One of the most memorable seasons in recent memory was the year that the Colts enjoyed in 2012, going 11-5 just one year after a league-worst 2-14 record and despite losing their first-year head coach to leukemia for much of the year.
It was a season that propelled interim head coach Bruce Arians to a Coach of the Year award and a head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals, and that success was jump-started by an incredibly memorable 30-27 upset of the Green Bay Packers in the Colts' first game without Chuck Pagano.
NFL Network on Friday night premiered their A Football Life show about Bruce Arians, and a point of interest in the show was that game against the Packers. The backdrop, of course, was discussed as well. Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia during the Colts' bye week following week three and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was promoted to interim head coach.
"I've seen my father cry twice in his life," Jake Arians, Bruce's son, said on NFL Network. "Once was when his dad, Papi, died. The second time was a very different situation, but he was calling to let me know about Chuck."
Arians took over, but he felt the pressure riding on him entering the team's first game without Pagano."
"Only two times in my life I ever feared losing," Arians recalled for the show. "The Liberty Bowl [Bear Bryant's last game at Alabama], and Chuck's first game when he had cancer. Mr. Irsay, he said, 'we're gonna beat the Packers and take Chuck the game ball.' I said, 'are you [bleeping] me? You just put that on me?' And I had a panic attack. I started sweating, I said, 'Oh my God, I'm having a heart attack.' It was scary there for a moment, but we're going to get through it and everything's going to be ok."
The Colts fell behind 21-3 at halftime, but Arians remained composed and helped lead the Colts through it. "I go in the locker room, I'm calm, I say, 'look, guys, we had a hell of a week of practice. Why are we playing so bad? Somebody make a good play, and it'll snowball,'" Arians remembers saying.
The Colts responded, scoring 19 straight points following halftime to take a 22-21 early fourth quarter lead. The Packers then scored again with 4:30 left to play in the game to re-take the lead, but then Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne led the Colts down the field for the game-winning hookup with 35 seconds left. Final score: Colts 30, Packers 27. Luck threw for 362 yards and two touchdowns and also added 24 yards and a score on the ground. Reggie Wayne, donning his orange gloves in support of Pagano, caught 13 passes for 212 yards and a touchdown in the biggest game of his career. And the Colts, once down 18 points, came back to beat a better Packers team in their first game after losing their head coach.
"The great thing about playing for BA was that no matter what the odds were against you or what the circumstances were around you or the team, you felt like you always had a chance," Andrew Luck told NFL Network. "And he made all of us feel that way."
Of course, we all know how the rest of the season went. The Colts would win nine games under Arians, going 9-3 under their interim head coach before Pagano returned on Christmas Eve. "The greatest Christmas ever," Arians, who had left the light on in Pagano's office during his absence, said on the show. "To see him in his office and walking out, I left and the light was off. God is great."
It seems like a while ago, and the time since has been filled with plenty of talk and speculation about Chuck Pagano as the head coach of the Colts. Perhaps we're nearing the end of his tenure, but regardless, the 2012 season was a very special one for Colts fans and for the NFL. It was an incredibly memorable and entertaining season, and Bruce Arians was a major part of that. The ChuckStrong game, as the Colts vs. Packers game came to be called, defined what the 2012 season was about: a team that had the odds stacked against it fought back and put together a fantastic performance for a big win. And, though Arians felt the pressure before the game, he delivered in a big way: that game ball did indeed make it's way to Chuck Pagano in the hospital.