INDIANAPOLIS –Marcus Pollard was a first-year reserve tight end watching from the bench when a last-second desperation pass fell incomplete in the Pittsburgh end zone and the Colts lost the 1996 AFC Championship game.
Eight seasons later, he was the only returnee when the Colts played New England for the conference crown.
The 2003 Colts were a potent group that finished 12-4, the first of an eventual NFL-record seven straight seasons with 12 or more wins.
The franchise was on an upswing and had defeated Denver (41-10) and Kansas City (38-31) with an attack so lethal that no punts were needed in the victories.
"I remember how talented we were to score all those points and not even have Hunter Smith punt," said Pollard. "I thought we had a good chance against New England."
The teams had met in November, with New England winning in the RCA Dome, 38-34. Still, Tony Dungy felt great about the rematch.
"We were hot and confident," said Dungy. "We had played New England around Thanksgiving and lost a game where we didn't score from the one-yard line. We were confident going in. It just turned out not to be our game."
The Patriots went up 7-0, and Indianapolis drove deep before an interception on a pass intended to Pollard ended a chance to tie the game. Prior to halftime, New England added two field goals and a safety when a punt snap went over Smith's head.
"We drove down early and had an interception in the end zone," said Dungy. "We hadn't had to punt in the post-season and the first time we punted, we snapped it over Hunter's head. It was one of those days we didn't play our best. It was disappointing."
The Colts fought back to cut the deficit to 15-7. Adam Vinatieri added two field goals for a 21-7 New England lead, but Pollard and Manning connected to cut the count in half with 2:27 to go.
"They were blitzing us quite a bit and Peyton called the protections," said Pollard. "On the previous play I had to stay in and block, so I got in a tackle stance to fool the defense. When I stepped back to pretend I was blocking, Rodney Harrison blitzed. I went right past him for an easy score. That showed Peyton's creativity. We never stopped fighting."
Indianapolis held after an onside kick and got the ball back at their 20 with 2:01 to go. Four passes failed, the last two to Pollard, against an aggressive New England defense, and Vinatieri added a 34-yard field goal with 50 seconds left for the 24-14 final margin.
"I remember how hard-fought the game was. It was anything but a 10-point game," said Pollard. "It was in their game plan to rough us up, throw our timing off and bump us off our routes. It worked. It's just the nature of the game.
"I remember Willie McGinest and Roman Phifer hitting me, and our receivers couldn't get off the line as easily as they had in most games. Peyton did a great job of finding guys who could make plays. We did enough to have a shot at winning the game, but not enough at the end."
The Colts were in the making, playing in the second of an eventual record-tying nine straight playoffs. It was a run that produced two Super Bowl appearances, and Pollard saw the future for the franchise.
"It was a talented team. We had a bunch of guys who could play. It was still spawning what was to come," said Pollard. "The next year Peyton broke the record for touchdown passes. I played on a lot of talented teams. That 2003 team was very talented. What I remember was the guys were there for each other and played for each other. A lot of teams say that's how they are, but that was what we were. We had talent and chemistry.
"Tony Dungy was great as the coach. To me, he was a quiet assassin. He relied on guys doing their jobs but at the same time, I felt he was the kind of dad you didn't want to disappoint. He really was in your corner, no matter the situation. He was always upbeat and had something positive to say. I think a lot of guys took the attitude I did. We wanted to do everything for him. He was not 'rah-rah.' He was detailed, 'Here's what we need to do. Let's go play football.' To me, that was what you needed to have.
"To be a part of that 2003 team showed me how important it was to have great chemistry and great coaching. What a talented team we had, and what a season it was."
Pollard left Indianapolis after the 2005 season. He had come into the program in 1995 as a free agent who had played only basketball at Bradley. He was given a workout upon the recommendation from a part-time scout named Ken Geiger. Pollard used that opportunity to make Indianapolis a long-standing home address.
Pollard left as one of the most popular Colts ever. He made it twice to a title game, experiencing disappoint in Pittsburgh and New England in AFC Championships.
While it is tough to get that close to an ultimate goal and not advance, there is an appreciation for the effort and teamwork that was involved.
"It was emotionally draining with all the hoopla surrounding the games," said Pollard. "To be that close to getting a chance to win a Super Bowl two times in my career, it was no easy feat. I am happy and grateful I had a chance to play in two AFC Championship games.
"I remember how hard we had to work and the price that had to be paid to get to that point. You were 'this close' to getting to the ultimate game. It's a little sad, but I'm grateful."