When you really think about it, it's a little strange to send reporters through the crush of half-dressed athletes in locker rooms after a game, all in pursuit of some nugget of special insight that almost never comes. But sometimes the strange can become sublime. And these locker rooms can occasionally convey a feeling that transcends the game story itself.
You may come across that feeling in March, when some losing teams in NCAA basketball tournaments seem a tad less devastated by the defeat than by the finality of it all. As a collaborative group, they will never practice or play again -- and the realization saddens them. That can make the reporter feel something that almost qualifies as envy:
Hey, must be something to belong to that team.
Last month, such a feeling appeared in a congenial locker room that would make any interloper want to stick around, hang out and meet more people: the practice facility of the Indianapolis Colts.
Now, usually, we wouldn't envy a team whose head coach leaves on Oct. 1, the day before his 52nd birthday, to begin three grueling rounds of chemotherapy for acute promyelocytic leukemia. But we do know that a good chunk of life's value comes from enduring difficult times, and we know that, as Chuck Pagano prepares to return to his team after medical clearance, the Colts have experienced much more than a 9-5 record and an unlikely playoff run.
Even without all this drama, if you had to watch any team exclusively this season, the Colts would have been a wise choice. They've had gripping comebacks against Green Bay, Tennessee and Detroit (the latter capped by two touchdowns in the final three minutes). And the pressure has been unrelenting for this cast of newbies. Interim head coach Bruce Arians referred to the 23-20 win over Miami on Nov. 4 as a playoff, and in that sense, they've been having playoffs just about every week since. Even when the Patriots annihilated them 59-24, I sat in Gillette Stadium and was so focused on the Colts' predicament that I unjustly ignored Tom Brady's sublime line: 24 for 35 for 331, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, 127.2 rating. Ah, yeah, well, seen that before from him.
It helps that rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has developed quickly (20 TDs and almost 4,000 passing yards before Sunday's game make it easy to overlook 18 INTs). But besides their phenom QB, the Colts have shown an esprit de corps, a quality that shouldn't be dismissed. In a league where the difference between winning and losing comes down to the small details, any edge is vital, as Arians suggested recently when he said the Colts play hard all the time while "most teams in this league don't play hard for 60 minutes." Some may interpret that as a dig to the rest of the NFL, but maybe the coach was trying to identify the Colts' special brand of camaraderie. "Teams find purposes to bond together," Arians said. "This one has found a purpose to bond together in a very bad situation where the coach got sick. Once a group finds a purpose and they actually play for each other…"
Still, the Colts' story does not settle into any neat category. There's no playbook for dealing with such an unexpected and devastating illness like Pagano's. The team's inspiration lies beyond a slogan or campaign or a clichéd dash of "perspective." It's a singular autumn that we cannot comprehend in its entirety, the concern over a first-year coach for whom the players barely had time to amass affinity. Outsiders cannot feel it fully and insiders feel it acutely, but everybody can take something tangible away from the narrative -- a collaborative human experience.
After a climb from 2-14 last season to the edge of the playoffs this year, and after the 8-3 run since the morning meeting of Oct. 1, when Pagano left the team, the Colts figure to have a chance to change their narrative once again. They'll have a moment when a well-liked first-year head coach walks back in after three months and three leukemia treatments and begins coaching again. The thought of that should be exhilarating even for a stranger who doesn't know the people or the particulars. And for the players and coaches in Indianapolis, it should conjure up feelings that, if not enviable, are certainly valuable:
Hey, it's really something to belong to the Colts.