INDIANAPOLIS -- Not until he answered the telephone late in the 2003 draft, and heard an Indianapolis Colts personnel official on the other end of the line, did Cato June realize that his football life was about to undergo a dramatic change.
A safety his entire career at the University of Michigan, not a single scout from any NFL franchise had ever discussed with June in the month preceding the draft the possibility of switching defensive positions. At least not until the Colts contacted him during the sixth round and apprised June that his long, two-day draft vigil had ended.
And told him, too, that he was being moved to linebacker.
"I remember they asked me what [uniform] number I wanted," said June late Monday night, after his standout performance righted a shaky Indianapolis defense, and served as the catalyst for a monumental turnaround in a 45-28 victory that kept the Colts the NFL's lone unbeaten team. "And before I could even answer, the guy on the phone said like, 'Oh, yeah, make it a number in the 50s or the 90s, OK?' Right then, I knew that I wasn't a safety anymore, man. But I also knew that it was an opportunity and that's all you're looking for when you just want to play football, right?"
Looking for an opportunity to make a play that might stop the hemorrhaging on Monday night, and with Indianapolis trailing the St. Louis Rams 17-0 less than 12 minutes in, June came up with a game-altering play. His interception of a Marc Bulger pass deep up the left seam for wideout Torry Holt, and the ensuing 36-yard return, clearly marked the night's turning point.
Not only did the takeaway set up the Colts at the St. Louis 34-yard line, from where they would eventually score on a 1-yard blast over right guard by Edgerrin James, but it marked the conclusion of Bulger's evening as well. On the play, as the tried to chase down June, the Rams quarterback was blocked by Colts strongside linebacker David Thornton and suffered a shoulder separation that knocked him out of the game.
The effect on a St. Louis offense that came out of the prime-time chute quickly, and was having its way against a Colts defense that had surrendered a league-low 29 points in its first five victories? The Rams attack that was mixing in the power running of running back Steven Jackson and the big-play strike capabilities of a sophisticated passing attack?
The Rams scored 11 points in the final 48 minutes of the game, only three in the 45 minutes following the injury, as the suddenly resurgent Colts rang up 45 points in that span.
Officially, the Rams termed Bulger's injury a sprain of the acromioclavicular joint of his right shoulder. Translation: The smart money says that Bulger, who entered the game on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record, has a separated shoulder that could sideline him for several weeks. He suffered a similar injury last season and was out for two games then.
"I tried to work it out, but the more I threw, the worse it hurt," said Bulger, who had hit on 6 of 7 passes for 134 yards, including a 57-yard scoring bomb to wide receiver Kevin Curtis, before the interception and injury. "It's a killer, because we had everything going for us. We were running the ball well, throwing it up the field, and I thought we had them back on their heels at that point."
After the June interception, however, the Colts simply heaped insult upon an injury that could severely diminish the Rams' playoff chances.
"The whole complexion of the game," allowed Colts cornerback Nick Harper, "changed on two things. The interception and their quarterback getting hurt."
It was as if the flood gates suddenly opened, with Indianapolis taking the ball away on defense, and the potent Colts offense taking full advantage of the short field it was consistently provided. After going down 17-0 -- it was actually 10-0 before the Colts offense even registered its first snap of the evening -- Indianapolis scored on seven of its next nine possessions. The only failures came when the first half ended after a possession of only 30 seconds, and on the game's final series, when the Colts were kneeling down and running out the clock.
Of the Colts' six touchdowns, four came after defensive takeaways and fifth after diminutive wide receiver Troy Walters returned a punt 19 yards to set up a score. In large part because of the takeaways, six of Indianapolis' 11 offensive series originated on the Rams' side of the 50 yard line. The average Indianapolis touchdown drive was about 6 plays and only 37.7 yards. The Colts had only one touchdown drive of more than 40 yards, an 86-yard possession in the second quarter that concluded with a three-yard pass from Peyton Manning to Reggie Wayne, and two drives went less than 20 yards.
