Deji Karim's return made Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano's return memorable.
In Pagano's first game on the sidelines after being diagnosed with leukemia, Karim's 101-yard kickoff return was the game-changing play last Sunday in the Colts' 28-16 win over Houston.
On the kick after the Texans took their only lead of the game, Karim cradled the football a step deep in the end zone. The former All-State running back from Putnam City North bolted untouched up the middle of the field.
“It was unbelievable,” Karim said. “Coach Pagano came over and gave me this big hug. He's a guy that has been through so much. It's the best feeling I've ever had, knowing how much that game meant to him and the whole organization.
“Words can't describe it. The atmosphere was ridiculous.”
The Colts' emotional season continues Sunday when Indianapolis plays the Ravens in Baltimore in an AFC wild-card game.
“We're so amped,” Karim said. “We're battling not only for each other but for our coach. We're definitely a force to be reckoned with.”
Indianapolis (11-5) is an underdog against the playoff-savvy Ravens. But it's been an emotional, remarkable season for the Colts, led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick following a dreadful 2-14 season.
In early October, the Colts announced Pagano would miss several weeks with a serious illness. It was soon revealed Indy's coach had a treatable form of leukemia.
When Pagano began chemotherapy treatments, Luck and three dozen Colts players shaved their heads in support.
Three months after the initial diagnosis, Luck compared Pagano's camera-flashing, pregame entrance out of the tunnel to a rock star running on stage.
“This has been a great year, a storybook ending,” Colts Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne was quoted after the game. “Let's keep it going. Hopefully we can continue to write this movie.”
Karim has played a cameo role, but was with the organization through training camp. Hampered by a hamstring injury, Karim was cut a week before the season. He re-signed with Indianapolis in early December to be Indy's kickoff returner and emergency running back.
Three weeks, later he provided the biggest play in a game the Colts dedicated to their coach.
“Coach's presence on the sidelines was amazing,” Karim said. “I don't think people could really understand it unless they've been on the inside. It's an added motive for the season. It makes everyone want to do their job even more. This team continues to fight just like our coach fought.”
Karim is experiencing his own version of a comeback. A month ago, he was a valet at the Renaissance Convention Center in downtown Oklahoma City.
After leading Division I-AA in rushing his senior year at Southern Illinois, Karim was selected in the sixth round by Jacksonville in 2010. He spent two seasons with the Jaguars, rushing for 290 yards on 98 carries.
Jacksonville released him after the season, but Karim signed the following week with the Colts. In March, he married his high school sweetheart, MacKenzie.
He went through offseason workouts with Indianapolis. Everything changed in early September when the Colts released him. He waited. And waited some more.
“It's really tough,” Karim said. “You want someone to call. I stayed in shape. You have to stay with it, you have to stay strong.”
The Bengals and Texans gave Karim tryouts in October, but neither team signed him.
A month later he took the valet job the week after Thanksgiving.
“I had lost my (NFL) job and was tired of living off the money I had made (in Jacksonville),” Karim said. “I had to adjust my lifestyle for the time being.”
Two weeks later, the Colts called after Indy lost running back Donald Brown and fullback Robert Hughes to season-ending injuries on the same play. The Colts signed Karim on Dec. 11.
“They told me, ‘You were here before. You're part of this family,'” Karim said. “I was so excited. At the same time I realized you can't take anything for granted. You have to produce.”
Karim produced a 101-yard kickoff return, the longest since the organization moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis. Karim's return will make the Colts' season highlight tape and improve his chances of extending his career.
After the game, Pagano and his players danced in the locker room. At one point, Pagano hugged team owner Jim Irsay. The pair danced together. It was a heartwarming scene for an inspirational team and its coach.
“It's something I'll remember the rest of my life,” Karim said. “This is a team that had a lot of things happen this year. It's made everyone closer. I'm just happy to be part of it and will do whatever I can to add to it.”