Chuck Pagano walks into the Colts complex now and looks like his old self.
The graying goatee is back. The salt-and-pepper hair on top of his head is slowly returning. The clothes fit, and the 52-year-old coach is eagerly looking toward his second season in the NFL after staring down the biggest opponent of his life — cancer.
“You never think anything like this is going to happen to you. We all think we’re invincible,” Pagano told The Associated Press. “You see it a lot, you read about it a lot, but you never think you’re going to fall victim to something like this.”
Some people might be tempted to label Pagano the unluckiest man in football in 2012. He barely missed reaching the Super Bowl, lost Peyton Manning before he ever coached a game and was diagnosed with leukemia three weeks into his first season as a head coach.
Pagano, however, considers himself the luckiest guy in football.
He realizes now that if Baltimore had beaten New England last January, he would not have been hired by the Colts. Without being in Indianapolis, he never would have had Dr. Larry Cripe on his medical team or seen his old pal, Bruce Arians, presiding over one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history while Pagano was fighting for his life. He couldn’t have started this rebuilding project with Andrew Luck, either.
He’s lucky, too, that his persistent wife, Tina, kept pushing him to see a doctor for the unexplained bruises, lucky he had a city and a state full of people rooting as hard for him as they did for his team and lucky Indy’s bye week came so early so he could seek medical care.
“You’d love for it (the bye) to come somewhere in the middle (of the schedule) in case you have injuries and things like that so you can rest up and get ready for the rest of the season,” Pagano said. “Thank God it was where it was because I probably never would have taken the time. You know in coaching, it’s not like you can just call in sick, and so again, by the grace of God, it was after the third ballgame and I went in and got checked out, and I’m glad I did.”
Looking back, Pagano can see the signs were there months earlier. The deep bruises during a summer lake trip, the unusual exhaustion during training camp.
As the bruising became more prevalent, Tina Pagano pleaded with her husband to see a doctor, and like most football coaches in the midst of a long, grinding football season, Chuck Pagano kept pushing it down the priority list until Sept. 23. Hours before the Jacksonville game, he finally showed doctors the bruises and asked for their opinion.
Their answer came two days later.
“I get a phone call saying they found something that came back in the tests and I made an appointment for you with Dr. Larry Cripe down at the Simon Cancer Center. That’s when you’re like, ‘Excuse me, the Simon Cancer Center,’” Pagano said.
Being an optimist, Pagano remained hopeful that the second opinion would come back with something, anything other than cancer. Cripe asked Pagano to have Tina drive him to the appointment. She picked him at the team complex early in the afternoon Sept. 26 and along the way, she kept telling Pagano the diagnosis would be OK.
“Dr. Cripe walked in and said, ‘OK, Chuck, I’m 99 percent certain that you have APL’ and explained to me what APL was,” Pagano recalled, describing the form of leukemia they believed he had. “You really don’t have a lot of time to sit there and dwell on it because at first, you were hopeful that this was not the news you were going to get, so you have a moment there with your wife and then it was like, ‘OK, what’s the game plan. If this is what I have, what am I looking at? What’s the treatment and so forth? How long? When can I get back to work? What are we going to have deal with?’”
Cripe explained that acute promyelocytic leukemia is an illness with a high cure rate but chemotherapy needed to start immediately. Pagano didn’t even have time to go home and change out of his work clothes. He called Colts general manager Ryan Grigson.
Pagano recalls the conversation going this way.
Grigson: “Where are you? I’ve been looking for you all over the place, I’ve got some ideas I want to run by you.”
Pagano: “’I’m down at the Simon Cancer Center.”
Grigson: “What are you doing down there?”
Pagano: “Well, are you sitting down?”
Grigson: “Yeah, I’m sitting down.”
After Pagano told Grigson, there was total silence on the other end. Finally, Grigson started talking again.
Grigson: “You’ve got to, please tell me you’re kidding.”
Pagano: “I would not joke with you about something like this.”
The medical staff, understanding the need to keep this quiet until players and coaches returned from their bye weekend four days later, admitted Pagano under an alias. Tina Pagano came up with the name of a former Hurricanes player turned celebrity who lived near them when they were in Miami: Dwayne Johnson.
“The nurses would say, ‘What do you want to go by, do you want us to call you Mr. Johnson, do you want us to call you Dwayne or The Rock?’ And I said ‘What are you talking about?’” Pagano said.
Virtually everybody else was kept out of the loop until Pagano called Arians that Sunday night.
Arians, a prostate cancer survivor, was stunned.
“My first reaction was how is it? Is everything going to be all right? How’s Tina? How are the girls?” Arians said the day after he found out. “He wanted to totally convince all of us that everything was going to be great like he always does. When I talked to him, the football was the easy part of the conversation. Football is not who we are, it’s what we do. As players and coaches, it doesn’t define us, family does, faith does.”
The reaction from players and coaches was similar after they were told at a team meeting Oct. 1.
“It puts everything in perspective. We still play a kid’s game,” said Reggie Wayne, who met Pagano 16 years earlier when both were at Miami. “People living out there with life decisions every day. It just pushes me more and more to go out there and play hard and give it everything I’ve got, and in some kind of way bring home a game ball for him.”
Colts coach ready for future after defeating cancer in 2012
Chuck Pagano walks into the Colts complex now and looks like his old self.
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