Indianapolis Colts linebacker
"The next day,
we still couldn't
Colts linebacker Cato June wasn't expecting any tricks with 80 seconds left in an AFC divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh on Jan. 15, 2006. The Steelers had a 21-18 lead and a first down at the Colts' 2-yard line. As soon as Pittsburgh lined up with three tight ends and sure-handed, bruising running back Jerome Bettis in the backfield, June knew what was coming next. "The Bus" -- as Bettis was well known -- was going to ice the game with a touchdown run.
June was deflated, but he wasn't ready to give up. He'd heard the encouragement that fellow linebacker Gary Brackett had shouted in the huddle. He believed that, if nothing else, the Colts could show their pride by stifling Bettis at the goal line. After that, it would probably take divine intervention for Indianapolis to have a chance to win the game. That's all June could hope for at that point.
The play started simply enough, with Bettis barreling through a hole carved out by his massive offensive line. June crashed into the line at the snap and quickly found himself eyeing an unlikely sight while fighting off a block. The ball was floating in the air for what seemed like an eternity after Brackett nailed Bettis a few feet from the goal line. "The ball popped into the air so slow," June said. "I had been battling a sports hernia all season long so I wasn't as fast as I normally was. But I still kept thinking one thing: Be the hero."
June, who made his first Pro Bowl roster that season for an Indianapolis team that started the year 13-0, wasn't able to reach the ball. Colts cornerback Nick Harper beat him to it. Instead, June soon found himself trailing Harper as the defensive back raced upfield. June thought a Harper touchdown was a certainty. The only player even close to June was Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and he wasn't fast enough to catch Harper in the open field.
That logic made perfect sense right up to the point that Harper faked right and cut left in an attempt to dash past Roethlisberger. The quarterback managed to extend his right arm just enough to trip Harper at the Colts' 42-yard line. "I thought it was game time when Nick got the ball and took off," June said. "When Ben tackled him, I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"
June was just as incredulous after the play. The Colts' All-Pro quarterback, Peyton Manning, couldn't move the team to a game-winning touchdown. Indianapolis kicker Mike Vanderjagt -- who had hit 92 percent of his field goal tries that season -- missed a game-tying, 46-yard attempt with 21 seconds left. Suddenly, a team that had finished the regular season 14-2 was eliminated. "We had beaten that team [26-7] only a few weeks earlier," June said. "The next day, we still couldn't believe. We were all asking ourselves, 'Did we really just lose that game?'"
Gary Brackett, Cato June, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Harper, Kendall Simmons, Jerome Bettis
"I thought it was over.
I was going crazy."
we still couldn't believe."
"I remember thinking,
'Jerome can't go
out like this.'"
"There was a
chance of him
making that tackle."
"That play was the turning point. ...
I told myself, 'We're going to the Super Bowl."
"Our game plan
was to seal the deal
and get out of there."
Ben Roethlisberger's tackle of Nick Harper didn't just save a game.
It ultimately saved a championship.
Photo by Steve C. Mitchell