It ended, as all things must eventually, too soon.
The storybook season, something scripted from the gridiron Angelo Pizzo, over. Poof. Gone. Just like that. Those good times, they have a funny way of always managing to end, don't they?
And so, Ray Lewis did his dance, and deservedly so. Home team celebrates. Away team sighs. A season over, all the bumps and bruises and woulda-coulda-shouldas surging to the forefront of reality, a calendar with no more red circles.
But for the 2012 Indianapolis Colts, can we really reduce a season to that moment of finality? Is it really as simple as saying they came up short, left plays on the field, added another one-and-done ribbon to the Wall of Gaylord?
No. We can't reduce that story to its final chapter, because it was never about any one chapter, some tangible result.
It was always about something more. It was about life and death, and what we do with all of those moments in between. It was about brotherhood, family, camaraderie and sacrifice—those words we write all too often without ever really reflecting upon their meeting. It was about a city, a community that came together, that wanted to believe this team could be great again, that it wasn't crazy to care.
It was about something more than wins and losses, or all those stats that said the Colts were average, lucky, weak, overrated.
It was about that one oft-romanced, but commonly elusive, notion that this is more than a game. That there really is a Dillon, Texas, somewhere, and football is its life force, its glue, and try as we might to weaken the leather-stitched communal bonds, we always ultimately arrive at the conclusion that, sometimes, we really are better off because of this game.
Because this game, much like the 2012 Colts' season, is more than the end result.
It Began With an End
Few teams ever have to say goodbye to the likes of a Peyton Manning.
Manning didn't just transform a franchise. He transformed a city. For all the great achievements of the world's greatest athletes across the course of time, few have ever meant as much to a city as Manning did to Indianapolis.
And yet, on March 7, 2012, Colts owner Jim Irsay did the unthinkable. He made the most impossible choice of all.
He released Manning.
It seems dumb to get caught up in a child's game, with so many real-world implications in all those other things we do on a daily basis, but that moment will forever be etched in Indianapolis history, as it seemed to summon gray skies and the bitter chill of a depressing late winter day.
A goodbye, not just to a player, not just to an icon of the game, but to a chapter in Indianapolis history.
Our quarterback, sent packing.
"We all know that nothing lasts forever," Manning pontificated, "times change, circumstances change, and that's the reality of playing in the NFL."
Ah, yes. The reality of playing in the NFL. The same reality that claimed the careers of Edgerrin James and Marvin Harrison previously. A reality everyone in Indianapolis knew would eventually arrive, but...
Released? Sent packing? Cut like some camp fodder never-was?
There was a lot of resulting resentment. Backlash, as often proves to be the case, was felt in revenue form. Thirteen percent of season ticket holders decided not to renew. A waiting list once 10,000-strong quickly became as about as exclusive as the dress code at a clothing-optional beach. Fans wondered why: Why not give Manning another chance, why not just wait and see, why cut ties with the face of the franchise?
The answer was always there, the tendency to believe in it less so.
If you were going to turn in a putrid performance, the 2011 regular season was a good time for it. And while it's easy to say, in retrospect, that the 2012 NFL draft class was strong at the quarterback position, it was just as easy to say it at the time. Luck or Robert Griffin III. Not bad consolation prizes for complete franchise ineptitude.
Still, not everyone in Indy was convinced. Fans still wanted Manning, health questions and all. He was the face they knew—the goofy guy on the commercials, who gave people a reason to visit downtown again.
So who was this Luck kid, with his neckbeard and Stanford education? What guarantee was there that this was the guy that made it all worthwhile, that justified Irsay's unthinkable decision, that would quarterback both franchise and city out of a funk, and into stomach butterflies on a Sunday morning?
On the Clock
After his owner had ultimately made the call to release Manning, all newly-hired general manager Ryan Grigson had to do was rebuild a team with virtually no cap space, draft all the right guys with the best draft position the team had seen in years, hire a new head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, special teams coordinator and the other six million variations of coaches and coordinators, help re-shape the roster to new strategic philosophies and determine who deserved to remain with the team—because you'd better believe on a team with players like Gary Brackett and Dallas Clark, fans cared about more than just Manning.
