It's not the norm for the media to give a coach a standing ovation at the start of a press conference, but what happened Monday in Indianapolis was far from ordinary. When Colts head coach Chuck Pagano stepped onto a stage at the team's headquarters, he received a standing ovation from local media. It was a fitting response to a man who has been through more, and shown more courage than most, in the last few months. Diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 26, Pagano battled his way back through treatment, and has been given the go-ahead from his doctors to return to work.
On Monday, Pagano was visibly moved by the response. He hugged team owner Jim Irsay, who when opened the proceedings with his own statement.
"It's great to be here on Christmas Eve, and what a joyous occasion," Irsay said. "We're in the playoffs, and we're ecstatic about that, but the main thing we're ecstatic about is Chuck is here, and he's healthy. Thinking back to several months ago, and what we were facing, and how it felt during those times ... to be here now, it's just a joy. I just want to thank everyone -- the entire state of Indiana, people throughout the country who have prayed and got behind Chuck and sent all the positive prayers and energy. It's meant so much to him. I know that Chuck is ready for this challenge [after] speaking to his doctor multiple times. I know the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap back on, and begin the second half of the season, which includes one more game and the playoffs."
When Pagano was introduced to the podium, he was emotional from the start.
"The happiest day of my life was July 1, 1989, and that's when I got married to my wife, Tina," Pagano said. "She's a soldier, a warrior, and my soulmate. And my family -- my mom and dad, and my daughters. You can't get through something like this without someone as strong and loving as your family. I thank you, Tina."
Pagano remembered how his wife slept on "this raggedy bed ... she never left my side" when he was at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center getting treatment. "We were there 25 days, and you got me through."
Pagano then discussed what he went through, what he learned from it, and how he taught from it.
"Circumstances ... they don't make you," he said. "They reveal you. And there's things that go on in the National Football League, and around our communities, in our neighborhoods, around the world, around the country, around our city, you just shake your head at. And you ask, 'Why?' A couple ballpalyers we lost in recent weeks, what happened [at Sandy Hook Elementary,] you wonder why.
"And then you ask yourself, September 26, when I sat in front of the doctor and he told me exactly what I had ... for a second there, you might sit back and say, 'Why?' Well, again, circumstances don't make you -- they reveal you. And what was revealed to me, along with the love and support of my wife and my family, was that my owner, Jim Irsay and his family ... there's not a better man in the entire National Football League."
Through his press conference, Pagano repeatedly stopped to wipe the tears from his eyes. It was a wonderful and emotional moment.
The groundwork that Pagano set before he had to take care of himself was clearly shown in his absence. Offensive coordinator and interim head coach Bruce Arians led a young and developing team to a 10-5 record, and the support given to Pagano was tied to performances and actions on and off the field in ways you rarely see in any endeavor.
"The job that Bruce has done has been tremendous -- that's what a team is about," Irsay said. Chuck has inspired so many people -- I think the great thing about the National Football League is that there's so much attention that gets paid to our sport, because it's obviously the most popular sport in the country. So many other things happen besides wins and losses, and the inspiration Chuck has shown to others, and the time he's spend connecting to others. It's been a miraculous story."
For Pagano, the task is now much bigger than the one he had before that diagnosis. Now, it's not just about being a leader of men -- it's about being a true inspiration.
"The way I look at it is, my job has just begun," he said. "Besides my job here, my job now is to give back everything I can possibly give back to everyone out there who's fighting some type of illness, some type of disease, some type of cancer."
Given the strength Pagano was able to draw from the thoughts and prayers of others, he clearly believes that he must use his own new-found strength to give back in the same way. And there's little doubt he'll do everything in his power to make that happen.
We say it with pure joy and no journalistic objectivity whatsoever: Welcome back, Coach. And Merry Christmas.
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