As I watched the Colts improbably come from behind to beat the Packers Sunday, I noticed a few Indianapolis players holding signs on the sideline that said #CHUCKSTRONG. In the midst of a legitimate Green Bay collapse (as opposed to their illegitimate, but no-less-satisfying loss in Seattle), it took me a few distracted moments to realize the sign was a reference to Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and was receiving treatment in a hospital just down the street from Lucas Oil Stadium.
After the game, Colts owner Jim Irsay gave a short, emotional speech in the locker room, congratulating the team and thanking them for winning one for their coach. Word is he then drove the game ball over to the hospital to give it to Pagano and celebrate the win.
Watching it unfold, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Colts had really pulled off the win for Pagano. Was the emotion of the moment enough to help them outplay the vastly superior Packers? Did it provide them an extra measure of steely focus and physical aggression? On paper the two teams are a mismatch, so what was it that gave the Colts the extra boost?
And if it wasn’t the emotion that put them over the top, shouldn’t they always play that way?
The Colts are just the latest example of the “Let’s win one for __________!” phenomenon in sports. Just a few weeks ago, Baltimore receiver Torrey Smith put up career numbers to help the Ravens beat the Patriots just hours after learning his brother had died in a motorcycle accident. On Monday Night Football back in 2003, Brett Favre played what might be the best game of his life on the road against Oakland the day after his father died. You can find countless other examples throughout sports of players and teams that rose to the occasion in the midst personal tragedy.
How does grief do that to a person? How did it help Future Hall-of-Famer Andrew Luck repeatedly thread the needle? How did it help Reggie Wayne muscle through defenders and claw out extra yards after the catch? If it’s a switch they can flip, why don’t they keep it permanently in the “On” position?
There are those who will tell you that the Colts’ win on Sunday had nothing to do with Pagano’s illness. That it was a team finally playing up to their potential, and nothing more. Others will say it was more of a Packers loss than a Colts win–that Green Bay started celebrating the win too early, or that they’re maybe not as good as originally advertised.
I think there’s some truth in all of that. I never saw Wayne or any of the other Colts down a can of spinach on the sideline, so it stands to reason that they’re at least physically capable of performing at that level every week. And I think this season’s Packers squad doesn’t react well to a punch in the mouth.
But I also can’t believe that the #CHUCKSTRONG rallying cry–or at least the attitude behind it–didn’t bear some fruit. To whatever degree unquantifiable, off-the-field circumstances play a role in athletes’ daily performances, the illness of their head coach made a difference in how the Colts performed Sunday.
I can’t measure it, define it, or reproduce it. But I’m convinced it’s that unpredictable quality–the aspects of the game that rarely show up on the stat sheet–that makes sports great.