ANDERSON, Ind. – The weather here last week was glorious. Seriously, glorious. Mid-70s, warm yet not humid, sunny yet with a soft breeze arriving seemingly on demand.
It was blue skies, green fields and red bricks (of Anderson University, home to the Indianapolis Colts' training camp). And there was Andrew Luck leading a spirited competition against an impressive defense. It was a promising session for both sides, all to the cheering delight of a sizable crowd of fans. Can a coach be pleased with the quarterback and the cornerbacks?
"Throwing the deep ball," coach Chuck Pagano would say affirmatively. "Big chunk plays. We're making some big plays down the field."
And yet: "We feel really good now about our situation at corner. Vontae Davis. Greg Toler. Cassius Vaughn. Darius Butler. Some of these young guys. Making plays."
It was one of those days that makes the grind of camp in an otherwise small, out of the way factory town surrounded by corn and soybean fields, feel actually invigorating. The kind of day that would make Pagano, especially Pagano, grateful and strong.
"Wouldn't care if it was raining," Pagano said with a laugh.
This is a camp of dreams come true for the 52-year-old, if for nothing else than the uneventfulness of the pursuit; rain, shine or incompletion. In his worse days fighting leukemia last year, after the disease stopped his first season as a head coach after just three games, he hung a Colts depth chart by his hospital bed.
It represented the hope of something like this, weeks of just football not doctors, of watching practice tape not lab reports. Pagano eventually returned last season for an emotional Week 17 victory and trip to the playoffs, but as powerful as a moment like that was, this was his goal.
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Normalcy. A day of working his passion and still getting wrapped in time for a couple hours with his family before late meetings, a few hours of sleep and the chance to do it all again.
"Really, just being back to normal is huge," Pagano said. "And that didn't happen overnight for obvious reasons. No. 1, being in remission. No. 2, going through a whole offseason healthy. Then coming back and going through another training camp."
He looks fit, tanned and healthy. He wears a huge smile and walks fast. He never seems to stop smiling or joking. He's all energy and enthusiasm. "Thanks for coming out. Great to see everybody. Another great practice, another productive day."
If it wasn't for the ChuckStrong signs around here, who would imagine what he's been through.
"The way he's bouncing around," said defensive end Robert Mathis, "You'd never know he was a sick guy last year."
If anything this camp is easier because Pagano has some experience under his belt. No, last year didn't go as planned – missing 13 weeks of the regular season, going through three cycles of chemotherapy. You make it through that, breaking in a rookie quarterback who was replacing a franchise icon to boot, and this doesn't seem so bad.
"You know, there is no handbook," Pagano said. "You get handed a head [coaching] job the first time and there is no manual sitting on the desk. OK, head coach manual, this is Day 1, Day 2, whatever.
"All those things that came across your desk that never came across your desk before, the things you have to make decisions on. It's a lot easier to deal with that. This is a seamless year two."
Back down in Indy, the commute for Pagano from his home located northwest of the city to Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown is fairly simple. He takes Interstate 65 to exit 114, gets off on Martin Luther King Jr. Street, which turns into West Street and rolls almost directly to the stadium. Last year he envisioned it was a drive he would make for years to come, the hope and ambition of a first-year head man.
It took on a different meaning when he was sick. Suddenly it was his wife, Tina, doing the driving, Chuck often half asleep in the passenger seat of their SUV. And while they were retracing most of the steps, it wasn't a football game they were headed to. Halfway down West Street, the Paganos would hang a right on Michigan Avenue and proceed to the Simon Cancer Institute for chemo.
There the cure would often feel worse than the cancer.
It was on the morning of his return for the regular-season finale that Pagano realized the significance.
"Everything was the same," he said. "Except I got to the intersection of Michigan and that's when it dawned on me. The wheel was almost turning to the right. And so I'm thinking, 'I'm going straight through that light, straight through that intersection.' I kept on going right to Lucas."
No more right turns, just keep everything pointed straight ahead.
"And that's my commute [again]. I'm going to roll right by that intersection."
This is the inspiration of Pagano and even as much of the attention on the sick coach and resilient team has faded from the headlines, none of it is lost on the players here. The coach has a standard, demands it, and considering the enthusiasm he brings to work after what he's been through, who is to question it?
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"Treat every day as if you don't get a tomorrow," Mathis said, repeating the mantra.
"I take no days for granted," Pagano said. "You're not promised anything. I talk to the guys about that all the time. I talked to them about that long before I was ever diagnosed. It is a privilege, not a right, it is a privilege to play in the NFL. And we should never, ever look at it any other way. We're not promised tomorrow, so every day that we get, is a day that we will take advantage of."
He points around at the camp. There's talent all around, momentum from an 11-5 playoff season, a sense of excitement of what's possible.
"We have a golden opportunity here," he said. "I don't know, it's kind of like that [Tim McGraw] song, 'Live Like You Were Dying.' I'm doing that. Except I'm actually not doing crazy stuff."
With that he laughs some more. His family is waiting to get dinner. Fans are funneling off to head home. Across a parking lot, a group of players are loaded three deep on a golf cart, joking as they work the overextended motor.
The sun is still bright and crisp even as it begins a slow descent. A beautiful day is about to become a beautiful night. Here at Colts camp, here at Chuck Pagano's camp, that isn't even relevant.
It's blue skies every day.
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