INDIANAPOLIS – There are only so many Sundays in a franchise’s existence when it plays for a championship.
Even rarer is when a title game’s final play determines the fates of the combatants.
The first chance in the Colts’ Indianapolis era to play for a title came on January 14, 1996, and that AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh ended with a do-or-die play.
The 9-7 Colts won playoff games at San Diego and Kansas City to get to Pittsburgh. There, the underdog Colts earned three leads – 3-0, 6-3 and 16-13, the last one coming with 8:46 to go, and it caused the man who eventually was the last player to touch the ball in the game to think something special was about to occur.
“I was next to Lamont Warren and Bobby Olive (who was inactive),” said Aaron Bailey. “We were poking each other saying, ‘This could be it.’ You dream all the time as a kid to go to the Super Bowl. When Floyd (Turner) scored (on a 47-yard reception), you saw your dreams starting to come true at that time.”
A gritty Colts team then forced a punt, but failed to convert a key third-and-one from its 29 with just more than three minutes to go. Pittsburgh survived a near interception and converted a fourth down on the way to scoring with 1:34 remaining to take a 20-16 lead.
A Colts team that battled from behind all season and was brimming with confidence found itself at its 16 with 1:30 left on the clock and with one time out. Bailey remembers the moment.
“It was ‘go’ time,” said Bailey. “When you’re in that two-minute situation, you think only positive thoughts. We thought we would convert whatever we had to. We were confident within ourselves. We felt we were going to win the game.”
Jim Harbaugh wore his “Captain Comeback” nickname to near perfection on the drive, hitting Warren for seven yards and Brian Stablein for 18 yards before rushing for eight yards and taking the team’s last timeout with :39 remaining.
Three plays later, on fourth-and-two, Harbaugh connected with Sean Dawkins for 13 yards and after scrambling for nine more to the Pittsburgh 29, he spiked the ball with five seconds left.
“When we crossed midfield, we felt like at some point we were going to take our shot,” said Bailey. “We had 11 guys thinking positively. We were confident we would make a play to go to the Super Bowl.”
It was the do-or-die time of which every kid has dreamed.
“We got in the ‘Hail Mary’ formation. Stablein had a 38-inch vertical leap, the best on the team, and he was the ‘jump man,’ and I was the guy who was supposed to get the tip,” said Bailey. “I remember running down and getting in position and when I turned around, I saw the ball coming right at me.”
Bailey had no time to think about Stablein. The ball was descending, and he was surrounded by a scrum of Steelers defenders that included Myron Bell, Darren Perry and Randy Fuller. All leaped for the ball and then crashed to the ground, with Bailey having the last chance at the catch.
“I realized, ‘Maybe I have to be the jump man.’ You see the ball coming down in slow motion and thought maybe I had to tip it to Stablein,” said Bailey. “Once I started feeling the (defenders) grabbing my arms, I thought, ‘I have to go up there and attempt to catch the ball.’
“We were jostling for position. Then, it happened,” said Bailey who was not able to secure the ball in heavy traffic prior to hitting the ground, thus he could not control it upon contact. The ball rolled off his stomach and grazed the ground before he could cradle it. “It’s one of those things you replay in your mind over and over and over. Everything happened in a millisecond. The next thing you know, the game was over.”
Back judge Tim Millis had the only clear view of the mayhem and signaled the incompletion. Had Millis ruled the bang-bang play the other way, there was no instant replay mechanism that could have corrected the call.
“It happened in a millisecond. It was so fast. When you watch things in slow motion, it looks like, ‘Oh, he had it.’ It’s so fast, like a blink of an eye,” said Bailey.
Bailey played with the Colts through 1998, then headed to the XFL with Chicago. A six-year career in the Arena League included stints with Carolina, San Jose, New Orleans and Grand Rapids. A neck injury in 2006, the year Indianapolis won Super Bowl XLI, ended Bailey’s career.
Bailey works as a learning and behavioral specialist in a middle school in Michigan. He remains a Colts fan to this day and plans to watch Harbaugh try to reach Super Bowl XLVII as head coach of San Francisco.
He hopes his former teammate makes the Super Bowl. While it would provide him a bit of closure, he remains in the position of answering questions about that last play in Pittsburgh.
“Sometimes you read in articles, ‘Aaron Bailey, the guy infamously known as the guy…” It’s part of being a professional athlete. Trust me, if I had had my hands on the ball, I would have caught it,” said Bailey. “I tell people who ask, ‘It’s a game where things didn’t go our way.’ People say it looked like I had it, and I tell them, ‘That’s how the ball bounces sometimes.’ I’m not bitter or upset about it. It didn’t define me.”