"I think he caught it."
Those words came out of Jim Harbaugh's mouth three times as he walked across the Three Rivers Stadium turf in Pittsburgh on Jan. 14, 1996 searching for a replay that would never appear on the stadium's Jumbotron.
Harbaugh had been dubbed "Captain Comeback" during the Colts season, and the final drive in the AFC Championship game against the Steelers that day was a microcosm of the pluck and guts the overachieving Colts had shown all season.
The drive began at Indianapolis' 16-yard with 1:28 left. It included a 4th-and-2 conversion at the Colts 48-yard line with 21 seconds remaining. And with five seconds to go, it came down to a Harbaugh heave from Pittsburgh's 29-yard line. The quarterback lofted a Hail Mary into the right corner of the end zone, and somehow the ball split two Steelers defenders and deflected onto the chest of Colts receiver Aaron Bailey as he was driven to the turf.
"He caught it! He caught ball!" NBC announcer Phil Simms yelled, his voice climbing several octaves. Harbaugh's mom, Jackie, was in the stands and to this day insists the ball never touched the ground. And Harbaugh, his helmet perched atop his forehead, his right forefinger sliced open and leaking blood, wondered if the Colts had pulled off a miracle.
"I think he caught it," he told Steelers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner as the teams gathered at midfield to shake hands.
The parallels between those cardiac Colts and Harbaugh's current squad are worth noting. Discarded by the Chicago Bears, Harbaugh pulled off four, fourth-quarter comebacks for Indianapolis that season, including improbable ones against the Dolphins and Jets and was named the league's comeback player of the year.
His first NFL pupil, Alex Smith, also wasn't exactly beloved by the city and franchise that drafted him. This season, however, Smith led six come-from-behind wins - that's not counting two in the fourth quarter on Saturday - and is the leading candidate to be the league's comeback player. Should Harbaugh's 49ers beat the Giants on Sunday, he'll return to Indianapolis, a city in which he still holds folk hero status for his mid-90s heroics.
Todd Stewart was a 29-year-old assistant public relations director with the Colts in 1996 and was standing beside the end zone where the Hail Mary descended. The stadium was loud and at full boil, but Harbaugh and the Colts had been pulling rabbits from their hats all season. All of the Colts staffers figured Harbaugh had one more trick up his sleeve.
"Three Rivers Stadium was a multi-purpose stadium," Stewart said. "They played baseball there, too. And I remember the fans jumping up and down in the stands. And the stands - they weren't going up and down a couple of inches - it was at least a foot. It was like an earthquake."
Then as the ball left Harbaugh's hand, the stadium went still. "When the ball went up in the air, I just had this feeling that Aaron was going to catch it," Jackie Harbaugh said. "I never saw the ball leave his body. It was right around his hip. To me, he had that ball. That's what I remember, and that's how close they were to going to the Super Bowl."
But the ball did slip off of Bailey's body, and it was the Steelers, not the Colts, who moved on to Super Bowl XXX.
Marshall Faulk, Indianapolis' young and talented running back, had gotten hurt during the season and didn't even take part in the playoffs. The Colts' nucleus would return in tact, and everyone figured that it wouldn't be long before Harbaugh and the Colts were fighting for another Super Bowl berth.
It didn't happen that way. The Colts made the playoffs the following season but were knocked out in the wild-card round. After the 1997 season, both the head coach and general manager were fired, and many of the players, including Harbaugh, who was traded to Baltimore, were let go.
"To be honest, my thought going off that field was there'll be other days," Harbaugh recalled on Monday. "Turned out that that was the only day." Harbaugh said he relayed that story to his team earlier this year, but didn't think he'd bring it up as a cautionary tale - these chances are fleeting! -- as the NFC Championship approaches.
"And I don't even know why I did that before," he said. "Usually don't think about the good old days or the what-ifs. Just think about what's in front of us. Making the future better. That's the main thing."
-- Matt Barrows