NFL Scouting Combine makes Indianapolis a classy town
When I worked for the NFL, one offseason event I always looked forward to was the NFL Scouting Combine. To the casual observer, going to Indianapolis at the end of February sounds more like a punishment than a reward, but I always looked at it in reverse. Indianapolis is a town that deserves much more praise than it receives; coming off of an ice storm in Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, I think most NFL fans and writers are expecting another Super Bowl marred by bad weather and inability to get around when the Big Game comes to town for Super Bowl XLVI, but the public is underestimating the Circle City.
Downtown Indianapolis features a number of nice restaurants and hotels, including the recently opened JW Marriott, and most importantly, indoor walkways connect these hotels to each other, the Circle Centre Mall, the convention center, and Lucas Oil Stadium. I don’t have delusions of Indianapolis’ grandeur, it is a somewhat sleepy Midwestern city, but fans who do come here will be pleasantly surprised, and fans who opt not to will be missing out.
Super Bowl XLVI is a story for another day, however. This weekend the annual NFL Scouting Combine rolls into town, bringing with it virtually every NFL coach, GM, and scouting department, as well as more than 350 of the top college players in the country, and a horde of NFL agents, media and other power brokers. While the casual fan can’t get into the stadium to watch workouts, the NFL is in the air. After a Super Bowl hangover, the smell is so sweet.
- Conseco Fieldhouse
- Howl at the Moon
The airport in Indianapolis is a short 20-minute drive to downtown, usually with minimal traffic, making your entrance into the city pretty seamless. Downtown Indy is compact and easy to navigate, particularly with the aforementioned indoor walkways that allow you to travel city blocks of distance without having to brave the cold. Conseco Fieldhouse, home to the Indiana Pacers since the 1999-2000 season, is just out of the reach of those walkways, but going there is worth the couple of minutes you may be outside. The 18,165 seat arena was modeled after Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler University, giving it the intimate feel of the high school gyms that dot the state of Indiana, but with the modern touches that made it the top-ranked venue in the NBA by the Sports Business Journal from 2005-07. The Fieldhouse hosts Pacers and WNBA Indiana Fever games, as well as the Big Ten Tournament and other high profile high school and college games.
While in previous years going to Pacers games was primarily a way to see other teams’ talented players, this year’s squad has been red-hot since late January and is fighting for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Led by Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough, the Pacers face off against the Utah Jazz at 7 PM ET. Don’t be surprised to see some NFL coaches or ESPN analysts in the house; games like this provide a nice break from the grind while in town.
After the game head out on Georgia Street to Howl at the Moon, a dueling piano bar and live music joint that always provides a good time. If you have had enough of seeing the performers tickle the ivories, there are some other good brewery-type options on Illinois Street across from the Circle Centre Mall.
- Café Patachou
- White River State Park
- NCAA Hall of Champions
- Circle Centre Mall
- Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum
The best way to start your day in Indianapolis is with a nice breakfast at Café Patachou, located just south of the Indiana State Capitol at Capitol and Washington Streets. This spot has been receiving accolades from Indianapolis publications for more than a decade, and if the locals like it so should you. After filling up head a few blocks west to White River State Park. The park not only offers the trees, trails and waterways that you would expect from any state park, but also attractions such as the Indianapolis Zoo and the Indiana State Museum, as well as Victory Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates AAA affiliate Indianapolis Indians, and the NCAA Hall of Champions.
The Indians were the first professional sports team in Indianapolis, calling the city home since 1887. Twelve Baseball Hall of Famers, including Harmon Killebrew and Grover Cleveland Alexander played on the Indians, as did future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson. Victory Field, a 14,500-seat ballpark that opened in 1996, has received numerous national accolades including being named “Best Minor League Ballpark in America” by Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. The NCAA Hall of Champions is currently featuring a Big Ten exhibit that will be worth a look. It is expected to garner some traffic during the Big Ten Tournament in mid-March at Conseco Fieldhouse and during the Women’s Final Four on the first weekend in April.
From the park you can head back to the center of the city and stroll around the sprawling Circle Centre Mall. While you may not have any shopping to do, there is a Colts team store as well as some memorabilia stores that sports fans might want to take a look at. Plus, there is a Chick-fil-A in the food court, which is a very welcomed sight for someone not from the south.
While you may not be able to enter Lucas Oil Stadium to see the future NFL stars at the Scouting Combine, there is nothing stopping you from checking out articats and trophies from some of the former legends of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Hall of Fame Museum is located on the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a National Historic Landmark, about five miles northwest of downtown Indianapolis. There are more than 75 vehicles on display at any given time, including more than 30 Indianapolis 500-winning cars. The museum was established in 1956, 45 years after the first Indy 500, which celebrates its 100th Anniversary with this year’s race on May 29.
As the night approaches you have a number of dinner options, ranging from nice steak houses or seafood restaurants, to more inexpensive options. For the high-end visitors, a visit to St. Elmo’s Steakhouse is a must. This restaurant has been an Indianapolis institution since 1902 and features a cocktail sauce on their shrimp cocktail that will knock your socks off. Biter beware. In addition to some great food, it is pretty much guaranteed that you will see an NFL owner, coach, GM, college football player, or NFL analyst at one table or another. Another good fancy option is The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a seafood place located at Monument Circle, a nice downtown area east of the Capitol Building. Other options include the nearby restaurant and breweries such as Ram or Scotty’s, the Midwest fave Steak ‘n Shake, or even Buffalo Wild Wings if there is a game you want to catch during dinner.
A good post-dinner sports bar is Champions in the Marriott. I am especially fond of this place because of my shortly-held all-time high score at the Pop A Shot during the 2008 NFL Combine. My record has sadly since been broken.
- Paradise Bakery
- Conseco Fieldhouse
With a rare noon Sunday start for the Pacers game against the Phoenix Suns, get an early breakfast at Paradise Bakery at Monument Circle before heading to Conseco Fieldhouse. Check out Steve Nash and the still high-flying Suns as they face the Pacers, who will try to keep their hot streak alive.
By the time you leave Indianapolis you will realize that this city is one of the Midwest’s best-kept secrets. Let all of the other people stay in the dark about what Indy has to offer; it’ll just mean a better chance of a hotel room and ticket to Super Bowl XLVI.