The last time the Indianapolis Colts played the Green Bay Packers, one of the most memorable games in franchise history took place.
It was 2012, and the Packers were one of the league’s absolute best teams while the Colts were projected to be one of the league’s worst. It was the first year with quarterback Andrew Luck, general manager Ryan Grigson, and head coach Chuck Pagano in what figured to be a massive rebuild. And then, with the Colts 1-2 at their bye week, they received even worse news: Pagano had leukemia. He would miss most of the season as he battled the disease, while Bruce Arians took over as interim head coach.
Just like most people expected, the Packers looked like the dominant team early, and they took a 21-3 lead into halftime. But then, in the second half, everything changed. An Andrew Luck touchdown pass to Dwayne Allen. An Adam Vinatieri field goal. An Andrew Luck touchdown rush. And then with 8:04 left to play in the game, the Colts actually took a 22-21 lead thanks to another Vinatieri field goal. The Packers answered, making it 27-22, and then Andrew Luck led a tremendous drive that was capped by Reggie Wayne’s four yard touchdown with 35 seconds left as he reached across the goal line, giving the Colts a 30-27 win.
Reggie Wayne had the game of his life that day, catching 13 passes for 212 yards and the game-winning score as he wore orange gloves in support of Pagano. Luck threw for 362 yards and added 24 more on the ground, finishing with three total scores. And it was a win that helped propel the Colts to a stunning 11-5 season and a playoff berth.
“I was heavily dosed up on meds so I don’t remember anything other than the final,” Pagano jokingly recalled on Wednesday. “Blame it on Dilaudid – it’s pretty good stuff. The team was feeling pain at half but I wasn’t. It was a different team. It was a great win. One of the great comebacks by this team and that locker room by those players that are still here. That’s what it is, it’s a great memory, but I certainly had nothing to do with it.”
While Pagano is right in that he didn’t have anything to do with the win itself, the reason the game was so special was because it was a win for their cancer-stricken coach, because they got to send the game ball to Pagano, and because it was a feel-good story.
“It was special,” Luck said this week. “It’s hard to sort of think about it now in the middle of the week preparing for a really good football team, but it was special in more than just a football game way. I remember that.”
“I do remember it was weird,” Luck recalled. “It was bizarre in a sense. I think the gravity of the situation hit guys maybe at different times. You have BA [Bruce Arians] stand up there and tell you that Chuck is sick and is in the hospital and then you have a doctor come into a team meeting, which is unprecedented in my career, and talk about what he’s going through. But it didn’t hit me then, I remember it hitting me when I walked out to practice and Coach Pagano wasn’t there, ‘Okay, this is real life,’ you know. It certainly provided a lot of perspective I think on football, on life and just thankful that Coach is healthy really at the end of the day.”
The Packers responded with class to the situation, with several players wearing Chuckstrong t-shirts before the game. The man who was on the opposite sideline in that game and will be again this Sunday was Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, who also remembers that game well.
“Definitely, I think everybody, not having a strong personal relationship with Chuck, I think it hit home for all of us,” McCarthy said this week. “I can recall being in a meeting on Friday and I was talking to one of our vice presidents, Russ Ball, and he made me aware of the purchasing of the T-shirts and what it was for and the idea of us purchasing T-shirts for our players for the pregame. I addressed it in the team meeting and everybody was excited about it. I think it just shows you the solidarity of the National Football League, it is a family and I think it hit home for everybody, not only what he was dealing with and when. That’s probably the one positive thing I remember about that game because it didn’t end up very well. It was definitely a game that changed momentum and they obviously won it there in the end. I am just glad to see Chuck doing very well.”
That’s the most important thing: that Pagano is healthy now. But his football team could sure use another notable win after a disappointing 3-5 start, and a trip to Lambeau Field to face the Packers would be a good way to get that memorable victory - as the Colts haven’t won at Lambeau since 1988. It may not be as special as that 2012 victory, but it’d still be pretty big for the team. For now, though, we can look back at that classic Chuckstrong game in 2012.