All Chuck Pagano asked the Indianapolis Colts to do was focus on football.
Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne did that – and a little more to honor their ailing coach.
The rookie quarterback and veteran receiver connected at the most critical moments Sunday, including a 4-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left to complete the Colts’ second-half rally and stun Green Bay 30-27 on perhaps the most emotional day in Lucas Oil Stadium history.
”I’m sure we were all lying to everybody the whole week, trying to downplay it,” Luck said after throwing for a career-high 362 yards. ”I think we all went out there wanting to do it for Chuck more than anything else. To see all the emotions on Mr. Irsay’s face, BA’s, everyone in there, I think it’s one of the greatest athletic moments I’ve ever been a part of.”
It’s a day nobody in Indy or around the league will soon forget.
Interim coach Bruce Arians, nicknamed BA, acknowledged he was fighting back tears when he spoke to reporters. From the sounds of it, so were Luck and Wayne.
The sometimes emotional team owner, Jim Irsay, sniffled as he spoke inside a silent locker room before dashing off dash to the hospital where Pagano is undergoing treatment for leukemia. He wanted to personally deliver the game ball to Pagano, who celebrated his 52nd birthday Tuesday.
Pagano made it perfectly clear Friday, in an emotional email to players and coaches, that he didn’t want guys playing for him; he simply wanted the Colts (2-2) to play for themselves and match last season’s victory total.
”Focus on being 500 by 4:30pm on Sunday. Nothing else,” he wrote. ”That has to be our mind set. 60 minutes, all you got, one play at a time! WIN!”
Turns out the players wanted this one even more for Pagano than he wanted it for them.
”I’ve got 12 years of (special) games,” said Wayne, who has known Pagano since the two were at the the University of Miami together in the late 1990s. ”But this did mean a lot, just with the whole deal with how the week’s been going. You know, I talked to coach Pagano and he wanted us to win so bad. Is it a high? Yeah. I don’t necessarily have one other than the Super Bowl game. But it’s up there.”
Team officials honored Pagano by hanging signs that read (hash)Chuckstrong behind each goal post and wore lapel pins with orange ribbons on a white background.
Luck and Wayne showed their support in another way.
The No. 1 draft pick was 31 of 55 throwing with two touchdowns and one interception, and ran for a TD, too.
Wayne finished with 13 receptions for a career-high 212 yards – the second-highest total in Colts history behind Hall of Famer Raymond Berry in 1957. And he wore the orange gloves, instead of the traditional pink ones for breast cancer awareness month, because that’s the color for leukemia patients.
”I just wanted to do something, you know, for Chuck,” Wayne explained. ”I had some equipment guys make some calls. If they (NFL officials) fine me, they fine me, I really feel like that would be a terrible thing to do, but if so, so be it, I’ll go ahead and take the fine and do it for Chuck.”
It was a wild finish to an emotionally-charged week in Indy that began with Monday morning’s announcement that Pagano had been diagnosed with leukemia after players left for their bye week.
Green Bay (2-3) had a chance to force overtime with a 51-yard field goal. But Mason Crosby’s attempt went left with 3 seconds to go, setting off an emotional celebration on the Colts sideline.
”I thought they (Colts) played well,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. ”Obviously, a tough week for them. I thought they played with a lot of emotion, a lot of energy. Frankly, I’m more focused on my football team and my football team is not playing the way we are capable of playing.”
Pagano knew the motto all week would be to win one for the coach.
On Friday, he set out to change that speech – a message Wayne and Luck took personally, especially after falling into a 21-3 halftime deficit.
In the second half, the Colts dominated.
Luck threw an 8-yard TD pass to Dwayne Allen and set up Adam Vinatieri for a 50-yard field goal to make it 21-13 midway through the third quarter. He then ran it in from 3 yards out with 18 seconds left in the third quarter to get the Colts within 21-19.
A few minutes later, Vinatieri hit a 28-yard field goal to give Indy its first lead, 22-21.
But Aaron Rodgers got Green Bay’s offense back in sync in a hurry.
Alex Green ran 41 yards on the Packers’ first play, and Rodgers threw an 8-yard TD pass to James Jones on the next one to give the Packers a 27-20 lead with 4:30 to go. Rodgers was 21 of 33 for 243 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
All the Packers had to do was stop Luck one more time to clinch it.
Luck and Wayne wouldn’t allow it.
With the clock ticking down and anxious fans hoping and praying they could get this win for Pagano, Luck converted two third-down passes to Wayne, then scrambled for a third third-down conversion before, fittingly, spotting Wayne for the go-ahead score.
”Chuck’s instilled a lot in us,” Wayne said. ”His whole motto since day one, the first meeting has been team team, team, team. Nothing else. So we’ve wanted to do it every week as a team. That’s all we practice, that’s all we preach.”
NOTES: The Packers lost three starters during the game – running back Cedric Benson (ankle), defensive tackle B.J. Raji (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (right shoulder). McCarthy did not have immediate updates after the game. … Colts defensive end Robert Mathis left with a knee sprain and did not return after trying on a brace. … Wayne now has catches in 100 consecutive games and passed college and pro teammate Edgerrin James for No. 2 on the Colts career list for yards from scrimmage. … Packers receiver Donald Driver played in his 197th career game Sunday, breaking a tie with Bart Starr for second in team history.