INDIANAPOLIS — Hours before the NFL draft began Thursday night, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay called quarterback Anthony Richardson and shared a secret he’d been keeping for weeks.

“I said, ‘There’s a good chance you’ll be coming to Indy in three hours,'” Irsay said. “But I said, ‘I don’t know. We’ll have to see what happens.'”

What happened next was the culmination of nearly two years of scouting, digging and debating as the Colts selected Richardson with the No. 4 overall pick.

Later that evening, near the draft festivities in Kansas City, Missouri, Richardson celebrated with the people at the center of his world. Roughly 30 family members — including his grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins — along with his former coaches, friends and representatives joined him for an intimate post-draft party.

“I had to enjoy it with them because not many people get this opportunity, and not many people get to celebrate with their family and their loved ones,” Richardson said later. “So, I definitely took it upon myself to make sure they had a good time [Thursday] night, because now it’s straight business and it’s all work.”

Those are the words of a man who understands the gravity of the job in front of him. Seven different quarterbacks have started games for the Colts in the past four seasons. Remarkably, the Colts changed starting quarterbacks four times in 2022 when they finished with a 4-12-1 record. They’ve spent in excess of $100 million on quarterbacks since 2019 — when franchise QB Andrew Luck retired — and the instability at the position has been an ever-present burden on the organization.

Now, here comes Richardson, the team’s next potential solution. The Colts’ future is a 6-foot-4, 244-pound 20-year-old with a youthful smile and a scary skill set. But not everyone was convinced at first Richardson was the answer, or that he would be available at No. 4.

“It got a little tense there,” Colts GM Chris Ballard said.

THE COLTS’ CURIOSITY about Richardson had been piqued long before he became Florida’s full-time starter last season.

Back in the 2021 season, when Richardson attempted only 64 passes as a true sophomore, the Colts’ scouts were already putting Richardson on Ballard’s radar. The scouts had given Richardson very favorable grades, even though his sophomore season produced just six touchdown passes and five interceptions. The scouting report ensured he would be a priority for them to evaluate the following season.

Chief personnel executive Morocco Brown took particular interest, and the Colts dispatched him to Gainesville, Florida to scout Richardson during preseason practices last summer. At 4:51 p.m. on Aug. 12, Brown fired off the first of many texts to Ballard about a player he considered a prospect with dazzling potential.

“I’m drooling watching him spin it,” he typed, referring to Richardson’s effortless throws.

Richardson, Brown said after the draft, “had a bounce to him as he was just running up and down the field, rolling out, whatever… The ball just came out of his hand. It looked like the closest thing I’d seen to maybe Michael Vick. Everything just looked easy.”

But the Colts were a long way from determining if Richardson had what it took to lead their team. His résumé was so thin, his game so raw, that no one had much to go on. All the Colts could do was keep watching.

Richardson started the 2022 season strong, completing 71% of his pass attempts in an opening win over seventh-ranked Utah. Next came a much-hyped matchup with Kentucky and quarterback Will Levis, another top prospect who Friday was selected in the second round by the Tennessee Titans. Richardson completed just 40% of his passes and had two interceptions with no touchdowns in a loss to Kentucky.

Similar ups and downs followed. A 453-yard performance against Tennessee and quarterback Hendon Hooker, juxtaposed against a regular-season finale in which he finished 9-of-27 against Florida State. The inconsistencies were concerning.

Even after the season, there was no consensus at Colts headquarters. Yes, momentum for Richardson was building within the organization, in part because of Brown’s persistence. But assistant general manager Ed Dodds, whose voice carries great weight with Ballard, was deeply skeptical because of Richardson’s inexperience and performance disparity. He had just 13 starts, completed only 53.8% percent of his attempts in 2022. His 17 touchdown passes and 2,549 passing yards weren’t exactly eye-popping.

“I went into this thing, because of the limited résumé, like, ‘What are we doing?'” Dodds said later. “There’s 13 games. That’s where I started.”

But the personal interaction covered up the flaws.

“The more I talked to Anthony, the more time I spent with him … you just like him,” Dodds said. “He’s just a good guy. If he makes a mistake, it’s not because he was doing something wrong. It’s just he didn’t know. And that’s when you’re like, ‘All right, he’ll listen. He wants to be good.'”

It was the same impression assistant director of college scouting Jamie Moore — another early Richardson advocate — had gotten months earlier as he scouted Richardson. And it’s the same takeaway Brown had during his many conversations with the player. Richardson’s coachability, they believed, would help him overcome his deficiencies.

There was also the obvious: Richardson’s elite combination of throwing and running ability.

He’d already dominated the NFL scouting combine with one of the best-ever testing performances by a quarterback, breaking the all-time vertical jump record for the position (40½ inches). Richardson also ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, fourth-best by a quarterback in the past 20 years. Then, there were his towering deep throws — the ones that had Brown firing off those initial text messages back in August.

“He is not of this universe,” one member of the personnel department said.

Slowly but surely, the idea of Richardson becoming a Colt was taking hold.

BALLARD DECIDED RICHARDSON was the Colts’ top choice weeks before the draft. Dodds said Ballard privately shared his stance with him about a month before.

