With 1:02 left in the greatest game the Indianapolis Colts ever played, Joseph Addai followed an epic Jeff Saturday block through the middle of the Patriots' line, dancing unencumbered into the end zone to give the Colts a 38-34 lead in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.
But there was a problem. Actually, there were two problems. One problem was time; there were 54 seconds remaining, a lifetime worth of football game. The second problem was Tom Brady, who had set up shop inside the Colts' heads throughout his first-ballot Hall of Fame career. How many times had Brady and the dynastic Patriots ripped the Colts' hearts out of their chests over the years? And now, it looked like it might happen again.
New England took over at the 21-yard line, and after an incompletion, Brady hit Ben Watson for 19 yards and then Heath Evans for 15 yards, and you could almost hear the nervous muttering inside the RCA Dome. Not again. Now the Patriots were setting up shop at the Colts' 45, 24 interminable seconds left, when Brady and the Patriots went back to work after a timeout.
And then came the play that will almost surely earn the top spot in the Colts' pantheon of great plays, a moment that will, without question, be voted upon by Colts fans as the most memorable moment of the Colts' 35-year-long run in Indianapolis.
"We're in a base two-deep, kind of a prevent defense, and we're really just looking for a formation, a tendency that will tell us what's going to happen on that play,'' said Marlin Jackson, the Colts safety whose interception of Brady sealed the Colts trip to Miami and a meeting with the Chicago Bears in the Super Bowl in rainy Miami. "All the studying you do, all the preparation that goes into game, they really prepare you for those special moments when you're able to recognize a formation, able to understand the tendency of your opponent and then you can make an educated guess. It's one part instinct, one part preparation. The film room after practice, catching balls, all of those things prepared me for that play.
"I'd dropped a few interceptions that season, so (defensive backs coach) Leslie Frazier had me working with the Juggs gun every day after practice. So it was the cultimation of all the extra work put in after practice, and when the opportunity presented itself, I was able to recognize the formation and understand the route concept they like to throw out of that formation.
"I backed up a little further than normal, understanding Brady likes to look one way and then throw blindly in the other direction. It created a perfect storm, a perfect moment. I tell people the flow of that play, if you're watching me in that clip from behind, I'm really in synch with him (Brady). As soon as he turns his head, I'm going. It's like he's pulling my body forward out of my break. And it all came from everything that occurred before that actual moment.
"I was defending the hashes to the top of the numbers, 10 to 15, maybe 20 yards down the field. If the quarterback wants to take a shot down the seams, I'm making him arc the ball over me to get the safety enough time to break it up, or if it's in front of me, I can come up and make the tackle and kill time. Honestly, I went outside my responsibility because I felt that I could make the play. First, by understanding the (Patriots') formation, trips to my side. They like to distract you with that second receiver, have him curl up in front of you. At the same time, they have a third receiver inside a little shorter and curling up inside the hash, but I was able to understand the alignment and situation and where he might go with the football. I didn't follow (Brady's) eyes, I followed his body language. I know that when he's going against a cover-2, he's going to try and manipulate the defense. It was him looking away from me, so I knew he was trying to move us out of position. But because I didn't bite on that, I knew he's coming to me now. He comes to me, I'm already making my break.''
It wasn't necessarily a spectacular interception; Brady threw the ball directly to the oncoming Jackson, who played five years with the Colts after leaving the University of Michigan. But it was a thing of beauty because it was the residue of so much preparation, of understanding what the Patriots were going to do long before the play ever unfolded.
"Once it's happening, there's no thinking going on; it's mind and muscle memory seamlessly reacting,'' said Jackson, whose Fight for Life Foundation serves troubled communities and helps provide housing and life skills to the underserved. "I was reacting to what I had previously seen on tape. I was so dialed in, my instincts due to preparation took over so I could make the play. I knew as soon as I made the play, it was an enormous moment for Indianapolis sports. Not just going to the Super Bowl, but the fashion, the way we came back and won, and the fact it was against New England and a team that had previously been able to take advantage of those moments and win. It was role reversal. So many times before, we'd been in that same situation and couldn't make the play.
"For so many people, it's the culmination that makes it such a miracle moment. I still have people coming up to me and talking about the emotional appeal of that play, that moment. They talk about what they felt. That's the power of sports. No matter how different we may be in life, me as a player, you as a sportswriter, people as fans, we all experienced the same emotions. That's why it's stayed with us for so long. If you watch it even now, it bring backs all those warm and fuzzy feelings, the great emotion that comes with having done it, we've slain the Patriots and finally gotten over the hump.''