All in a day's work, right?
If Irsay made the impossible decision, Grigson was handed some duct tape and crazy glue, and told to make it work. Somehow.
And somehow, he did.
Gone were the familiar faces of Joseph Addai, Pierre Garcon, Melvin Bullitt and Jeff Saturday. Fan favorites were replaced by names like Donnie Avery, A.Q. Shipley, Jerrell Freeman and Mewelde Moore.
Grigson did the best with what he had. There were good additions—Cory Redding comes to mind—and some that perhaps didn't pan out as hoped—Samson Satele and Tom Zbikowski are principal culprits there. But on a budget, and all things considered, it was a passable feast cooked up from a few misshapen eggs and some off-brand flour teeming with the threat of weevils.
His biggest test was always going to be the draft, and what he did with top picks in almost every round.
The results, most would agree, didn't disappoint.
Luck, the slam-dunk pick that somehow became so much more.
Dwayne Allen, arguably the league's most complete rookie tight end in 2012.
T.Y. Hilton, who duked it out with Justin Blackmon and Josh Gordon for the honor of best rookie wide receiver.
Vick Ballard, a workhorse feature back whom most draft analysts hadn't even thought to evaluate beyond a passing shoulder shrug.
LaVon Brazill, a raw but promising wide receiver who helped key an upset victory over the Detroit Lions.
Grigson didn't hit on all of the picks. The jury is still out on Coby Fleener (performance) and Josh Chapman (injury), and rookies Justin Anderson, Tim Fugger and Chandler Harnish couldn't stick for long on the active roster, but when you unearth starting talent at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end in a single draft, chances are you did something right.
The result, heading into the season, was a hodgepodge of rookies and broken toys, the NFL's unwanted, an army of men who had been traded and cut more times than they'd ever really shown up on film.
Duct tape and crazy glue. And five wins at best.
The Circumstances That Knock Us Down
Indy's 2012 season started with an uppercut at the hands of the Chicago Bears. Sure, the Colts had jumped at an early 7-0 lead after Freeman intercepted Jay Cutler for a quick touchdown, but once the first five minutes passed, the Bears regained form, and the Colts looked like a team led by a rookie, and very much stitched together with unfamiliar parts.
The end result was a 41-21 final score, 333 Jay Cutler passing yards, and a bruised, battered and overwhelm Luck wondering how he had thrown three equally-horrible interceptions.
Circumstances wouldn't be much kinder to the Colts a few weeks later. After leading Indianapolis to a game-winning field goal vs. Minnesota in Week 2, the Colts played host to division rival Jacksonville. It figured to be a statement game, a true assessment of whether or not the Colts had made a real leap from 2011 and could harness the momentum of their first win into a victory over a Jaguars squad nobody this side of 1999 would mistake for a juggernaut.
They very nearly did. Luck again led the Colts to a last-minute comeback, a masterful drive capped by Adam Vinatieri's go-ahead kick to put Indianapolis ahead 17-16 with just one minute left.
Eighty yards and 11 seconds later, Jacksonville regained the lead when Cecil Shorts beat a hapless Sergio Brown on a quick slant, and took it the distance for the decisive score.
A gut punch. The kind of confidence-shattering kick in the head that can send teams spiraling, especially teams with too many rookies, too many unwanted parts that were all too familiar with the interior decorations of the NFL's cellar.
But circumstances got worse from there.
On October 1, 2012, head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia.
And if an 80-yard touchdown had left the Colts gasping for air, you can imagine the oxygen levels in that locker room when they learned their head coach had a life-threatening illness.
"It was like someone sucked all the air out of the room," said Reggie Wayne, in this ESPN interview, "You couldn't hear anybody breathing or anything. I mean, that's our general. That's our leader. And when you hear what he's going through … it took me some time to process it. I struggled in practice for a while."
