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.”