INDIANAPOLIS – Colts players assembled for a scheduled meeting Monday morning and took a punch to the gut. Coach Chuck Pagano has cancer. Life interrupts football.
You can't brace for that hit. You can't throw a challenge flag, ask for a video review overturn. You can't simply move on to the next play.
Pagano took the toughest blow, of course, finding out his fatigue and lingering bruises pointed to acute promyelocytic leukemia (APML), a cancer of the bone marrow. He's in the hospital, embarking on chemotherapy and other treatment. His doctors are optimistic the cancer can be attacked into remission. Yet Pagano's daunting road ahead would be shortchanged by reducing it to a few sentences.
This is a fix, but it's not a quick fix. Cancer is tougher than Ravens' defense, more pain-inducing than a Tom Brady two-minute drive, more relentless than the Green Bay Packers. “The process is long and complicated, and we are just starting it right now,” Dr. Larry Cripe, Pagano's doctor, said.
Cancer doesn't care how many wins your team has, what your upcoming schedule is or whether this is – as in the case of Pagano – your first season in your dream job.
Cancer just strikes and knocks everything else into a tie for last place.
“I think we're still in shock mode,” quarterback Andrew Luck said.
The good news is Pagano's attitude. He's a glass three-fourths full kind of guy.
He called offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, now the interim coach, on Sunday night, even making small talk before dropping the bombshell. Arians, who has known him for years, reacted as any friend would. How does he feel? How's his wife, his kids? What's next?
Pagano was already under the care of the IU Health Simon Cancer Center, already embarking on the painful, often nauseating and sometimes depressing route of fighting a cancer in the body. Most adults are able to fight APML into remission, studies show. There's no proof that hard-nosed yet optimistic football coaches have an even better shot, but that's what Pagano's friends think.
Colts defensive end Cory Redding spent time with Pagano in Baltimore. Pagano made an early call to Redding when he first took the job in Indianapolis. They're as tight as player and coach can be.
“Chuck has a great spirit, he's a great person and he's a man of faith,” Redding said. “When life hits us with obstacles and bumps in the road, like he said, it's just another bump in the road on the way to get a championship. That's how he rolls.”
Of course, it won't be as simple as that. Pagano will spend up to six weeks in the hospital and then face several months of continued out-patient treatments. While Colts owner Jim Irsay left open the possibility Pagano could return in some capacity, perhaps assisting in the press box later this year, he won't be back as the head coach this season.
Irsay called the news of Pagano's leukemia stunning, as fitting a word as any.
“I think short of death, this is probably the worst type of news you wanted to hear when you come in from a bye week,” Luck said. “I don't fully comprehend the severity of it or the situation. It will slowly hit us as the days go by.”
The Colts were immediately jarred on the field Monday, with Arians taking over as the head coach. No other shuffling will take place. Irsay couldn't pry the play-calling from Arians' hands with any amount of cold, hard cash. Arians joked that some of the offensive players couldn't believe he was cheering a defensive play.
For the most part, however, light-hearted banter was in short supply. The players have their regular Tuesday off before returning to the practice field Wednesday. The Packers are in town Sunday, and that's a tough task even under the best of circumstances.
“You get sad, honestly,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said of the initial jolt. “When I first heard, my heart dropped because you think about family members who have had it or some way you've been affected by it. …Chuck is a strong guy and he's going to fight this thing and he's going to beat this thing, no doubt in my mind.”
That's the word everyone used for Pagano on Monday: Fighter.
In the short time I've covered Pagano, and from reading about his character and background, that's a good word for him. He's a fighter. He's an optimist. And he'll dive into treatment with the attitude of doing whatever it takes.
I'm sure he also knows cancer doesn't fight fair.
Colts players will undoubtedly talk about winning games for Pagano. That's fine. There's camaraderie in the locker room, and love from players to coach.
The most important victory won't come, however, until Pagano walks back into Lucas Oil Stadium, undefeated by cancer.