Down 21-3 to the defending NFC North Champion Packers at halftime, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to suggest the Indianapolis season hung in the balance. Their week had gone from bad to worse as head coach Chuck Pagano had to leave the team after being diagnosed with Leukemia.
Green Bay was hungry to get on a roll after beating the Saints to wipe the taste of the infamous Fail Mary out of their mouths. The Colts, with a rookie quarterback, interim head coach, and heavy hearts appeared to be the perfect whipping boy.
In the second half something changed. Green Bay’s play-calling became conservative on offense, and suddenly the Packers defense had no answer for Reggie Wayne. Indy came all the way back to take the lead in the fourth quarter on an Adam Vinatieri field goal, giving the Colts a 22-21 advantage.
Aaron Rodgers followed by leading the Pack on a touchdown drive with under five minutes to go and forced rookie Andrew Luck to make the game-winning plays.
With what seemed like relative ease, Luck orchestrated a drive lasting 13 play and marching 80 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown with under a minute left.
The Packers got a last shot at a field goal to win, but Mason Crosby missed badly. Colts win and ChuckStrong is born.
A month later, following another close victory, Chuck Pagano stood in the Indianapolis locker room and addressed the team. Fighting back tears he told his players, “I’ve got circumstances,” his words flippant, belying the heavy nature of his meaning.
“You guys understand it. I understand it.”
“It’s already beat,” he told his team, to which interim head coach Bruce Arians shouted, “Amen,” and the team erupted in applause.
“My vision that I’m living is to see two more daughters get married, dancing at their weddings, and then hoist that Lombardi (Trophy) several times.”
On paper, the words resonate with honesty and an earnest tone. The video will give you chills.
Sports are filled with cliched lines and stories. Reactionary media, talk radio, and Twitter all help to add to the hyperbole and general white noise surrounding the players and the games.
But this was a real moment. Every week players give their bodies to the game they love, to the team whose jersey they wear, but it is, after all, just a game.
Coaches will preach that the team is your family and you fight for them. It’s something some players buy into and others don’t. They get paid millions of dollars, they should do their jobs regardless of the motivational tactics the team uses.
But the Colts had coalesced around an idea that was bigger than themselves, bigger than their team. It was what Pagano called in his speech ‘living in a vision,’ as opposed to in circumstance.
It was his way of saying that you can make your life what you choose without getting bogged down by what others say, even if reality and pragmatics dictate your vision is foolish. It has relevancy to football with the critics and fans and prognosticators, but when you heard Pagano speak it didn’t appear as though his intent was so narrow.
Living in a vision was a way to live your life. For Pagano, it was perhaps the only way to live given that his vision was predicated on survival. His vision was part of a fight for his life.
There have tremendously entertaining games in the NFL this season, and players like Robert Griffin III have burst onto the NFL scene to make a splash. Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson have returned from injury to look as good as ever, and with four weeks left in the season there is time for plenty more signature moments from the league’s elite players.
But it seems unlikely to me any of those moments will overshadow what it meant to hear from Coach Pagano in that locker room, to see his face looking pail and gaunt, battered but not beaten.
Given the stranglehold the Colts now have on a playoff birth at 8-4 , it appears the ChuckStrong movement will land Indy in the postseason a year after it barely won a game. If you had told Colts fan this time last season their team would be in pole position this year for a wild card birth they would have said you were crazy.
Now, you can tell them not crazy, but living in a vision.
You may remember the 2012 regular season as the one RG3 blew up or the one Peyton Manning came back for, but I’ll remember it as the year of Chuck Pagano’s vision and the fight his team showed to live out that vision.