Colts MLB's emergence proving to be therapeutic

For the reigning AFC defensive player of the week, a stellar 10-tackle, two-interception performance for the Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday's lopsided win at Baltimore might have defined the term bittersweet.

On hand to lend moral and vocal support for Gary Brackett, a third-year veteran in his first season as the Colts' starting middle linebacker, were 40 family members and friends who made the drive from New Jersey. Many of them were seeing him in-person for the first time playing in a regular-season NFL game. But it's the family that wasn't in attendance at M&T Bank Stadium for only the second start of Brackett's career -- his father, mother and brother, all of whom passed away in the preceding 23 months -- who were uppermost in the thoughts of the young linebacker.

"After every game, no matter what, I would call them," recalled Brackett on Thursday, as he spoke of the enormous loss he has suffered in a little less than two years. "The good part for me [last Sunday night], I guess, was that I had so many people there for me. It was great, don't get me wrong, but it still wasn't the same thing as being able to pick up the phone and tell my folks that I had played really well."

Indeed, sometimes it is easier to plug the B-gap hole against the off-tackle run than it is to fill a void in your heart. So while Brackett still struggles at times with the latter issue, the former Rutgers star uses the former as a convenient diversion, and clearly is finding it to be emotionally therapeutic.

And the Colts, it seems, are finding the unheralded Brackett to be a nice fit, not just with the linebacker corps, but with the overall defensive scheme.

The Indianapolis blueprint is designed, of course, around speed and quickness. Brackett, whose lone previous start came in the meaningless 2004 season finale at Denver, after the Colts had already secured a playoff spot and cemented their perch as the No. 3 seed in the AFC bracket, has provided both. And against the Ravens, he demonstrated he can give coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Ron Meeks big plays as well.

A onetime walk-on at Rutgers, and signed by the Colts as an undrafted college free agent in 2003, Brackett played primarily as a "nickel" linebacker his first two NFL seasons, and had 43 tackles, three interceptions and one sack in that role. But in replacing Rob Morris as the starter this season, Brackett has proved to be a more well-rounded defender than some skeptics anticipated, and has melded nicely into a linebacker corps whose success is predicated on getting to the football, and certainly not on size.

Listed on the Colts' roster at 5-feet-11 and 235 pounds, Brackett acknowledged that he is at least an inch shorter and five pounds lighter than those advertised dimensions. As such, he is part of an inarguable trend in the league toward more mobile middle linebackers. Over the past three seasons in particular, teams have increasingly incorporated into their defensive schemes middle linebackers who could run, not just stop the run.

On opening day last weekend, 20 franchises deployed a 4-3 defense at the start of their games. The other dozen clubs either opened in a 3-4 front or a "sub" package. Counting Brackett, the 20 middle starting middle linebackers last week averaged 239.8 pounds and a shade under 6-feet-1. Three starters last weekend were in the 220s. Only nine of the 20 weighed more than 240 pounds and just three -- Brian Urlacher of Chicago (258), Kansas City's Kawika Mitchell (253) and Mike Labinjo (255) of Philadelphia -- weighed more than 250 pounds.

Contrast that to opening day 1995, when the starting middle linebackers averaged 246.3 pounds and all but four checked in at more than 240 pounds.

"I haven't been around all that long," Brackett said, "but even I can see just in my three years how much the league has changed. There's more [emphasis] now on guys who can run, who can get to the football, and that's what our defense is all about. For me, it's a great defense to be in, because the things we stress are the things I think I do well. I don't know that I could be in a better situation."

Appropriately, in the fourth season of Dungy's stewardship, the "Cover 2" design that he brought with him from Tampa Bay, and which has been modified only a little during his Indianapolis tenure, might be significantly better in 2005. The unit has kind of been on a precipitous statistical slide, ranking eighth in 2002, then sliding to 11th in 2003, and plummeting all the way to No. 29 last season. There is a feeling this season, however, that the Colts have the right components to be markedly improved.

For openers, the young players who have been in the system are more familiar with its demands now. And the Colts have added three new starters in first-round cornerback Marlin Jackson, free-agent defensive tackle Corey Simon and Brackett.

A four-year starter, Morris was a solid defender versus the run and he averaged 93.5 tackles during his time in his lineup. But in Brackett, who is flanked by very athletic outside 'backers in David Thornton on the strong side and former college safety Cato June at the weak-side spot, the Colts now have a similarly mobile player. And since Brackett does not have to come off the field on third down, as Morris did, the Colts coaches have enhanced flexibility and maneuverability.

"He's been in the program and, when he played, we felt like Gary played well," Dungy said. "We were comfortable moving him in [to the starting lineup]."

Brackett, 25, has obviously located his comfort zone pretty quickly, in part because he has been working with the first unit since the spring mini-camps, when Morris was still a free agent, and it was obvious there was going to be a change in the middle. Brackett allowed this week that he has worked hard on his core strength because, as he noted, being on the field for first and second downs now places more emphasis on physicality. As the nickel linebacker, Brackett was preoccupied with technique more than toughness.

The youngster certainly must possess plenty of mental toughness, though, to have gotten through the adversity that has marked the past two years.

In the fall of '03, his father, Granville Brackett, died after a series of physical and mental setbacks. A veteran of the Vietnam War, the elder Brackett had been through at least two heart attacks, several surgeries, depression and stints in a mental health facility. The same year, Brackett's brother, Greg, was diagnosed with T-cell leukemia. And then just four months after his father's death, Brackett's mother, Sandra, died suddenly following what was supposed to have been fairly routine surgery.

Last spring, Gary Brackett donated bone marrow for transplants to his brother. But Greg Brackett, who spent the final months in and out of a coma, died in February of this year.

"What's that old saying about what doesn't kill you makes you tougher?" Brackett said, in explaining how he has weathered the incredible emotional toll. "Yeah, there have been some tough times lately. I mean, last year, before they took the marrow from me for my brother, I had to inject myself with [a drug] that basically made me sick. That's how they increase the [blood] cell count. So here I am, an athlete, trying to take care of my body, and I'm basically injecting a flu into myself every day. But it wasn't much of a price if you consider what my brother was going through. I mean, I survived, and I'm healthy and doing something I love doing."

Brackett has always been a survivor. Essentially unrecruited after his high school career, he walked on at Rutgers, skipped football his first year in school to work on academics, and then became a very good player. Two years into his college playing career, with his parents and he still footing the bill for tuition, Brackett was about one semester away from running out of money, and having to transfer to Rowan University, a Division III school in Glassboro, N.J. Finally, the coaches awarded him a scholarship.

General manager Bill Polian and his personnel staff, a group of scouts that annually has one of the best undrafted free-agent crops, unearthed Brackett. He is one of 13 undrafted players on the current Indianapolis roster, and clearly one of the team's best finds.

Not every game, for sure, will be like last Sunday's for Brackett, a player admired by his teammates for his perseverance and character. But it appears he has lent stability and new playmaking potential to the middle linebacker spot for the Colts. And there is, at least recently, a new stability in his life as well.

"I've been given an opportunity," said Brackett, who, counting his scrimmage and special teams duties, logged about approximately 75 plays last Sunday night. "I was raised in a good environment, and to believe that the best way you honor the dead is with how you live your life. No matter how stormy it gets, there's going to be a rainbow sooner or later, and maybe this is the time for my rainbow."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.