ALWAYS READY

Colts running back Mike Hart's road to a game-clinching touchdown this past week was far from easy. 'It's been a long two years,' he says.

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Colts Running Back Mike Hart Worked Two Years Waiting for NFL Opunity

INDIANAPOLIS – He smiled, and Mike Hart said it was a good day.

This was this past Sunday, when the Colts' third-year running back had his biggest NFL moment to date, playing a key, high-profile role in a key victory.

Hart, a sixth-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft from the University of Michigan, said what he did on Sunday in substituting for injured Joseph Addai and running for a game-clinching touchdown was what he trained to do. It was, he said, his job.

But after a mob of reporters left, Hart said something else:

Yes, he said, it was his job. But after his past two seasons?

Well, it felt darned good, too.

"It's been a long two years," Hart said.

How long? Consider:

Hart, upon being selected by the Colts in 2008, immediately impressed coaches and personnel officials, earning a spot on that year's roster in a backup role. The Colts liked then what they like now – Hart's ability to enter a game prepared, play multiple roles and play efficiently.

"He knows the offense, number one," Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said this week as the Colts (3-2) prepared to play the Washington Redskins at FedExField in Landover, Md., Sunday at 8:20 p.m.

"He's certainly been immersed in it for quite sometime, so he can function without any hesitation. We don't necessarily have to curtail things when he is in the ballgame, so that was helpful, in terms of overall scheme, pass protection, things of that nature. But then also, he gave us a lift because of the fact that he was pretty tough in his runs.

"I mean, he converted a number of second downs to first downs, third downs to first downs and then, obviously, the run at the end of the game on the last drive was significant.

"He did a lot of things really well for us."

Hart did that as a rookie – albeit briefly.

After making the roster in training camp and preseason, he entered a Week 6 game against the Baltimore Ravens at Lucas Oil Stadium with the Colts ahead, 7-0. The Colts faced a crucial 3rd-and-2 from the Baltimore 24.

Hart appeared stopped in the backfield, made a defender miss, and gained two yards for the first down. The Colts scored on a 22-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Peyton Manning to wide receiver Reggie Wayne three plays later for a 14-0 lead en route to a 31-3 victory.

Two series later, Hart sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament. He was placed on injured reserve the following week, ending his season.

He returned last season, then spent time briefly on the practice squad before playing nine games and re-establishing himself as a solid, versatile reserve running back.

But before he did, he sustained a high-ankle sprain during the preseason. He was released by the Colts twice during the season – once at the beginning of the regular season and once briefly late in the season. He made the Colts' roster this season, too, and until Sunday, he had played sparingly.

And yes, he said, there were times during the process his confidence waned.

Not a lot. And not for long.

But he said doubts were certainly there.

"You always say, 'The hard work's going to pay off,' Hart said. "But you always wonder, 'When? When?' I got an opportunity and it was a lot of fun. I'm happy I did all that stuff – the rehab. I sat there and waited my turn and finally got the opportunity.

"In my three years here on this team, you always know you have to be prepared. There always is someone that goes down. You have to be ready. Coach Caldwell talks about that every week. No matter who you are, stay ready.

"You never know when you're going to get the opportunity, but when you do, you have to perform."

Even when Hart got his opportunity this season, it didn't exactly come easy.

With Donald Brown out the last two weeks with a hamstring injury, Hart was the backup to Addai. But last week, he sustained a knee injury in practice Wednesday and missed the next two days. It was, Colts Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian said, "touch and go, and it was something we were really worried about."

"He has always done a good job for us," Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said of Hart. "He has been very solid – kind of had an interesting week practice-wise. He got injured during the week, didn't know quite what was going to happen and the next thing you know he comes out and does a heck of a job for us.

"That is why you have to have depth, and everyone has to be ready every time out."

Being ready is something to which Hart said he is accustomed and said it's something he will continue to do.  And he said whatever Brown and Addai's availability this week, his approach will be the same.

"Anybody who's second on the depth chart knows you just have to keep working," Hart said. "You're going to get an opportunity sometime. It worked out. I never want to see anybody get hurt, but the opportunity came, and I just wanted to take advantage of it."

That's what he did for two years, a long time by NFL standards – and long enough, Hart said, to have a few doubts. At the same time, he said, what he did was all he could do – keep working, and keep waiting for what turned out to be a very good day.

"You think it every week, every week," Hart said. "During training camp you wonder, 'Are you going to get an opportunity.' You just have to be patient and things will work out."

In other Colts news Thursday, Addai said he expects to play against the Redskins Sunday.

Addai sustained a neck injury against the Chiefs and practiced on a limited basis Wednesday.

"I should be all right," Addai said. "It's just day by day. Sunday's a long time from now, so it should be good by then. I think I should be able to be in there for the whole game and be able to give 100 percent."

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