Indianapolis Colts linebacker
"I thought it was over.
I was going crazy."
"This isn't over yet!"
Those were the words Indianapolis Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett kept screaming in his huddle with 1:20 remaining in his team's AFC divisional playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Jan. 15, 2006. Brackett believed as much because he had learned plenty about adversity to that point. He'd lost his mother, father and brother during that 2005 season. The pain of those deaths far outweighed the doubts the Colts felt as Pittsburgh held a 21-18 lead and the ball at the Indianapolis 2-yard line.
Brackett hoped his intensity would motivate his teammates. Instead, he could see the concern in their deflated eyes. Even if they somehow held the Steelers to a field goal in that situation, they might have only a few precious seconds for their star quarterback, Peyton Manning, to produce an improbable comeback.
Brackett didn't care about odds, though. As the Steelers lined up in their heavy formation -- which included three tight ends and bruising, sure-handed running back Jerome Bettis -- Brackett knew what was coming. "Bettis was their workhorse," Brackett said. "When you get that close to the end zone, you're not going to get too cute."
The Steelers gave Brackett exactly what he expected: a straightforward run play with fullback Dan Kreider leading Bettis through a narrow hole carved out by Pittsburgh's massive line. Brackett shot through the gap, as well, throwing his 5-foot-11, 235-pound frame right in front of Bettis, who weighed 250. The hit couldn't have been executed better, either. Brackett's helmet crashed against the football in Bettis' right hand, sending the pigskin soaring into the air.
Brackett didn't need to see Colts cornerback Nick Harper scoop up the ball and race toward the Steelers' goal line. The roar inside Indianapolis' RCA Dome told him something amazing had happened. All Harper had to do was evade Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "He was probably the fastest player on the field for the Steelers because they had all their big guys in," Brackett said. "I thought it was over. I was going crazy."
The only problem for the Colts was Roethlisberger's athleticism. He managed to trip up Harper, who fell at the Colts' 42-yard line. Five plays later, Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 46-yard field goal attempt with 21 seconds left, ending the Colts' dreams. The season belonged to the Steelers. The Colts -- who still believed that year featured their most talented team of the 2000s -- were left to stomach a painful upset loss at home.
To this day, Brackett still keeps a framed photo in his basement of that fumble floating in the air. What he's also noticed is that history, which usually reflects the perspective of the winner, has airbrushed his highlight out of that play. "When I see that clip today, they don't even show my hit," Brackett said. "All you see is Nick running and Roethlisberger making that tackle."
Gary Brackett, Cato June, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Harper, Kendall Simmons, Jerome Bettis
"The next day,
we still couldn't believe."
"I remember thinking,
'Jerome can't go
out like this.'"
"There was a
chance of him
making that tackle."
"That play was the turning point. ...
I told myself, 'We're going to the Super Bowl."
"Our game plan
was to seal the deal
and get out of there."
Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper didn't just save a game.
It ultimately saved a championship.
Photo by Steve C. Mitchell