INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Pagano thanked everyone Monday in his return news conference as Indianapolis Colts coach. We should thank him.
We should thank Pagano for displaying the fight and persistence it took to battle leukemia as a public figure, putting his plight out there for everyone to see. He appeared at Colts games when possible, his head bald from chemotherapy, taking time on one occasion to talk to patients from Riley Hospital for Children at the game.
We should thank him for inspiring a team – now 10-5 and in the playoffs – to realize there's more to life than football but to give every bit of energy they can to their livelihood and passion.
We should thank him for being a role model of quiet strength, for stressing the importance of family – both his personal family and his extended football family.
Pagano entered the Colts practice complex pavilion to a standing ovation and fought back tears as he talked with the media Monday, his first public address since being diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia on Sept. 26.
“I've always looked at the opportunities I've been given and the many blessings I have in my life and that's what I try to pass on,” Pagano said. “It is a privilege to be standing here today. It is a blessing. I'll go about my business as a football coach and those types of things in the same manner.
“But what I asked the guys to do every day when they walk in this door -- the same way our coaches do and the same way I'm going to do – is work as hard as you can and take advantage of this great opportunity that's given to all of us. Live every day to its fullest.”
Pagano said his doctor, Dr. Larry Cripe, told him to be “prudent” in activities upon his return. Pagano has been cleared and resumes full head coaching duties. Bruce Arians, who filled in for Pagano in his absence, returns to the offensive coordinator spot.
Pagano joked with Arians about winning nine games in his absence. “Tough act to follow,” Pagano said.
There's obvious affection between the two coaches, and Arians has been superb in his ability to maintain Pagano's direction for the team.
Pagano talked about the people he encountered along the journey. He talked of the difficult task of watching the team from afar, whether in his hospital bed or at home. He talked about accepting the responsibility of being a public face in helping others battle cancer.
He sprinkled his talk with some anecdotes, including how much he appreciated the gesture – promoted by Arians on the day Pagano entered the hospital – of leaving Pagano's light on in his office.
Pagano talked of the people he has encountered.
“I got a letter from a 9-year-old who was diagnosed when he was 6 and he's now in remission and cancer free,” Pagano said. “He was smart enough to tell me, 'Coach, you can beat this but your attitude has got to be really good. You have to be really kind to your nurses. I know it's not going to feel good, but make sure you chew on ice in chemotherapy so you don't get sores in your mouth. …I prefer strawberry popsicles. You might want to try those, too.' ”
As I mentioned earlier, when Pagano walked into the room, he was greeted with a standing ovation. That included all the coaches, players and Colts employees in the room. It also included the media.
We're taught not to be fans as reporters. It gets in the way of writing or commentating on how awful the coach's moves are, or why this player isn't getting the job done, etc.
We all stood up for Pagano on Monday.
If there's one thing this traumatic saga has done, it's moved far beyond the sport and the games.
This ended up less about a coach's plight than about a fellow human's plight.
As Pagano mentioned, cancer has touched just about everyone's life in some way. Most of us don't know Pagano all that well. He even mentioned how incredible it has felt to be embraced by a city where he's still fairly new. But we could feel what he was going through.
We've seen the genuine affection the Colts players have for him. His closest players – Cory Redding, Reggie Wayne and Tom Zbikowski – were on hand to talk about him after the news conference. We've seen how they rallied to beat Green Bay the first game after Pagano took his leave.
All those late-game drives and wins don't necessarily make a lot of sense when you look at statistics.
There's something special, something unexplainable about this team, and it all goes back to Pagano. He put something in place leading up to this season, something that generated a natural reaction from his team to his situation.
Players love the guy.
The humility and fight he's shown while battling a tougher opponent than the New England Patriots deserves admiration.
Pagano worried that he had forgotten to thank someone by name when he listed all the people who have impacted his life. Even if they weren't named, they felt his gratitude Monday.
If there were more men like him, in good and bad times, the world (not just the sports world) would be a much better place.