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Fables of the Gridiron
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
So far the biggest surprise of the 2012 NFL season has been the Indianapolis Colts' improbable victory over the Green Bay Packers on October 7th. The young Colts were decided underdogs in the game and after a half it looked like the Packers would win handily — after harassing quarterback Andrew Luck for two quarters the Packers held a seemingly insurmountable 18 point lead. Most experts had picked the Packers in the pre-season to be one of the favorites for this year's Super Bowl, and the rookie-laden Colts were expected to struggle all season long, so the halftime score of 21-3 was hardly a shock.
But then something bizarre happened in the second half. A turnover by the Packers' MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers led to a quick Colts' touchdown, and suddenly the dynamics of the game had changed completely. The seemingly invincible Packers couldn't do anything right, and the Colts, fueled by a raucous home crowd, seized control of the game. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne had the game of his career, making impossible catches all over the field, and the Colts' defense dominated the Packers' weak offensive line. With a minute left the Colts took the lead with another great catch by Reggie Wayne, and the Packers last chance ended when kicker Mason Crosby shanked a long field goal attempt with mere seconds remaining. The Colts had prevailed in an astonishing and improbable way, one of the great upsets of recent years.
What made the victory sweeter for the Colts was the heart-wrenching news the team had received during the week — head coach Chuck Pagano had recently been diagnosed with leukemia, and the coach was not expected to be with the team for an interminable time as he began treatment for the disease. In the lead-up to the game, many well-known, usually critical Indianapolis sports writers were openly pulling for the team to somehow steal a win against the superior Packers, thinking that a victory would be a righteous and providentially "good" thing — good for the team, good for sport, good for humanity. Anybody who wouldn't cheer for such an outcome was probably an unforgivable misanthrope.
Of course, not only am I an unforgivable misanthrope, I'm also a Packer fan, so I hated the outcome of the Colts-Packers game. I couldn't grudgingly give the plucky Colts credit for the win, I couldn't see the forest through the trees and credit God or fate or decency for the heart-warming finale. No, I was bitter and miserable and confused, wondering what the hell happened to my previously invulnerable Packers, who at 2-3 were already looking at a season of failure. Embarrassed to be so upset by a trivial sporting event, embarrassed that I couldn't recognize true human uplift when it was right in front of me, I nonetheless refused to read any sports page for an entire week.
I swear, being a rabid sports fan is like dealing with a mental illness. You either choose to fight it or you refuse to ever change. For me, it's pretty clear I'm never going to get any better — I live and die with my beloved Packers. I used to ridicule those insane European soccer hooligans, the guys who set fire to towns when their teams lose, but I can't do that anymore. It's galling to admit that I'm the American version.
Of course, I wish for nothing but the best for Coach Pagano, and I truly hope he makes a full recovery and returns to coach the Colts. But I'm still a little uncomfortable with the whole "win one for the Gipper" thing. The Colts don't play the Baltimore Ravens this year, and that's a good thing, for if they did, who are you supposed to root for? The team with the sick coach, or the team with the wide receiver whose brother recently died? (Torrey Smith lost his brother before the New England game on September 23rd; he then went out and played great, and the Ravens won.) It seems absurd to traduce their real pain by putting it in some stupid sports context. Why drag sports into it? Life is life and sport is sport and if there's one thing they have in common, it's that neither one is very fair. And that's it. Yet people seem to want to read something deep and mystical into the results of some random game, as if that would make everything better.
As a Packer fan, I'm well aware that the most famous example of the "triumph of the heavy-hearted" happened to my own team — when Brett Favre's father died in 2003, Favre went out and played a remarkable game, throwing four touchdown passes in a Green Bay rout of Oakland on Monday night. Everyone seemingly had a lump in their throat after the game, everyone seemed to be rooting for Favre to triumph for his dad's memory. (Everyone except the Darth Vader Raiders fans, of course.) Yet I couldn't help but think that at the funeral, a few days later, sports were certainly — and rightfully — a million miles from his mind. Right where they belonged.