At the Colts' practice facility in Indianapolis the most direct route from the locker room to the weight room, the parking lot or the front door is down a corridor that runs past the training room. On the way guys can grab a cup of coffee, enjoy the symphonic sounds favored by the team's weightlifting coach or read the Christmas cards taped to the wall in the trainer's office. But lately Indy's players have forsaken this route for more circuitous and less scenic ones—anything, it seems, to bypass the Hall of Pain.
Some are superstitious. Others want to avoid being trampled by the stampede of injured Colts. In all, 18 starters have missed an NFL-high 69 games this year. While a typical team can expect to lose 10% of its players for a game or more to injury, 33% of Indy's roster has been sidelined at one time or another in 1996. But as we learned in '95, when a band of self-described ragamuffins came within a Hail Mary pass of the Super Bowl, the Colts are far from a typical team.
"I don't go in that room, I don't go by that room, and I don't go down that hall," says free safety Jason Belser, the only starting defensive player who has not been hurt. "Whatever injury virus or disease has spread through this team, man, I just don't want to risk catching it. This year, around here, that stuff is contagious."
There have been knee tears, turf toes, dislocations, dental problems, kidney stones and enough titanium plates and screws inserted by doctors to build a bridge. Last season's endearing slogan, Let 'er rip, now applies to the team's tendons, muscles and ligaments. Somehow, though, after improving to 9-6 with a scrappy 24-19 win on Sunday at Kansas City, the Colts are being fitted for another glass slipper (one that will fit over a swollen ankle, no doubt). "You feel like the magic's coming back," says quarterback Jim Harbaugh. "At times it appears that we're going to run out of bodies. We're getting guys, literally, off the street, and they're playing hard. I don't know how they do it, but God bless 'em."
Against the Chiefs, Harbaugh, who had sat out the previous two games with a torn knee ligament, scooted and hopped on his bum left wheel, courageously connecting on 16 of 28 passes for 227 yards and three TDs—all to rookie wideout Marvin Harrison, the team's No. 1 pick from Syracuse. Tailback Marshall Faulk, up to full speed after nursing a sprained toe all season, rushed for 71 yards. The Colts still need a win at Cincinnati, or two losses by Buffalo, or one loss by either K.C. or Jacksonville to make the playoffs. But once again they are an unlikely—and likable—contender.
"With all the injuries, every inch of every play in every game matters, and that makes things, for us at least, fun," says Harrison. "This team at full strength would be terrifying to the rest of the league."
Indianapolis has had 41 players start games this season. The Colts' sack leader, Super Bowl XX MVP Richard Dent, celebrated his 36th birthday last Friday. And to form his offensive line, coach Lindy Infante had to talk center Kirk Lowdermilk and right tackle Tony Mandarich out of retirement.
Still, Infante's mix of spirited youths and cagey vets is playing with a relaxed confidence few teams can muster during the crunch time of December. Against K.C., Indy converted nine of 13 third downs, had no penalties and turned the ball over only once. The Chiefs, meanwhile, had injuries of their own to overcome. With Pro Bowl cornerback Dale Carter out with a strained knee, Harbaugh picked on backup Tony Stargell. And halfway through the second quarter, quarterback Rich Gannon strained his right hamstring and was replaced by Steve Bono.
With most of the Arrowhead Stadium crowd already in the parking lot, Bono pieced together a 70-yard, 13-play drive that cut the Indianapolis lead to 24-19 with 1:17 to play in the game. As the scoreboard flashed, QUIET PLEASE—AUDIBLE ZONE!, K.C. went for two. The Colts' Belser, a Kansas City native whose father, Ceasar, was a linebacker for the Chiefs from 1968 to '71, crashed through the line and nailed running back Marcus Allen. "Dad," says Belser, "bleeds blue now."
Belser, though, was one of several Colts who bobbled the ensuing onside kick, which allowed K.C. to drive 39 yards to the Indy 11. Three incompletes set up fourth down with just 13 seconds remaining. In the huddle Belser screamed at his teammates, "Someone has to step up and make a play right now! Right now!" Bono fired a pass to wideout Danan Hughes, who was breaking for the right front corner of the end zone. Rookie cornerback Dedric Mathis, a fill-in for the injured Ray Buchanan, reached out and with surgical precision knocked the pass to the ground.