Whenever the Indianapolis Colts return to Baltimore, they're seen as the bad guys by local fans who still remember the franchise leaving town on a snowy night nearly 29 years ago. In Sunday's wild-card game, the roles will be reversed.
No one outside of Baltimore is going to be rooting for the Ravens to beat the Colts, a team that has struck an emotional chord with the football world. The Colts have rallied around coach Chuck Pagano's battle against leukemia, going from the NFL's worst team in 2011 to a playoff one in 2012. Pagano has become a beloved figure since last month, when the largely bald and frail-looking coach left the hospital for a day to give an emotional locker-room speech to his players.
Anyone who isn't wearing a purple jersey will be pulling for ChuckStrong, the term that has signified Pagano's fighting spirit. And, up to this point, those wearing purple jerseys were rooting for the Colts and Pagano, who was Baltimore's defensive coordinator last season.
When Pagano was first diagnosed in late September, he sent a text message to John Harbaugh that the head coach shared with the team. When it was reported that Pagano's cancer was in remission, several Ravens tweeted #chuckstrong. Defensive tackle Art Jones even shaved his head in support of Pagano last month.
"He’s a great friend, and I have tremendous respect for him personally," Harbaugh said Sunday. "I love his family, and he’s one of my closest personal friends in coaching. What he’s been through is phenomenal, but we’re all competitors, so that gets set aside. They’re going to come in here with every intention of winning the football game, so we’re going to have to play our best football in order to beat them.”
Perhaps the closest Ravens player to Pagano is safety Ed Reed. Their ties date back to the time when Reed was recruited to play college football at Miami by Pagano. They exchanged texts as recently as Christmas.
"He’s like a dad to me," Reed said. "That’s family, which is first before football."
By Sunday, the Ravens have to beat the man they respect so much to get one step closer to their ultimate goal. And only the Ravens and their fans are hoping that happens.