2016 NFL Season

6 years later, Pat McAfee relives the night that saved his career

, zak.keefer@indystar.com

The last thing Pat McAfee remembers about the night that saved his NFL career was buying 100 shots of tequila.

“I wanted every single person in the bar to have a shot,” he says.

Soon they did. Soon it went dark. You know the story: It was Oct. 20, 2010, six years ago Thursday. McAfee was 23 years old, the Indianapolis Colts’ hippie-haired second-year punter, lover of the night life. An evening that began at the bars in Broad Ripple climaxed with a swim in the canal and closed with a night in jail.

The ensuing police report remains an all-timer. After stumbling upon a shirtless McAfee in a parking lot, the cops asked him why he was wet. “It was raining,” he replied. They asked him where his shirt was. “In the water,” he replied. They asked him how much he had to drink. “A lot ’cause I’m drunk,” he replied.

It got worse. A lot worse. From jail, called his dad. His dad hung up on him. When he exited jail the following morning, news cameras swarmed him. His attorney carried a bag of his clothes, still damp from the previous night’s swim. “I can’t believe I’m thatguy,” McAfee told himself. His phone was broken, so he had to apologize to his mom via Facebook message. He got a ride to the Colts’ facility, was told by then-President Bill Polian that he was being fined and suspended, then hitched a ride home with one of the team’s equipment managers.

“At that moment, I just wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear,” he says now.

Good thing he didn’t. The worst night of Pat McAfee’s life, he can say with conviction six years later, turned out to be the most important night of Pat McAfee’s life. It was the wake-up call he never knew he needed.

Because without that night – without the embarrassment, the punishment, the discipline and the soul-searching it forced him into – McAfee knows how that story ends.

And it’s not well.

“If it wasn’t for that evening, I certainly wouldn’t be in the NFL right now,” he says without hesitation. “I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with how I was living and still perform at a good level.”

That means no $14 million contract in 2014. No Pro Bowl trip the following January. No Pat McAfee Foundation. No blossoming career as a stand-up comedian. No Indianapolis 500 car sponsorship. Nothing.

“It completely changed the course of my life, it really did,” he says. “I was partying pretty hard right then. I was 21, 22, first time having a little money. I had money and it was awesome. (After my rookie year) I could basically do whatever I wanted. I was living, living, living. I just carried that into my second season. I was going out and having a good time, living pretty hard, pretty reckless.”

Then came Oct. 20. Then came rock bottom.

Then, a second chance.

After hanging up on his son over the phone – Tim McAfee didn’t want to get charged for the collect call any more than he had to – he drove six hours and showed up on Pat’s doorstep. The two sat on Pat’s couch in silence. Dad turned on the TV.

“And of course, the first channel we see is Dave Calabro from WTHR screaming, ‘Live, from the scene of the crime, the Colts punter has been arrested…’” McAfee says. “We flip to another channel, and it’s the same thing. We flip to ESPN, and it’s got it on the ticker.”

They turned off the TV. They talked. Tim McAfee told his son the world wasn’t ending, but he darn well had to fix some things. He told him he had two options.

“It was really one of those moments,” Pat remembers, “where, hey, you can either go this way or that way.”

McAfee paid his fine, served his one-game suspension, got his life in order and salvaged his career. He stopped the in-season partying.

He didn’t have a choice. The arrest sent him into the NFL’s substance abuse program. He lived it for 27 months. He was drug-tested eight times a month over two years and had to meet with a substance abuse counselor once a week over the same span.

“That means no alcohol, no nothing,” McAfee says.

It saved him, strengthened him. It forced him to focus on football. And what has he done in the years since?

Become nothing short of one of the best punters in the game. Not to mention one of the city’s most beloved athletes. In most NFL towns you won’t find a punter’s jersey anywhere. In Indianapolis, you’ll see McAfee’s No. 1 jersey everywhere.

He keeps the partying to a minimum these days. A few years back, he took Adam Vinatieri’s advice and cut out the junk food. He hit the weights harder. What followed? His first Pro Bowl nod.

He’s making his case for another this year. He’s second in the league in punting average, at 50.4 yards per kick. He’s fourth in the league in net punting average, at 44 yards a kick. He booted a career-long 74-yarder vs. the Bears earlier this month. That game might’ve been the best of McAfee’s eight-year career. Three kicks, 190 total yards, an average of 63.3 yards per punt. Not bad.

He’s punting better than he ever has. Give the tequila credit.

Call Star reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134 and follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer

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