Arians, Colts keep beloved Pagano close to heart in stirring win
Inspired effort by Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne and Colts leads to win over Packers
Jacksonville owner Shahid Khan went to London to try to grow his team's fan base
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There are a lot of stories in the naked city this morning -- the Brees ascension over the great Unitas, the 49ers playing like the '66 Packers, the air being let out of the Buffalo Counterfeit Bills, Eric Winston in a rage, Wes Welker with a needle, Chicago playing piranha defense, Minnesota shocking the world, Atlanta off to the best start in its history -- but there is one story that stands above them all. The story is the game of the year.
Halftime score in Indianapolis: Packers 21, Colts 3.
Final score in Indianapolis: Chuck Pagano 30, Packers 27.
A few minutes before the start of Sunday's game at Lucas Oil Field, just before going out for introductions, interim Colts coach Bruce Arians found his cell phone and texted five words to one of his best friends in coaching, head coach Chuck Pagano. Arians actually hoped Pagano was sleeping, but he knew better. The coach was two miles down the street from the stadium, in room C23 at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center when Arians' text showed up.
"Don't think you're not here."
All week, even though Pagano was supposed to be in his second week of an arduous chemotherapy regimen to attempt to blast the leukemia out of his bloodstream, his mind was with his team. Every day he'd watch the practice tape sent to his iPad, sending out suggestions to individual coaches. On Friday, Arians spent two hours with him in room C23. They went over injuries. They went over the inactives for Sunday. "How was the tempo of practice today?'' Pagano asked. They actually discussed options of whether to receive or defer the opening kickoff.
The two spoke warmly and openly; they'd known each other since working on the Cleveland staff together under Butch Davis -- Arians as offensive coordinator, Pagano as secondary coach -- and though neither mentioned the obvious, both must have known how odd this was. Arians had always wanted to be an NFL head coach, and was serving under his old friend when Pagano finally got his shot to be a head coach, and now, only because Pagano was sick did Arians get his chance. For how long? No one knows, but it's probably for the season -- Pagano will be hospitalized for about six weeks, and it's unknown how he'll feel when he gets out.
On Friday night, Pagano sent each member of the team a long email with his gratitude for their thoughts and prayers and visits. He let them know it wasn't time for sympathy. He said their total focus had to be to get to .500 by 4:30 Sunday afternoon with a win over Green Bay. Arians put the letter on a PowerPoint big screen in the team meeting room Saturday morning, highlighting key points with a laser pointer. Asked later about the team's reaction as he went through Pagano's message, Arians said, "Grim determination.''
Arians has moved 14 times in his coaching career. Pagano 11. "When you move as many times as we have, you gain brothers everywhere you coach,'' Arians said. "That's how I felt about Chuck when we were together three years in Cleveland. Everyone liked Chuck. He's a man's man. Every time I'd see him when I was in Pittsburgh and he was in Baltimore, we'd hug, ask about our families. I'd always say, 'Hi, Cuz.' That's what I called him. So easy to talk to. That's one of the reasons this thing here has gone so smooth. The veterans and the rookies have bought into Chuck totally. They've bought in hook, line and sinker to the messenger and to the message.''
But there's a brutal nature to the job, each man understood. The games don't get called because the coach gets sick. "As cold-blooded as it sounds,'' said Arians, "a guy gets hurt in practice, if he's down on the field and the trainers are with him, you just move the drill down 20 yards and keep going. Unfortunately, we all know it has to be the same thing here. How long will we go like this? Until he shows back up, whenever that is.''
Gameday. The Colts sold "Chuckstrong'' T-shirts to raise money for leukemia research, and some players from each team wore them under their game jerseys. But the emotion in the place was gone pretty quickly. Green Bay sped to a 21-3 halftime lead. At halftime, Arians said he told the team: "No panic. No panic. We're good. If we play the way we've prepared, we'll be fine.''
Rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was handed a short field after a Jerraud Powers interception on the first series of the second half. He hit rookie tight end Dwayne Allen for an eight-yard score to make it 21-10. "Coming back out of halftime,'' said Luck, "we said, 'There's no 18-point touchdown.' Let's just play our football.''
The two sides seesawed until Green Bay took a 27-22 lead with 4:30 left to play. This is the time when the moral victory was supposed to kick in. Rookie quarterback, valiant effort, Super Bowl favorite on the road surviving, sick coach in the hospital proud of his young team's comeback, get 'em next week.