We were reminded, in that moment, that football isn't just a product of playbooks, some chalkboard concoction of X's and O's. We were reminded that locker rooms aren't populated by titans and demigods, superhuman athletes capable of doing anything, but rather, that football teams were made of men. Men who got sick. Men who had children, wives, parents and sisters and brothers. Men who weren't quite as immortal as the highlight mixes or magazine spreads made them out to be.
In a sport that celebrates violence, the high-impact nature of competition, we were reminded of the fragility of life. Football coach one moment. Cancer patient the next.
Maybe we had always assumed that, when a player gets knocked down, he'll always spring to life eventually. Sure, he'll be a bit sore, but we had become comfortable with this certainty that everyone gets back up, because that's what's fair, that's how it should be.
And maybe, this time, we began to realize a terrifying truth: Sometimes, you get knocked down, and you just aren't ever meant to get back up again.
The vulnerability of everything—of them, us, a game and the life that paused to watch it—became alarmingly clear.
And the Vision That Picks Us Back Up Again
By all accounts, all laws that govern reality, it probably shouldn't have happened.
The Colts were trailing the Green Bay Packers 21-3 at halftime, just a week after discovering their head coach would be hospitalized, and despite a good prognosis for recovery, wasn't guaranteed anything.
It was a half that showcased two extremes: an NFC behemoth that was able to do whatever it wanted on the field, and an AFC bottom-dweller that could neither keep its quarterback off the turf, nor the opposition out of the end zone.
There was not one statistic, not one argument, not one sober-minded reason to believe the Colts would come back, that anything but a moral victory was possible for Indianapolis.
But, somehow, it started. Slowly, at first. A Jerraud Powers interception here. A Dwayne Allen touchdown catch there.
And suddenly, we had a shootout.
Suddenly, Aaron Rodgers couldn't set his feet to throw. Suddenly, Luck was an all-world passer, incapable of being sacked or intercepted—through sheer determination or just blind, dumb...well, luck.
Suddenly, Reggie Wayne was in the middle of the best game of his life, of his Hall of Fame career, and running a quick hitch route just short of the goal line with 35 seconds left.
And then, just one outstretched arm later, the Colts took a 30-27 lead they would never relinquish.
The most improbable of comeback victories, followed by the most improbable halftime speech ever given.
Still sick, looking visibly-weakened and frail, dark circles etched into hollow sockets showcasing the aesthetic destruction caused by chemotherapy, Pagano stood in the center of the room, looking out at the men surrounding him, his men. Weak, but fighting. Sick, but not defeated. Frail, but strong in a way few men can ever be.
"I mentioned, before the game, that you guys were living in a vision, and you weren't living in circumstances," Pagano said, "'cuz you know where they had us in the beginning, every last one of them. But you refused to live in circumstances. And you decided, consciously, as a team, and as a family, to live in a vision."
I had wondered what Pagano meant by that at the time, living in a vision. A vision of what? Winning, when everyone says you can't? Defining the team, the player, the man you want to be, in spite of what everyone else maintains?
But it makes sense, when you think about it. In the context of misfits.
A team everyone had ranked dead last in the season-opening power rankings.
A coach everyone said would not return in 2012, and may never return.
All those players that had been told they were too old, too young or too bad to matter in this league, sharing a vision. A vision where, maybe, just maybe, it was okay to expect more than everyone else, to be better, to look convention and expectation in the eye and smirk.
They dared to imagine something more than a regular season, and they earned a postseason berth.
Circumstances and expectations were for suckers. The 2012 Colts had a definitive vision, one that transcended conventional wisdom and paper analysis. They lived in that vision, and through its consequential unity—the bonds of friends, brothers, teammates, players willing to give everything they had plus something they never knew they had for the guy next to them—were able to rise above the possible, into the realm of something truly special, the rarefied error of a greater purpose.
