Indianapolis Colts cornerback
"There was a
chance of him
making that tackle."
As much as Nick Harper knew that no game is over until it's truly over, he couldn't apply such devout faith as the clock ticked down on an AFC divisional playoff game against Pittsburgh on Jan. 15, 2006. The Indianapolis Colts cornerback was standing in his end zone with 80 seconds left. The Steelers had a 21-18 lead and a first down on the Colts' 2-yard line.
Colts fans streamed toward the exits, thinking the same thing as Harper: Ain't no miracles happening here.
Harper was so despondent that he barely listened to the exhortations of middle linebacker Gary Brackett in the huddle. He stood a few feet from his teammates with his chinstrap unbuckled. "I wasn't focused at all," said Harper, who couldn't help thinking about how a team that had gone 14-2 -- and won its first 13 games that year -- was about to suffer a humiliating upset. "I was completely nonchalant out there. I didn't care what was happening."
It wasn't until the Steelers lined up that Harper felt compelled to tighten up his helmet. The Steelers had brought in three tight ends, and Harper suspected they would turn to burly running back Jerome Bettis to ice the game. Because there were no wide receivers on the field, Harper moved closer to the line of scrimmage.
That's when a funny thing happened. Bettis took the handoff from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, barreled forward and found Brackett charging toward him. The football squirted into the air for what seemed like endless seconds before falling to the ground. "It was right at my feet," Harper said. "I saw a lineman to my right as I went for it, and I knew immediately what I was going to do. I hesitated for a second and he went right by me. After that, I was thinking one thing: There's nobody on this field who is fast enough to catch me."
Harper wasn't even thinking about Roethlisberger when he raced upfield. But after taking a few steps, Harper was stunned to see the quarterback racing to block his path. Harper's first reaction: Where did he come from? His next thought: He's not going to stop me.
Harper weaved right and then left to force the Steelers quarterback off balance. As Roethlisberger stumbled to the turf, Harper cut toward the middle of the field. "He was falling down, so I didn't expect him to reach out and trip me," Harper said. "But that's exactly what happened. Most quarterbacks are so ungraceful that they don't even touch you. There was a one-in-a-million chance of him making that tackle."
Nevertheless, Harper gave the Colts a chance to tie or win the game, but five plays later Mike Vanderjagt's potential game-tying, 46-yard field goal attempt drifted wide right. Harper said he's probably seen that fumble recovery "a million times since," and each time he thinks the same thing. "If I could do it all over again, I would've ran to the sidelines and taken off," he said. "I would've been long gone."
Gary Brackett, Cato June, Ben Roethlisberger, Nick Harper, Kendall Simmons, Jerome Bettis
"I thought it was over.
I was going crazy."
"The next day,
we still couldn't believe."
"I remember thinking,
'Jerome can't go
out like this.'"
"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