Tribune Star Correspondent
Chuck's back and the Indianapolis Colts couldn't be happier.
First-year head coach Chuck Pagano returned to take over the reins of the Colts Monday after missing most of the season. Pagano, who will be on the sidelines for Indianapolis' regular-season home finale with Houston on Sunday, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia in late September and has not been on the sidelines since a Sept. 23 home-game loss to Jacksonville.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was Pagano's hand-picked replacement. All he did was to lead Indianapolis to a 10-5 mark overall (9-3 under Arians) and a spot in the AFC playoffs as the fifth-seeded wild-card team.
"[Arians] was the first phone call I made on a Sunday after I was admitted into the hospital with this. I called him and told him of my circumstances. I asked him if he would lead this team and this ball club and this organization and take over the reins. And what a masterful job you did Bruce. You carried the torch," Pagano said during an emotional press conference, which also included players and members of the Colts' coaching staff in the audience.
"And all you went out and all you did was to win nine ball games. And got us our 10th win [of the season Sunday]. And you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity and you did it with class. And you were everything that I always knew you were. And more. And the entire coaching staff, all the work that you've done and you've put in, I can't thank you enough. I'll never be able to repay each and every one of you for the work that you've done. And to our players, for their effort and the work that they've put in, I told them [during a team meeting Monday morning] the sky's the limit for this group. There's just no quit. And that's because of [Arians'] leadership. And I thank you Bruce and the entire staff."
The Colts usually give the players a day off following a late-season win. But every one on the team's roster was in attendance of this week's Monday morning team meeting.
"We had a team meeting and was blessed to have everybody show up on a 'Victory Monday.' God bless' em. I'm ready to go. As [Indianapolis-based cancer specialist Dr. Larry Cripe] told me. He said, 'Be prudent. And be smart with how you attack this thing.' I've still got a stick regimen to stick to," Pagano said.
"There's a plan for a couple of years. And then for a couple of years after that. This thing [the Colts' season] is rolling pretty good. So, again, if I don't just get in the way. I feel great. My weight's back. My energy's back. It's just a blessing to be back here. Our time and energy has got to into moving forward and getting ready for the ball game on Sunday."
The first-year head coach was introduced by team owner Jim Irsay. General manager Ryan Grigson, who is also in his first season with the Colts, stood on the stage with Pagano and Irsay. Pagano's immediate family sat in the first row of the audience.
"We couldn't be more excited [about Pagano's return]," Irsay said. "Chuck is ready for this challenge. The time is right for him to grab the reins and lead us on the [playoff] journey. It's a miraculous story. It's storybook. It's real. I just couldn't be happier. The key thing is that Chuck is healthy."
Perhaps the most emotional moment of Pagano's remarks came when the coach directed comments to his wife.
"The happiest day of my life was July 1, 1989 when I married my wife Tina. I want to thank you [for her support while he was in the hospital]," he said, looking over at his family. "She slept on a cot next to my hospital bed every day that I was there. She's a warrior. She never left my side. You got me through [the bad days]."
He also thanked Colts front office and support personnel as well as his doctor, hospital employees for their help and support. Pagano also offered thanks to the media for respecting his family's privacy during his time away from the team and to fans, especially those in Indianapolis.
"I can't imagine a community embracing someone they hardly know," he said. "I knew the day that Mr. Irsay offered me this job. I knew that it was a great place and a great organization."
Hard act to follow -- Pagano joked that following in Arians' footsteps wouldn't be an easy task.
"Damn Bruce, you had to win nine games?," he smiled. "He's a tough act to follow. Best [interim coaching job performance] in NFL [history]. But I've got my hands full. I'll try not to get in the way. I'm like a kid in the candy store."
Pagano added that he was just glad that his keys to the Colts' coaching staff parking lot worked after being away for so long.
"I pulled up, drove in and the key fob still worked," he said.
Office light off -- When Pagano first entered the hospital to begin the first of three rounds of chemotherapy treatments, Arians said that he was going to turn the light on in the head coach's office and leave it now while he was away.
"Leaving the light on was the great gesture I ever heard of," Pagano said. "Clips were installed so [the light] couldn't be turned off."
Advise to cancer patients -- Pagano was asked about any advice he would give any one who was facing the same type of ordeal with cancer that he battled.
"To people with cancer, have support of your family," he said. "Your attitude, the way you attack this thing. It all seems so doom and gloom. You have to battle every day. There are going to be good and bad days. To everyone out there, it's your faith. Your belief. Your will. With that will, you can overcome anything."