INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - I’m sorry.
“I appreciate you saying that,’’ Curtis Painter says over a cup of coffee at Noble Coffee & Tea Company in downtown Noblesville. “But it’s not necessary. Not at all.’’
Maybe not, but since Painter faded from the local sports scene, moving on to the New York Giants before getting cut in 2014 and ultimately returning to his home in Westfield, I’ve wanted to say those words to him. Because I was, in a word, brutal during Painter’s unfortunate time here in Indianapolis, especially when he played a role in the death of the 2009 perfect season, then when he struggled so badly during the 2-14 2011 season. I delivered head shots, cheap shots, body blows, the works.
That’s not to say that Painter, the Purdue graduate, was any great shakes as an NFL quarterback; he wasn’t, struggling in his rare opportunities to play during the regular season. But he didn’t quite deserve the wrath I directed his way, especially when he was thrown into almost-impossible situations in December 2009 and then in 2011. Call it misdirected anger; my real issue was with Bill Polian, first for punting the perfect season and then for failing to have a contingency plan in case Peyton Manning was injured. Painter, then, was collateral damage, the embodiment of everything that stunk about the imperfect season and the 2-14 disaster.
So here I was, telling Painter again that I regretted some of the nastiness I threw in his general direction, when an older gentleman walked by our table and thanked Painter for the work he and his wife did during a recent wedding at their family business, Mustard Seed Gardens in Noblesville.
They shook hands and the gentleman walked away.
“He has no idea, does he?’’ I wondered.
“No idea about what?’’ Painter asked.
“That you’re Curtis Painter, former NFL quarterback,’’ I said.
“Nope,’’ he said. “And that’s great. I’m more than fine with that.’’
And he is. He is perfectly happy being a regular guy – a slimmed-down and shorn regular guy who no longer has long hair and looks “like a hippie,’’ as he described himself. He is perfectly happy working with his wife, Megan, in their family business, a wedding and banquet facility in Noblesville. He loves the ordinariness of it, commuting a few short miles every morning with his wife, working with her, playing some golf in his free time and living in semi-anonymity.
Honestly, this is not the column I thought I’d be writing.
Even though I remembered Painter as a quiet, even-tempered soul who never betrayed any frustration for the way things went down for him in Indianapolis, I thought, “Maybe he’s still marked by the Jets’ loss that ruined the perfect season. Maybe he’s tired of being a football punchline after losing, and losing some more, as the Colts’ primary starter during the 2-14 debacle. Maybe there’s some bitterness or some harsh memories that spook him still.’’
He’s grateful. That’s what he is. He’s grateful he made it to this elite level, becoming one of those rare athletes who reaches the National Football League. He’s grateful he got a chance to back up both Mannings, first Peyton here and then Eli in New York. He looks back at his career, which ended in 2014 after the Giants cut him, with lots of joy and few, if any, regrets.
But, I wondered, how about the impossible situation he was thrust into when he walked into that Jets game with the Colts leading 15-10 late in the third quarter against a Jets team that was playing for a post-season spot? After all, he wasn’t even the Colts’ usual backup; that was Jim Sorgi, who was injured. How about all the boos that accompanied his entrance into the game, and the boos that persisted during the game when Painter, a rookie that season, was strip sacked on just his second possession, resulting in a touchdown? How about all the residual fan anger that persisted long after the Colts exited the field, their chance at history scuttled?
“I never felt like I was unfairly thrust into anything, honestly,’’ Painter said. “I looked at it as a great opportunity. It just didn’t work out.’’
That Jets game still rates as one of the most unusual events in Indianapolis sports history. The 14-0 Colts led 15-10 with 5:36 left in the third quarter, at which point head coach Jim Caldwell pulled a number of his starters, most notably Manning. The boos cascaded down from the stadium’s upper reaches. There was the strip-sack for a touchdown. From that point forward, the Jets, a team with a formidable defense, knew the Colts could not score again, then ran the ball consistently and put away a decisive 29-15 victory.
Painter’s final stats: 4-of-11 for 44 yards, one interception and an 11.2 quarterback rating.
Meanwhile, Manning stood alone on the sidelines, his helmet still on his head, his arms crossed.
After the game, several players who normally speak freely with the media – Gary Brackett being one of them – high-tailed it out of the locker room for fear of saying something regrettable. Manning, who would call a team meeting later in the week to quell the player uprising, was exceedingly political after the game, but he was seething, clearly.
“We tried to score as many points as we could; we put Curtis Painter in a tough position,’’ he said. “This was our organizational philosophy that we stuck with. We still had a chance to win the game. Until any player in here is the head coach, as a player you follow orders and you follow them with all your heart.’’
Reggie Wayne was not quite as circumspect.
“Who wouldn’t want [to pursue perfection]?’’ he said that day. “I mean, who wouldn’t? Doesn’t everybody want to be part of history? Not a season goes by that you don’t hear about the ’72 Dolphins.
“I guess there’s a bigger picture. We all wanted to play, but the big dog made a decision and we have to roll with that decision. We came out after halftime and felt like we were starting to roll and could score some points, but the manager took us off the mound.’’
Painter was told earlier in the week there was a good chance he would get an opportunity to play, but his emotions were mixed. Like most of his teammates – Jeff Saturday still calls that decision the biggest regret of his career – Painter wanted to continue the pursuit of the perfect season. But he felt, too, like this was a rare opportunity to not only play but contribute to an amazing run of almost-flawless football. When you play behind Manning, these chances don’t often come along. Like, ever.
This was his opportunity to contribute to something special.
It didn’t happen.
And yet, it didn’t puncture him emotionally. Details he remembers from those sour times? He doesn’t really remember much. Doesn’t remember the boos. Doesn’t remember the post-game lockerroom. It’s not that he has conveniently consigned those memories to the dustbin of history, it’s just that, well, there are more important things in life.
“I guess that’s just the way I’m built,’’ he said with a shrug. “There’s not a lot that bothers me. I’ve got a good life. And I appreciated every minute I got to play in the NFL, but I’ve moved on.’’
Clearly, I have not.
And yes…I’m still sorry.