Having Luck on their side, of course, was a big help. It's difficult to quantify what Luck brought to the Colts in 2012. More was asked of the Colts' rookie signal-caller than perhaps any rookie passer in NFL history.
Luck was asked to lead a 2-14 team whose offensive line actually regressed to the postseason. Easy enough, right?
Raw numbers don't really spell out what makes Luck so special, why his 2012 season was so impressive. Statistics don't quantify pass pressure, rushed plays, or being asked to lead an air-it-out downfield attack with a motley crew of rookie receivers and veteran castaways.
Luck wasn't protected by cozy play-calling; he was thrown in the deep end and asked to run an offense with a weak rushing attack—one that eventually evolved with Ballard in the backfield—and a heavy emphasis on difficult, low-percentage deep passes.
Somehow, Luck made it work.
The Hearts of Hoosiers
It didn't take long for Indianapolis to figure out that something special was happening under the roof of the Colts' West 56th Street team facility.
The Colts were winning again. First, against the Vikings and Packers. And then a streak of four straight against the Browns, Titans, Dolphins and Jaguars.
These weren't signature wins, nor will they be revered in the annals of NFL history. But they were wins, and coming off a 2-14 campaign in 2011, it was hard to argue against them.
Sure, they were punctuated by some occasional drubbings—35-9 to the Jets, 59-24 to the Patriots—but they were building toward something, that much was clear. A .500 record, at first. Then the prospect of a winning season.
And then—dare I say it—the playoffs?!
As the Colts continued to win, Pagano's treatment continued to advance. There were rough days and sleepless nights, seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy, but the news was always positive: Pagano was progressing, Pagano was fighting, Pagano was winning.
Now, I'm sure Pagano would have received support no matter where he coached. Had Pagano been hired by the Cleveland Browns, for instance, I'm sure the Cleveland community would have given him all the support he could have needed. And I'm sure we could have said the same for Jacksonville, for Denver, for any number of places that could have employed Pagano had Irsay and Grigson never offered him the gig in Indianapolis.
But there's just something about Indiana, and the Hoosier community, that surfaces as special in these circumstances.
Cheerleaders shaved their heads. Average Hoosier citizens shaved their heads. Sick children offered their show of support, shared their belief that Pagano could beat cancer, that he was stronger than the illness that threatened his life.
It's difficult to think of many communities that compare, although I'm sure there are several. There is just something special about Hoosiers. As this happened, I thought back to a player on my high school's football team who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma his senior year. The team, and his friends, shaved their heads in support. But that was high school, and those communal bonds operated in closer quarters, so the support—while still appreciated—was more expected.
And yet, Hoosiers' support for Pagano, for their coach, even surpassed the level of support I witnessed as a high school sophomore. Because Pagano inspired Hoosiers. He gave them a reason to fight too, for whatever was worth fighting for.
You don't often see a symbiotic relationship as you saw between the city of Indianapolis, state of Indiana, the 2012 Colts and Chuck Pagano. Normally, sports are just an outside element, some storyline that interests us on Sundays and gets its own section of the paper, but otherwise isn't really ingrained in our daily lives.
But that division was blurred for Hoosiers, to an extent it hadn't been blurred since the glory years of Manning's excellence.
People cared. They cared about each other. They cared about people they didn't even know. Suddenly, football meant more than something to do on Sunday afternoon. It brought Hoosiers together. It paired the sick and the strong, the few and the many.
Something about the Colts, and how they fought for their coach, how their coach himself fought, sparked one of those rare social experiences that transcended sport itself. Football mattered, because football became about more than football, it became about the common struggle of man, and all those things we would do for each other without being asked, because we knew in a moment, the other guy would fight just as hard for us.
This was never more clear than the Colts' regular-season finale vs. the Houston Texans, Pagano's first game back on the sidelines. You could have thrown all metrics out before the game even started. As soon as Pagano was introduced, the Texans never stood a chance.