But Luck and veteran wideout Reggie Wayne weren't done. Luck had come up empty on eight straight third-down conversions when he took the ball at his 20 with 4:30 to go, down by five. On the first third down (3rd-and-9), Wayne ran a short cross and Luck led him perfectly. Gain of 15. On the next third down (third-and-12), Luck made the best play of his young pro career.
Green Bay sent six rushers, with outside 'backer Clay Matthews trying to beat left tackle Anthony Castonzo, while the other outside linebacker, Nick Perry, tried to speed-rush right tackle Winston Justice. Meanwhile, free safety Morgan Burnett, the sixth rusher, slammed into Donald Brown, who was protecting on the left side of the pocket.
Justice pushed Perry wide; a win for Justice. Brown stoned Burnett; a win for Brown. But Matthews got around Castonzo, pressured Luck to step up as he was about to throw for Wayne, and then Luck pulled the ball down, feeling Matthews on his shoulder pads, then loaded up again and fired 24 yards up the field to his right.
Wayne, meanwhile, fought a bump from Charles Woodson at the line. They jostled going downfield. Wayne stopped and pivoted at the Packer 30, hoping for one more chance. And here it came, a little bit high but a few feet toward the sideline from Woodson. Wayne leapt and brought it down, Woodson flailing at air. Gain of 15.
Back downfield, Luck sprawled to the turf. What an effort. "No words to describe this kid,'' said Arians. "One tough hombre. How'd he get out of that blitz to make that throw? You give me any quarterback in this league right now -- I don't care who -- and I wouldn't trade this kid for any one of 'em.''
What about Wayne? The Packers had to know Luck was laser-focused on him on this drive; Wayne was in the midst of the best game of his life. And it didn't matter. "I will never forget the unbelievable play of Reggie Wayne, especially on that drive,'' tight end Coby Fleener said afterward.
But there was another third down to navigate: 3rd-and-7 from the Green Bay 11, with 47 seconds to play. A field goal does no good here. Indy had to convert. With his receivers covered and a hole in the middle of the Packer defense, Luck took off. Though he looks like a lumberer, he actually runs a respectable 4.63 40-yard dash. Diving at about the 6-yardline, Luck got to the 4-, just enough for the first down after a lengthy replay review. He wasted no time on the next play, hitting Wayne on a quick incut, and Wayne stretched the ball in front of him at about the 2-, puncturing the plane of the goal line. Colts, 30-27.
Indy, however, left Aaron Rodgers 35 seconds. And no matter how the crowd and the Colts sideline wished time, just this once, could fly, Green Bay got in position for a 51-yard field-goal try by Mason Crosby with eight seconds left. Crosby had plenty of leg to make the kick.
"I just thought, 'If there's a God in heaven, I pray he misses this,'' said Arians.
Crosby seemed like he got a good kick on it. But something insane happened a millisecond later, inside a retractable-roof stadium with the dome closed this day. The ball veered left so fast and so far about 20 yards into the kick ... it was like an immense gust of wind showed up just then and pushed the kick impossibly left. Yet there was no wind -- the ball just shot to the left for some very odd, somebody-up-there-likes-Chuck reason, a shankapotamus if there ever were one.
Colts win! Colts win! Colts win! In the crowd, total strangers hugged and high-fived. The noise made the place sound like the 2009 Super Bowl year. Peyton angst? What Peyton angst?
"I've been coaching for a long time,'' Arians said. Since 1975, actually. "And that's as good a 30 minutes as I've ever seen, a five-star performance if there ever was one.''
In the locker room, Arians asked everyone to gather inside the huge horseshoe in the middle of the carpeted room. He turned it over to owner Jim Irsay, who held the game ball in his hands. "We know what kind of man we have just down the street in the hospital, fighting ... fighting for his life ... '' and Irsay, after a few more words, started shouting. "THIS BALL IS GOING RIGHT DOWN THE STREET TO THIS COACH!''
Much applause. Then Wayne stepped in. "We got one more game ball,'' he said, and looked at Arians. "For B.A."
Arians took the ball, and he and Wayne hugged.
Said Arians, in a loud voice: "Chuck on three!'' And the room responded.
"ONE, TWO, THREE, CHUCK!''
When Arians finished wiping away the tears and hugging a few more people, he went into his dressing room. He found his phone. There was one more text message to send to Chuck Pagano in the hospital room, two miles away.
"Yessssss!!!!! Love you Cuz!"
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