Manning also had a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Marvin Harrison, the 86th time the duo has hooked up for a score, a new league record for a quarterback and receiver tandem. Characteristically, the score came on a play where Manning checked out of a planned run, having seen Rams strong safety Adam Archuleta cheating toward the line of scrimmage, leaving cornerback Travis Fisher in single coverage on the outside. The record-setting touchdown came on a perfectly placed "fade" pattern.
But for all the scoring, with the Colts hitting the 40-point mark for the first time this year and the offense ringing up 363 yards, it was the defense that most stood out. The defense allowed just one fewer point on Monday night than it had in its first five wins combined, but the four takeaways the unit forced were huge.
In addition to June, the always resourceful Harper had an interception and fumble recovery, both of which were cashiered into touchdowns. End Dwight Freeney forced a fumble as did "nickel" rush end Robert Mathis, who notched a sack for the sixth straight game. So while the Indianapolis defensive effort might not seem terribly impressive on paper, or to those not in attendance here, it was a superb night's work.
"They certainly dug us out of a big, big hole tonight," acknowledged James, who ran for 143 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries, and added three catches for 16 yards. "I mean, after we got back to within one score and everything calmed down on the sideline and we started getting comfortable, they just took over the game."
Credit the trademark calm of coach Tony Dungy and Manning, and the poise of some of the Colts' veteran leaders, for not allowing the unbeaten club to panic. Dungy told his team to simply play as if the score was 0-0 and the game was beginning over again, to put some of the early mistakes aside and get back to playing the Colts' brand of football.
Earlier in the season, Dungy had hammered home the point that there would be game in which the Colts had to withstand a storm, overcome adversity, demonstrate the ability to maintain some calm when things were going south. He lauded his team Monday night for understanding that message. Manning called it a "test of patience." Dungy allowed that it boils down to staying the course, sticking to the plan, not overreacting. He agreed, though, that without June's timely interception, the turnaround might never have come.
"That was the play of the game," he said of the interception, which came with the Colts' in a "cover two" zone and June roaming 20 yards down the field in a deep seam. "But you have to be ready to make those plays."
June, just 25 years old and in his second season as the starter on the weak side, was more than ready. In addition to his game-changing pickoff, he had a second interception late in the third quarter that set up a touchdown. And he registered a team-high 11 tackles, along with two other pass deflections. For the season, June, who had just two interceptions in his first two years, now leads the NFL with five pickoffs.
In fact, there are only five linebackers in the league with more than one interception at this point in the season, and the Colts have two of them in June and middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who has two thefts. It is a sign of just how active the Colts linebackers, a group that receives very little acclaim because of the front four sack pack in front of it, really are. The Dungy defense is noted for quickness and June, who authored only three interceptions in his 36 games as a college safety, fits the job description that the Colts head coach and coordinator Ron Meeks have drawn up.
Pressed on what he recalled about his first NFL minicamp, when he had to line up at a totally foreign position, June feigned amnesia. And then he agreed that, as a rookie, his head was swimming his entire debut season, when he played primarily on special teams.
"The one thing I did know, though, was that because I played safety in college, the part of the move that would come easiest for me was pass coverage," June said. "I know how to drop, how to read the quarterback's eyes, how to move on the football. That stuff comes naturally to me. Plus, playing linebacker, you're not being asked to redirect a receiver like you are [as a safety]. You let the big guys up front tee off on the quarterback, just do your job, and good things happen."
Plenty of credit is due general manager Bill Polian and his scouts for projecting that June could make the difficult transition from safety to linebacker. And Dungy, who turned would-be safeties into linebackers when he was the head coach at Tampa Bay - he noted that future Hall of Fame 'backer Derrick Brooks was projected as a safety by many NFL teams and that Jeff Gooch was a college safety who successfully made the switch - was quick to laud linebackers coach Mike Murphy for the time invested with June, teaching him the nuances of the position.
So it was June in October for the Colts. The way the third-year veteran is playing, it might be June all season long, and perhaps a Pro Bowl berth for a player who is usually eclipsed by Indianapolis' other defensive stars.
"Sometimes you've got to be good and sometimes you have to be lucky," he sad. "There's a little bit of magic involved, too, you know? Right now, it's like I've got a big, ol' rabbit stuffed down in the magic hat that I'm able to keep pulling out whenever we need it most."