It must be something special to be friends with a guy who inspires the kind of performance the Colts delivered in their 30-27 win over the Packers on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“This is for Chuck,” wide receiver Reggie Wayne said, no other words needed.
The Colts wanted to win so badly for the ailing Pagano, who's in the hospital fighting acute promyelocytic leukemia, they simply refused to believe their own eyes. They refused to believe the Packers' 21-3 halftime lead. In fact, they started snapping at each other in the locker room, their passion to honor their coach with a win spilling into frustration. Then, they turned that passion back into fire.
Indianapolis' defense took its ire out on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, bumping him, hitting him, sacking him, forcing him to do things he didn't want to do.
That included a pass that Jerraud Powers picked off, leading to the Colts' first third-quarter score, a short, quick drive with Andrew Luck hitting Dwayne Allen. They couldn't stop Rodgers completely. He's as good as they get. But they sacked him five times in the second half and threw him off his game.
The offense responded, too. The patchwork line had its moments of flailing, including once where Luck was drilled by Packers linebacker Nick Perry, “a great pop,” according to Luck. But it came out the second half with renewed vigor.
Then there's Luck and Wayne. They haven't known each other all that long, first spending time when the No.1 draft pick flew to Miami for some preseason work last summer. But what a connection they've become now. Luck hit Wayne 13 times (or put it in his vicinity 13 times) for 212 yards.
Wayne sported orange gloves, his salute to Pagano, after finding out orange is the color to support those battling leukemia. He's known Pagano since they were both at the University of Miami, where Wayne was a player and Pagano an assistant coach.
“This did mean a lot, just with the whole deal with as far as the week's been going,” Wayne said. “I talked to Coach Pagano and he wanted us to win so bad, you know what I'm saying? He wanted us to go win.”
Wayne has had some great moments and some great games over the years. He wouldn't call this his finest hour, unequivocally, but I would. He pointed to the Super Bowl win as a bigger game. I suppose that's true, being the ultimate sporting event and all.
But this was more personal.
Here was a player honoring his coach by taking his massive skills and performing even better. Wayne's one-handed catch against the defense of the great Charles Woodson will be replayed all season. But the last drive was his time.
Wayne caught five passes for 64 yards, including the game winner, on the final 80-yard drive. He leaped for one third-down pass. He took hits and held on to the ball on others. On his last catch, the play of the year so far with 35 seconds left, he was sandwiched between defenders, held out the ball over the goal line and scored. Sheer will. Sheer inspired play.
“I told him after the game he's the best football player I've ever played with,” Luck said.
Wayne's inspiration wasn't money. It wasn't fame. It was his friend.
“I've been knowing Chuck for a long time, 16 years,” Wayne said. “Great human being, great coach, great personality, great husband, he (exemplifies) the word great. To be able to come out and just do it for him, I said to myself I was going to lay it all out on the line.”
Wayne, Cory Redding, Tom Zbikwoski and others have history with Pagano predating their time with the Colts.
Luck, on the other hand, hasn't known Pagano much longer than he's known Wayne. But if you wanted to see Luck's affection, it was on display when he ran for a third-quarter touchdown, ending it in front of the stands, patting the “#CHUCKSTRONG” banner mounted as a Pagano tribute.
Luck's continued maturity as an NFL quarterback is nothing short of astounding. He's unflappable. He makes mistakes, sure, but he runs the no-huddle offense like a veteran and he's not afraid to take the ball and run. He's throwing too much (31 of 55 passes for 362 yards against the Packers) out of necessity.
“He's got some big shoes to fill,” Wayne said, alluding to former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. “He's probably going to be in the dude's shadow forever, but my job, me personally, is to go in and help him identify his own personality and to give it everything I've got.”
Luck wasn't thinking about Manning on Sunday, of course. The Packers didn't give him time to think about much.
But like all the Colts, the one person on his mind throughout the day was Pagano. Colts owner Jim Irsay took the game ball to Pagano at the hospital after the game.
“We all out there wanted to do it for Chuck more than anything else,” Luck said. “To see the emotions on Mr. Irsay, BA's (Bruce Arians) face, the coaches, the players, it was very special and I'm just very glad to be a part of it. This was one of the greatest athletic moments I've been a part of.”
The Colts came back in a way that was improbable, unexpected and inspiring. They did it for Pagano.
I left impressed and envious.
Pagano must be one great guy to have as a coach, and a friend.