It was the most complete game the Colts played all season long, a near-perfect game. Luck directed an efficient scoring attack, one that put up a touchdown on its first drive. Vontae Davis intercepted Matt Schaub twice on key possessions, and a host of scrap heap defensive linemen feasted on Schaub. And just for good measure, Deji Karim added a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to blow the game wide open.
Their most complete game was never about playoff positioning—there was nothing to gain or lose by playing starters, given they were locked into the fifth seed already—and never about any personal measure of pride, record or statistical accomplishment.
It was about Chuck. It was about always fighting hard and never giving up.
It was about recognizing a vision, one shared by horseshoes and Hoosiers alike.
No Time for Snot Bubbles
So how did the coach who wasn't supposed to return end up on the sidelines of a playoff game for the team that wasn't supposed to win more than five games?
A soft schedule helped, definitely. A few kind bounces and some brilliant play in close games—Indy was 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less—helped even more, mostly thank to Luck's near-flawless execution in the clutch.
But you can trace the majority of the Colts' 2012 success to a quote offered by interim head coach Bruce Arians immediately following Pagano's diagnosis:
"We just need to play, coach every day and prepare like we have and not get caught up with snot bubbles and tears. They don't beat anybody."
Simply put, the Colts refused to feel sorry for themselves. They refused to admit defeat when everyone pegged them as the NFL's worst team, or when they were handed a 20-point season-opening loss. They refused to give in after getting their asses handed to them by the Jets, or suffering an inexcusable home loss to the Jaguars. They refused to wave the white flag after injuries relegated players like Austin Collie, Pat Angerer, Donald Brown, Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney and Cory Redding to sideline duty only.
Next man up.
They refused to quit when Pagano received his initial diagnosis, and was announced as out of commission for an undetermined amount of time.
No snot bubbles.
None of this is to say the players were callous to unfortunate circumstances, nor did they necessarily ignore them. Rather, they turned them toward a common purpose, a competitive fuel that drove improbable comebacks, ignited win streaks where they were needed most.
At some point, it became a matter of winning for each, of winning for Chuck. They were a team, but more than a collection of guys on a roster that shared a common jersey color. Not mercenaries, but brothers. Not co-workers, but family.
And though it all runs the risk of sounding cliche at some point, painted in the boldest strokes of storybook literature, most players would admit the same.
Great year, learned a lot...Best TEAM I ever been apart of....Thanks to Colts Nation for sticking through the ups and downs with us all year— Jerraud Powers (@JPowers25) January 6, 2013
ZERO plans for this offseason.. Thought we were gonna be playing in Feb..Loved our team this year..A LOT of fun..Any offseason suggestions?— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) January 7, 2013
Pagano found himself on the sideline of M&T Bank Stadium—the visitors' sideline, for a change—because the Colts made the game of football about more than the game of football. Talent-wise, playing the game could only ever get the Colts so far, and probably not where they wanted to be. But in uniting under a common purpose, and discovering the kind of chemistry that translates into talent amplification? The Colts found a way to do what no one out there thought could be done.
In the end, of course, the Colts lost, heading home with a 24-9 result on their record. It was disappointing, of course, because by this stage, it was supposed to be disappointing, because the horseshoe collective had grown to expect more, given all the remarkable feats they had already accomplished.
But the final beat of the Colts' 2012 season wasn't a loss to the Ravens. It was the culmination of something bigger than a game, team or sport.
It was about hope and resiliency. It was about returning joy to fans and returning a sense of purpose to the locker room.
It was about a coach who inspired us, and all of the people who inspired him.
It was about a community and its collective support and belief.
It was about football's ability to bring out the best in us.
Maybe the season didn't end as fans had hoped, and I'm sure everyone in the Colts' locker room would be the first to tell you that they expected more.
But there's no time for snot bubbles now. Not considering all the Colts have handled in 2012.
And not considering all those things they have to look forward to from this point forward.