On Sunday evening, the first images emerged from the Indianapolis Colts dressing room of an emaciated and clean shaven Chuck Pagano. His eyes were wide and the eyes of the players around him were partly dazed, partly teary.
He had just watched his Colts in the flesh for the first time since he was diagnosed with leukaemia over a month ago. They had beaten the Miami Dolphins and had, quite unbelievably, transformed themselves from last season’s worst team into contenders to make it through to the postseason this January.
Pagano received the news just days before he turned 52. It couldn’t have been worse timing for the Colts either because they heard about it during an off week that was coming on the back of a terrible loss — Pagano’s last game was spent on the sideline during a demoralising defeat to one of the league’s worst teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In retrospect, he revealed through spokespeople, he had been feeling tired, especially during the always stressful pre-season camp in August and September. As anyone would, he downplayed it as being simply the effects of adapting to his first year as a head coach of a professional team while also having to oversee a new staff of over a hundred, a chunk of whom he’d have to lay off before he’d even managed to get to know them properly.
But the problem was deeper and when the tests came back: he was facing into four to six months of treatment, including chemotherapy. Thankfully, it has always been stressed that his battle against acute promyelocytic leukaemia should be a successful one, although far from easy. Less importantly but still worrying would be the unpredictable effect it would have on his burgeoning career in the professional game at such a young age. Of course this wouldn’t be a story about sport if it didn’t have some dramatic redemption waiting around the corner. Even the man he insisted replace him as interim coach, Bruce Arians, himself a cancer survivor, evoked the magic of Hollywood when reflecting on what has happened to his friend and his team in the last month or so.
“The whole story’s for Spielberg,” he told Sports Illustrated. “I can’t explain it. No one can. I just know this: I tell Chuck, ‘You coach your ass off from the couch, and we’ll handle the rest. Don’t worry. The job’s gonna get done’. This next round of treatment’s going to be brutal. He could be down and out for a while. But he felt good today, and so he wanted to come in and see the guys. It helped, big time. It’s good for him, good for us.”
That stunning redemption began a month ago when, with their home stadium packed to the rafters for “Chuck Pagano Day” the Sunday after the diagnosis, the Colts secured an astonishing win over the Green Bay Packers. Trailing 21-3 at half-time, they came roaring back to shock the NFL world in the most unlikely circumstances. Fans in ChuckStrong t-shirts celebrated like it was Super Bowl XLI. Afterwards, the team’s owner Jim Irsay delivered the game ball to Pagano who was watching from his hospital bed not far from the stadium.
Before they took on the Dolphins Sunday, a pre-game team talk reportedly involved Pagano telling his players what it means to realise a vision and that he was going to beat his cancer like he would any opponent. Over three hours later, he was back among them, his voice weak but determined.
“I mentioned before the game that you guys were living in vision, and you weren’t living in circumstances,” he told them. “Because you know where they (the media) had us in the beginning — every last one of them. But you refused to live in circumstances, and you decided consciously, as a team and as a family, to live in a vision. And that’s why you bring things home like you brought things home today. That’s why you’re already champions, and well on your way. I’ve got circumstances — you guys understand it, and I understand it. It’s already beat. And my vision that I’m living is to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings, and then hoist that Lombardi (Super Bowl trophy) several times. I’m dancing at two more weddings, and we’re hoisting that trophy together, men,” he added as the roar went up around him.
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