Kellogg and Herb Williams. Great guys,’’ he said. “I used to go bar-hopping and chasing all these girls and I’d be at the bars on South Meridian and I’d always see the Davis boys [Dale and Antoni], just chilling. Well, Dale had a dislocated shoulder one time and I patted him on the shoulder – I didn’t mean to – and he jumped and he looked like he was going to punch me. But when he saw it was me, he just kind of shrugged it off.’’

During Tony Siragusa’s Colts’ days, Pickering would make a point to attend the former nose guard’s post-game tailgate parties.

One of his favorite stories involves the old Coliseum and one of basketball’s all-time greats, San Antonio’s George Gervin.

“We had a manual scoreboard on the north side of the Coliseum, and I worked there and always worked the opposing team side of the scoreboard,’’ he said. “We would climb the steps on the ladder and add points for whichever player whenever they made a basket. Because of his [uniform] number, he should have been higher up on the scoreboard, but I always made sure he was at the bottom. You know why? Because he’d always light us up and I didn’t want to keep climbing up that ladder over and over again.’’

Bob Netolicky and Al Unser
Bob Netolicky, left, of the Indiana Pacers, and Al Unser, U.S. Auto Club race car driver, announcing on Aug. 23, 1968, that the Pacers would play a benefit game for Bob Hurt, who was injured in a practice run for the Indy 500. (AP Photo/John C. Hillery)
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He was a ball boy for the Pacers in 1973.

“There’s a great picture of Darnell Hillman and he’s pouring champagne over the head of Billy Keller and there’s this little kid sitting next to them,’’ he said. “I’m the little kid.

“I used to go to Neto’s bar [Bob Netolicky once owned a popular nightspot on 38th Street] and drink with the players. They don’t know this, but I got in there once when I was 11 [years old] and got a little bit drunk.’’

Now, more than 40 years later, the love affair with local sports continues still. The memories of the great moments – like Marlon Jackson’s game-sealing interception of Tom Brady in the 2006 AFC Championship Game – sustain him, give him joy. And if ever a moment slips his mind, he can go back to his notes, cherished keepsakes, his diaries of a super fan.

Before we part, though, he’s got a message to other fans.

“Don’t boo your teams,’’ he said. “Even if they’re playing bad, that’s when they need the support the most. If you’re a real fan, you support the team no matter what. That’s the way I look at it. I hope you can get that in your article.’’

Done.

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