That sound we heard in that moment in the RCA Dome, we'd never heard that kind of primal scream before. Or since.
"A rush of emotions came over me, it's disbelief, `did I just do that?' '' Jackson said. "I was like, `Oh my God, we're going on to the Super Bowl.' It was unbelievable and indescribable. And time you set out with an objective and work eight, nine months toward that objective, it's such a special moment. I knew it was a moment that would stand the test of time and would be remembered always. I think about it now, arguably two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Brady and Peyton, Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick, so many Hall of Famers involved in that moment. For me, someone who had a pretty good career when I was healthy, to have that moment before my career was cut short (by injuries), I'm grateful to have had something like that to catapult me to the rest of my career and really, it catapulted me into the rest of my life.''
The night before speaking to Jackson, I watched the play over and over again. And it struck me that not only did Jackson make the perfect play at the perfect time, but he had the sense of the moment to cradle the football and fall to the ground, the Super Bowl berth resting carefully in his hands.
"You know why I did that? Because I watched the Patriots-Chargers tape from the week before,'' Jackson said. "The Chargers were in the same situation, they make the play and their guy runs when he doesn't need to run (and he fumbles the ball back to New England). When you study something and find yourself in the moment where it applies, I'm able to naturally apply what I studied and put it into action in real time. That's when I realized the preparation is such a powerful thing.''
For Indianapolis, the moment came when Jackson stepped up and made the interception. For the players, the moment came in the locker room, the Colts trailing 21-6, awash in the sense of "here we go again.'' Enter Dungy, the Hall of Famer, who may have done his best work during that halftime.
"Oh my god, he's the essence of leadership, especially in moments like those,'' Jackson said. "He was so unwavering in his confidence and it was calming. We weren't confident but at that moment, he told us calmly, `Men, we have them right where we want them…' You stop for a second and think, `Is he serious?' No, he right. We've got this. That's leadership. I'll be honest: There was a lot of doubt in a lot of people's minds at that point. But he quieted all those doubts, all those fears because of the level of respect we had for him, and we were confident in his belief and we believed even when we weren't that confident. I was 22 years old at the time. You don't know how to react but when you have the right leader, good things can happen.''
Harken back to 2006. The Colts' run defense was historically bad. A few weeks before the playoffs, the Colts surrendered 375 rushing yards to the Jaguars in Jacksonville. In my column, I wrote that the Jags would have run for even more yards, but the end zone kept getting in the way. There was no way this shoddy defense could take the Colts to the Super Bowl. Until it did. With a whole lot of help from Bob Sanders, who returned from injury and provided the defense with its heavily muscled enforcer. They shut down Kansas City. They held Baltimore without a touchdown. They played masterfully in the second half against New England and were more than good enough in the Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears. That defense did a complete about-face.
"I just feel like we were all fed up and had something to prove,'' Jackson said. "That’s the reality; we gave up 375 yards, we were sketchy against the run the entire season, and realistically, should anybody have been confident in that defense? No. If you looked at the results that season, there was no reason to be confident.''
A couple of things happened: Sanders returned to form. Rob Morris replaced Gilbert Gardner at linebacker. And the coaching staff went to work, insisting there was nothing wrong with the talent or the scheme, that it was just a matter of being responsible for your assignment.
And the rest is, as they say, history.
Now, though, Jackson is looking at his present and his future, one that has been heavily shaped by that special moment in 2006. As a player, he was very active in the community, and has continued to lend a hand to underserved people and communities with his Fight for Life Foundation. He has combined his passions for servant-leadership with his entrepreneurial spirit, helping to provide homes for people who need someone who care for them. Jackson grew up the hard way, moving from home to home, living with his high school football coach for a time, in large part because his mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Jackson's career was cut somewhat short by injuries, but in his mind, that was a blessing, even if it might not have seemed like one at the time.
"When I played at a high level, I was having headaches virtually every week, at least two or three times a week,'' he said. "When I think about the damage I was doing to my body, but the injuries pulled me away from contact, and over the years, I've healed. I still have aches and pains, but getting out was a blessing in disguise. Everything I do now in business, I use my mind, and it works just fine.''
Jackson's forever moment is our forever moment. It lives with him still, just like it lives with all of us.