INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Pagano stepped to the podium Monday, hugged his team owner, thanked his family for its support and wiped a tear from his eye.
He might, finally, turn out the lights in his office, too.
Nearly three months to the day after being diagnosed with leukemia, the Colts’ first-year coach returned to a team eager to reunite with a boss healthy enough to go back to work.
“I told you my best day of my life was July 1, 1989,” said Pagano, referring to his wedding date. “Today was No. 2. Getting to pull up, drive in, get out of my car; the key fob still worked. I was beginning to question whether it would or not. When I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn, Bruce, you had to go and win nine games? Tough act to follow. Tough act to follow. Best in the history of the NFL. That’s what I have to come back to.”
Pagano’s comment turned tears into the laughter everyone expected on such a festive occasion.
For Pagano and the Colts, Monday morning was as precious as anyone could have imagined when Pagano took an indefinite leave to face the biggest opponent of his life: cancer.
In his absence, all the Colts did was win nine of 12 games, make a historic turnaround and clinch a playoff spot all before Sunday’s regular-season finale against Houston, which they pegged as the day they hoped to have Pagano back. If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the first time since a Week 3 loss to Jacksonville.
Pagano endured three rounds of chemotherapy to put his cancer in remission.
That Pagano’s return came less than 24 hours after Indy (10-5) locked up the No. 5 seed in the AFC and the day before Christmas seemed fitting, too.
“I know Chuck is ready for this challenge. In speaking to his doctor multiple times, I know that the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey,” owner Jim Irsay said. “It’s been a miraculous story. It really is a book. It’s a fairytale. It’s a Hollywood script. It’s all those things, but it’s real.”
The reality is that he’s returning to a vastly different team than the one he turned over to Arians, his longtime friend and first assistant coaching hire.
Back then, the Colts were 1-2 and most of the so-called experts had written them off as one of the league’s worst teams. Now, they’re ready to show the football world that they can be just as successful under Pagano as they were under Arians, who tied the NFL record for wins after a midseason coaching change.
Pagano also has changed.
The neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and trademark goatee that were missing in November slowly have returned, and the thinner man who appeared to be catching his breath during a postgame speech in early November looked and sounded as good as ever Monday.
He repeatedly thanked fans for their prayers and letters, the organization and his family for their unwavering help and promised to provide comfort and support to other people who are facing similar fights. During one poignant moment that nearly brought out tears again, Pagano even recounted a letter sent to him by a 9-year-old child who suggested he suck on ice chips and strawberry Popsicles in the hospital and advised him to be nice to the nurses regardless of how he felt – and he never even paused.
“I feel great, my weight is back, my energy is back, and again, it’s just a blessing to be back here,” Pagano said.
In the minds of Colts players and coaches, Pagano never really left.
He continually watched practice tape and game film on his computer, used phone calls and text messages to regularly communicate with players and occasionally delivered a pregame or postgame speech to his team.
“He texted me and called me so much, it was like he was standing there in my face every day,” said receiver Reggie Wayne, who has been friends with Pagano since the two were working together at the University of Miami.
But the Colts found plenty of other ways to keep Pagano’s battle in the forefront.
They began a fundraising campaign for leukemia research, calling it Chuckstrong. Players had stickers with the initials CP on their locker room nameplates, and Arians wore an orange ribbon on his baseball cap during games; orange is the symbolic color for leukemia. At one point, nearly three dozen players shaved their heads to show their ailing coach they were with him.
That’s not all.
Arians and first-year general manager Ryan Grigson decided to leave the lights on in Pagano’s office until he returned. Pagano noted the team even installed plastic clips to make sure those lights were not mistakenly turned off while he was gone. Those clips were removed when Pagano arrived Monday morning.
And Arians said nobody sat in the front seat of the team bus.
“He’s always been our head coach,” Arians said.
So after getting medical clearance from his oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, to return with no restrictions, Pagano couldn’t wait to get to the office Monday morning.
Arians arrived at 7 a.m., three hours early for the scheduled team meeting. By then, Pagano already had driven past the inflatable Colts player with the words “Welcome Back Chuck” printed on its chest and was back in his office preparing for the Texans.
Players showed up a couple of hours later, and when the torch was passed from Arians back to Pagano, players gave their returning coach a standing ovation that Wayne said was well-deserved.
All Pagano wants to do now is emulate the success Arians and his players have had this season.
“I asked him (Arians) if he would lead this team and this ballclub and this organization and take over the reins,” Pagano said. “What a masterful, masterful job you did, Bruce. You carried the torch, and all you went out and did was win nine ballgames. You got us our 10th win (Sunday), and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity, and you did it with class. You’re everything that I always knew you were and more.”