The conclusion, Ballard said, was simple: All of the available quarterbacks had noteworthy flaws, in the Colts’ view.

“So, why not take the one who could be a grand slam?” Ballard said.

Still, Ballard kept things close to the vest. He did not tell most others in the personnel department because he wanted the staff to continue evaluating all possibilities and to keep an open mind.

That meant the Colts would go through with their plans to conduct workouts with all the top quarterback prospects: Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Levis and Richardson.

When Ballard and the Colts’ contingent traveled to Florida for Richardson’s workout in early April, there was a seriousness about them from the moment they arrived.

“I just remember those guys getting out of that Sprinter van, the whole crew,” Richardson’s agent Deiric Jackson said. “You could tell they were about business from the minute they walked in the building. It was detailed, it was sharp and it was rapid fire. It was something you had to be conditioned for mentally and physically.”

For the next 90 minutes, first-year coach Shane Steichen and his assistants put Richardson through the wringer, on and off the field. At one point, Steichen took on the role of an imaginary defender, testing Richardson’s ability to make certain reads. Later, the Colts tested Richardson on a dry erase board, asking him to draw formations and plays.

“I just remember [thinking], ‘OK, this is what it takes,'” Richardson said. “You’ve got to put the work in. You’ve got to grind. It was fun. It was definitely a different experience for me.”

The visit allowed the Colts’ staff to spend quality time with Richardson to learn more about his family life, personality and mindset. But the team already knew so much about him because it had something of a secret weapon throughout the process.

Brown was the point man all along, and he had the advantage of having a 20-year relationship with Richardson’s other representative, Melvin Bratton, a longtime mentor of Brown’s from the days the pair worked together in Washington’s personnel department in the early 2000s. That helped the Colts ascertain candid information about Richardson and allowed difficult questions to be asked and answered.

“Roc was so thorough in his due diligence, making sure he found out everything about this kid,” Jackson said. “I mean, everything. He would reach out to so many different people.”

“The vetting process that we did,” Steichen said, “that’s a big part of this thing.”

Having reached a comfort level with Richardson’s character and leadership capacity, the only remaining question was to ensure everyone agreed he had a path to success on the field.

Irsay seemed convinced. He couldn’t help but think about Jalen Hurts’ winning touchdown in a Colts loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last season, recalling how the dual-threat quarterback was equally dangerous as a runner and passer.

“Jalen Hurts is a running back in that scheme,” Irsay said. “Four downs? Good luck.”

For Ballard and Steichen, the Hurts model was their vision of how the Colts could integrate Richardson into Steichen’s scheme, especially seeing how Steichen was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons.

“Anthony fit us and what we needed [and] what Shane wants to do on offense the best,” Ballard said.

But with other teams in search of quarterbacks picking ahead of them, the Colts couldn’t be sure they could actually land Richardson.

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DURING THE DAYS and weeks leading up to draft night, the Colts did their best to glean intel about other teams’ intentions. They had, for instance, learned the Carolina Panthers had eliminated Richardson as a candidate for the top overall pick after the decision came down to him and Young, according to a team source.

Much less clear was how things would play out with the second and third picks. The Houston Texans, picking No. 2, needed a quarterback and had been sending mixed signals about their plans. The Arizona Cardinals, at No. 3, did not need a quarterback but were widely known to be seeking to trade down, creating another opportunity for a team to steal Richardson.

When the Texans selected Stroud at No. 2, a nervousness came over the Colts’ draft room. The decision meant the crop of available quarterbacks had thinned within the first two picks.

“There was some tension,” Brown said of the Colts’ draft room.

With the Cardinals on the clock, the Colts considered a trade up. Ultimately, Ballard trusted his gut and declined. Teams like the Titans, who were interested in drafting a quarterback and had been linked to Richardson, were lurking. But the Colts had information that led them to believe they wouldn’t make the deal, Brown said.

Irsay, sitting nearby and watching the events play out, tried to project a sense of calm.

“I turned to my daughters [Carlie Irsay-Gordon, Casey Foyt and Kalen Jackson all have executive roles with the team] and I said, ‘We’re gonna be OK here,'” he said later. “I just had a strong feeling that Anthony would be there.”

Eventually, it became clear Arizona was executing a surprising trade with Houston, meaning the third pick would not be another quarterback and the Colts would get their man. Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. was announced as the No. 3 pick, and the room exhaled.

“You always wonder if someone’s laying in the weeds,” Ballard said. “Good for us, they weren’t.”

The Colts narrowed their options, had Richardson been off the board.

“That’s always a tough hypothetical,” Irsay said, before adding, “We were gonna take Levis or trade down.”

Back in Kansas City, Richardson got the news and was immediately overwhelmed by emotion.

“Tears just started rolling,” he said.

He was still fighting back tears after walking across the stage, embracing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, holding up his new Colts jersey and doing a television interview. For Richardson, this was an occasion worth celebrating. The entire evening was the culmination of years of sacrifice for the sake of football.

Hence, the party he would soon attend.

But hundreds of miles away, the Colts were celebrating, too. They were enjoying the reward for trusting their scouting instincts and making a bold decision that could alter their future. After thousands of hours of work, months of debate and a few heart-pumping moments in the draft room, the Colts finally, mercifully, were convinced they found their quarterback.