There's something magical happening in Indianapolis. The latest chapter in this remarkable tale had finished playing out when the roar of the crowd had died, the final tear had fallen, the dogs had been ridden and the last step had been danced. The Indianapolis Colts had defeated the Houston Texans 28-16 to complete their 2012 regular season with an 11-5 record. On paper, the game meant nothing to the Colts, but to the men in the locker room, and the men and women who call the Colts their team, it meant everything.
It was the return of their coach, their leader. He had fought his leukemia, won, and was back to lead the team and the city into the playoffs. In response, the team, with their most complete 60-minutes of football all year, and the fans, with their loudest, most emotional performance in quite some time, said, "Welcome back, Chuck," with as much love and respect as they would for someone in their own family. Truth be told, when he took the podium for the first time as the Colts' Head Coach on January 26th 2012, he did become part of our family.
As is the case with many of my distant relatives, I don't know Chuck very well. Our paths have yet to cross at a family reunion, so everything I do know of the man comes from what I've seen, read, or heard about him in recent weeks, but rest assured, Chuck is at the very top of my "to meet" list for our next family gathering.
You see, I've come to the brilliant conclusion that Chuck Pagano is a fascinating, remarkable man – someone I want to get to know better. Sure, there's that whole, "got leukemia and kicked its butt with grace and dignity" angle – and that's a great angle to be sure – but what caught my attention, when the roar of the crowd had died, the final tear had fallen, and that last awkward step had been danced, was just how deeply Pagano must have touched a lot of people before he was diagnosed with, and then beat, leukemia.
It started with coaches and players around the league paying tribute to Chuck. There were the standard text messages and well-wishes – everyone interviewed had nothing but high praise for Pagano, as both a coach and a man. And then there were the opposing teams, starting with Jeff Saturday and the Green Bay Packers and continuing with Rex Ryan and the New York Jets, wearing ChuckStrong Shirts before the games, as a sign of respect and solidarity with Chuck. And who could have missed Rob Ryan's personal back-of-play-chart get well message?
Then there was the final moment, where Pagano's impact on everyone he'd ever come in contact with (and many he hadn't) became clear, in the most rare, amazing display of respect and emotion I have ever seen at a sporting event. Before taking the field in a game they desperately wanted to win to secure the #1 seed and a bye they desperately needed, the entire Houston Texans' team – players, coaches, and staff – joined in the crowd's standing ovation to welcome back Pagano. As Arian Foster – a man who never played for Pagano at any level – consciously paid his respects to the man, to the "cause," following his 13-yard TD run in the 3rd quarter, it became clear that Chuck Pagano wasn't a man who fought leukemia with grace and dignity, he was a man who lived his life with grace and dignity, and happened to get leukemia.
The next chapter in this story will be as unexpected as the last, though assuredly more happy and upbeat. On Sunday, Chuck Pagano will lead his new football family into Baltimore, the house of his old football family, to take on the Ravens in a playoff game even the most optimistic Colts fan – or Pagano family member – couldn't have dreamed possible 3 months ago, when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia and forced to take a leave of absence from the team.
The Colts were 1-2 then, coming off of a miserable last-minute loss to the horrifically bad Jacksonville Jaguars. With a team comprised mostly of rookies and veteran journeymen, with presumably no head coach to lead them, and with dates against the Packers and Jets (yes, they were considered good at one point) looming, it seemed as though the Colts would be relegated to a season of moral victories. We all know the rest: 9 real victories and 3 losses under Bruce Arians, Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis leading the way, remarkable comebacks, rookies contributing, and a lot of Luck, and the Colts are back in the playoffs.
Will they win? Looking around on Sunday at the sidelines, the locker room, the stands, and around the city, it became clear: Chuck Pagano and the Colts had already won.