Other than the premature speckles of gray stubble on his chin, Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett, 25, is the opposite of everything you'd expect from someone who has overcome so much at such a young age. In February, his older brother, Greg, died after a long battle with T-cell leukemia. It was Gary's third funeral in 16 months. His father, Granville, died of heart failure on Oct. 14, 2003, and his mother, Sandra, a nurse and ordained minister, passed away four months later after complications following a hysterectomy and from what Gary calls "a broken heart."
But, where you'd expect to see pain in Brackett, there is perseverance. Where you expect to see anger, there is peace. Where you expect to see confusion, there is clarity. "It's amazing and awesome the way he has handled this," says his coach, Tony Dungy. And largely because of that, Brackett, who was an undrafted rookie free agent from Rutgers in 2003, has emerged as the emotional leader in the middle of the Colts' suddenly dominant defense just as Indy prepares for its biggest test of the season Monday night in New England. "Everything we do radiates out from Gary," fellow Colts linebacker David Thornton says.
For a piece in the current issue of ESPN The Magazine, I spoke with Brackett for three hours during one of his recent days off in Indy. And for this week's column, I thought I'd share parts of our conversation.
"I live by the mentality that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. The easiest route through all of this would have been to shut down and feel sorry for myself; to mope around for months and expect people to feel sorry for me. But curling up into nothing doesn't honor the people who died. Actually, that would be doing them a discredit. After all the backbreaking things they went through to raise me up right, if I just up and quit as soon as adversity hit and let all their hard work go to waste, what would that say? To lose them and then to lose myself -- that would just make this all worse.
"You honor the dead by the way you live your life.
"It's like the roots of a tree. It might be dry or windy or flooded above, but underneath the roots are constantly growing stronger. No matter how much the tree gets slapped around up top, underneath the roots grow stronger. That's me. That's my faith. Things in my life have forced me to grow strong roots.
"I hear from fans and I get letters every day from people who have dealt with the same kinds of things. And what I try to show them is that even though all this happened, we still have to continue to live and strive on and reach for positive things to honor those who have passed. I live my life trying to do what would make my dad, my mom and my brother proud, as if they were still here.
"And the football field is where I get to do that and let all that I'm feeling go. The field is my release. They say if you make it through great storms that a rainbow will be waiting for you. Well, football is my rainbow. See, on the field you don't have the luxury of thinking about a lot of things at once. If you do, you will fail, horribly. My dad always used to say if you try to chase two rabbits usually both end up getting away. So instead of thinking or worrying or being nervous on the field, I just let all that other stuff go and I play clean and strong and fearless. What do I have to worry about? I know after what I've been through nothing on the field can bring me down.
"I play like they're watching me, my angels with the front-row seats. I play for them, and I play with them. Everything they taught me, I apply to the field. I can hear them in each ear -- I swear. My parents did the good cop/bad cop thing on me. My dad, he was never satisfied. If I made 10 tackles, he wanted to know about the 11th one that I missed. When I'm tired or I think I'm having a good game and I want to relax or settle, I hear my dad telling me, 'You haven't achieved anything.' And I stay hungry.
"My mom? I swear growing up I thought she had superpowers. She'd work all day, or sometimes all night, and then she'd still be at every game. It was like she could be at four places at once. I thought she had clones or something. My mom was the one who always told me I could do anything. So when I get discouraged or down on myself or I think I can't do something, I hear her telling me I belong here, on this level, leading this defense. That's the spirit that took me from a college walk-on to team captain and MVP at Rutgers and from an undrafted rookie who people said was too small to where I am now.
"My mom had a stroke after her surgery, and when she was on life support, no one was really stepping up to make a decision. No one wanted to be the bad guy. But I've been a leader my whole life. It just comes natural to me. So I took over. At first you want to give her every opportunity to live. You're selfish. You don't want her to leave. You want to keep her. But then things clear up and your faith takes over and you realize, God wouldn't need these machines to make a miracle happen.
"When we had our family meeting, I jumped up and told everyone we were thinking of it from the wrong perspective. I told them, 'We're being selfish; you don't mind the way she is because you can still see her, she still seems alive to you but she's not. If that was you, would you want to be kept alive like this? What would you say if you could talk? "It's time. Let me go," that's what you'd say.' And so that's what we did.
"We were in a similar situation with my brother. In the end, we had to decide on a DNR -- a Do Not Resuscitate order. And everyone was acting the same way, wanting to keep him around as long as they could. I remember talking to Greg's [10-year-old] daughter, Jasmine; she's my sweetheart and she's so far above her years. We were all searching for direction, and Jasmine kinda pulled me aside in the hospital and said to me, 'I don't want to see my daddy continue to hurt like this; can we just let him go on?' And so that's what we did.
