INDIANAPOLIS – First they danced. Then they laughed. Then they prayed. Then Jim Irsay, the owner of these improbable, impossible 11-5 Indianapolis Colts, held a game ball and addressed a postgame locker room equal parts elation and emotion.
Standing in front of him was Chuck Pagano, the man he hired not 12 months ago in part because of his toughness; who in turn had proven tougher than even Pagano himself believed possible.
Most of the season had been spent down the street, in a cancer center, getting chemo pumped into him and then medicine to deal with the chemo and then medicine to deal with the medicine to deal with the chemo. And then more medicine after that.
He lost weight. He lost hair. He found tears. He found people in worse shape, with bigger challenges. He found humility in his good fortune … "treatable cancer" and, even better, treatable cancer that struck him, not his children. At the bottom, sometimes there is so much reason to be thankful.
He found inspiration in the support of his wife and daughters, in a well-executed play on practice tape and in sharing popsicle recommendations with the cancer kids he was suddenly living among.
There were days he could hardly move, of course, when nothing could lift him. He'd just lay there, sick. Others he mostly slept. There were nights when he awoke drenched in sweat, shivering under piles of blankets.
There was, Pagano said, never a doubt that he would return to the sidelines of Lucas Oil, to calling the shots, to a joyous locker room like this. He couldn't envision the team he left at 1-2 would wind up like this, but he never stopped believing it was possible.
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There were times, of course, he felt like it would never come. That this hellacious sickness wouldn’t pass, that the simplest of life’s moments (taste, smell, sleep) would never return, let alone coaching. Even on this cold Sunday, cleared for work, focused on victory, as he drove to the stadium, he struggled to pass the turnoff for treatment.
"That truck was pulling to go to Michigan [Avenue] to go that IU [Simon Cancer] center," he laughed with the team in the locker room.
So, yeah, there was one hell of a celebration here, not just for a 28-16 victory over the Houston Texans, not just for the way the Colts rose up in the fourth quarter, not just to mark this outrageous season, from 2-14 to a playoff game at Baltimore and, who knows, maybe even beyond.
"We said a long time ago," Pagano told the team, "that just because of the circumstances we weren't going to listen to anybody. We were just going to get together and build what?"
"A monster," they yelled.
"A monster," he said. "And right now we just hit our Mojo."
Mojo was everywhere here. There were roaring fans chanting his name. There were fellow cancer patients down on the field. There were cheerleaders with hair growing back from a mid-season, Pagano-inspired, fund-raising shave. There was a "ChuckStrong" banner in the end zone that proved so moving that even Houston's Arian Foster bowed before it after scoring a touchdown.
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There was all of Pagano's family in the stands, wife, daughters, the extended clan too. There was Pagano after the game shaking hands with fans, signing a football and stopping about every three feet in the hallways to hug players, coaches, stadium clean-up crew, whomever was offering.
"What a day," Pagano said. "What a day."
"It was a blessing," he said. "It was a blessing. I am very humbled by it and anytime you get taken away from what you know and what you've done you're whole entire life and all of sudden you're kind of sidelined, so to speak, and then you have an opportunity …
"It's like a dream come true again. It's the greatest feeling in the world to be down there … When I first walked out of the tunnel and to see everyone in the stands again, to see my family standing there again. Then we had the opportunity to see some people that were at the game that came a long, long way, that were battling things and have some circumstances, have some issues … very humbling."
Pagano never said the word cancer after the game. He never said the word leukemia. He never said the word chemotherapy.
Circumstances. Issues. Challenges. He's a coach. He never wanted to hear those words, hear what they meant when the moments were bleak. He figures no one else does either. A circumstance can be dealt with. An issue can be overcome.
In his darkest, most miserable moments, he used the promise of coaching again, of leading a team onto the field, to pull him through. Yet once he was back doing it, he didn't waste a second thinking back to those darkest, most miserable moments.
"Never," he said. "Not one time. It almost seems surreal to be honest with you."
This Sunday would've been no less glorious had the Colts lost, had Deji Kalim not returned a kick 101 yards, had Andrew Luck not found T.Y Hilton for a 70-yard touchdown, had Vontae Davis not picked Matt Schaub off in the end zone.
A man who spent most of the season laid out in the misery of a hospital was coaching in the NFL.
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But this is the NFL. There are winners and losers, and Pagano wanted this win, even if it meant nothing to the Colts' playoff seeding. And the players wanted this win because they knew their coach deserved it. And the whole town wanted this win because there is something powerful about winning too.
This Pagano believes. This, he says from experience, is the glimmer of hope that can help. He was asked what he wanted all the others dealing with "circumstances" to take from this day.
"You are strong enough," he said. "You have one thing that you will find out, that you are a lot stronger than you think you are. Have a positive attitude, wake up every day and have a faith, a belief that you're going to beat it and you're going to win."
And that's part of why Pagano can't wait to live what's next, to see what more he and these Colts can provide.
The playoffs are here, and why not keep going? You spend 20 hours a day sleeping, only awoken by nausea or migraines, and then a few weeks later you're whipping right past that cancer ward to get to a game. Suddenly managing rookie quarterbacks or stopping Ray Rice doesn't scare you.
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He reminded the team that they'd been writing their own story, against all the odds and all the critics the entire season. Why put away the pen now? Why stop believing anything and everything is possible?
So there was Irsay, back in that locker room, fresh off doing some silly jig with the head coach who had been to hell and back. The owner, surrounded by the players, was gripping that most special of game balls.
"This ball," Irsay said, "we all present to a guy we love and who's healthy as hell right now."
The place roared.
"And I wouldn't want to put the gloves on with him."
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