"Losing my brother was probably the low point for me. I had given my bone marrow during the  offseason, right before some minicamp workouts. The medicine I took to get my white blood cells up for the transplant -- I had to inject the shots into my stomach -- it made me sick and sore and groggy, like I had the flu. Yeah, I was trying to move up on this team, but it was not a negotiable thing; he was dying, I couldn't say, 'Hey, I'm in my season right now.' They needed the bone marrow, like, right now. I didn't think twice about it. I tried to practice, and I could barely even make it through the opening warm-up drills. It felt like my heart was gonna pound through my chest, I mean, I almost had to tap outta practice. I didn't have that extra gear anymore.
"I went to coach Dungy and I hadn't even gotten the words out and he was already saying to me, 'Go, take as much time as you need, we'll wait you're good here. We're all here for you and, trust me, you're gonna get through all this.' A lot of coaches will tell you, 'Come by anytime, my door's always open.' But this was heartfelt, you know? Not a cliché. I really can't say enough about the Colts. I don't think there are a lot of teams or organizations that would have handled my situation like they did. This can be a rough business. I was an undrafted rookie free agent. I was warming up before a game once, and I saw the owner, Jim Irsay, coming toward me and I wondered if he even knew my name. Instead, he bends down and says to me, 'Gary, I'm with you, this team is with you, and we're all praying for you and your family.'
"There's also just something about coach Dungy -- the effect he has over people, his attitude, his brain, his personality, you just want to be around him and be associated with people like him. I swear, you almost want to have more team meetings just so you can hear him talk.
"Last year, we lost two in a row and we got blown out by Kansas City and he brought us together in a team meeting and said, 'In this league, when you lose like that, usually heads roll. If you were on this team with such 'n' such a coach and you lost a game like that, two players would be cut right now. Or if you were on this guy's team, four guys would be cleaning out their lockers right now. Me? I'm not about that kind of thing. This is the same team that just won five in a row. So we're not gonna panic or cut guys or lose our heads. We're just gonna correct some mental mistakes and regain our sense or urgency.'
"That had such an effect on this team, you can still feel it to this day. Knowing that we play for a coach who won't throw us to the wolves after one bad game. In the long run, it makes you want to play even harder for him.
"When I was younger, a coach asked a team I was on, 'Have any of you ever been run over by an elephant or struck by lightning?' No one raised their hand. Then he asked us, 'Has anyone been stung by a bee?' And we all raised our hands. 'See,' he said, 'life is all about the little things.' Everyone worries about the big things, but life is about the little things. It's not about the Super Bowl but all the tiny little things you do in the process of trying to win that Super Bowl.
"When you go through the things I have, that idea really hits home: Nothing is guaranteed except this very moment, except these little things you're doing from moment to moment so you better make them count. So I'm gonna ride this thing until the wheels fall off, until someone taps me on the shoulder and says, 'Son, that's it, you gotta go home.' And that's the feeling on this team, too. We're gonna ball till the wheels fall off.
"That attitude has helped me as a middle linebacker. We have to hit like buffalo and run like deer, but in the end, it's the little things that make or break you: the tendencies you pick up in film study, like guys leaning back in their stance before a pass play; like keeping your hips open to the play; good footwork; making the right pre-snap calls; hustling on every play, even the ones that seem over; learning to play with fast feet and a fast brain.
"At some point, football and grief merged for me. They're both a mentality. You deal with them the same way. You attack 'em at full speed. Whether it's grief or playing linebacker, you've got things swarming at you from all directions and you can either find a way or you can make a way. Whatever the obstacle is, I'm charging through and trying to knock down the wall. I'm not trying to go around the corner or take a shortcut or ignore it and let it fester -- I want to take it on, find an instant solution and deal with it right now. Some people shy away from challenges that they know are going to be tough. But I want to attack them, to conquer them, to knock down those walls.
"Sure, I still crash every once in a while. I start to think about all that I've lost, especially while watching movies, or with music or watching other guys call their families after games, and I am overcome with sadness. Holidays are tough. So are birthdays. How often do I think about them, about my dad, my mom and my brother? Every day, man, every hour. It's not something you can ever forget -- even for a minute. But at the same time, I think that's why I emerged from all of this stronger as a person and stronger as a linebacker.
"I want to be living proof for people that if you can make it through something like this, you emerge as someone who truly can do anything."
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.