INDIANAPOLIS — It took Chuck Pagano less than nine months to instill his fighter’s mentality and hopeful spirit in the Indianapolis Colts.
He will need both to survive the biggest battle of his life — leukemia.
In a somber news conference Monday, the Colts announced that their new coach had been hospitalized for cancer treatment and probably would not return to full coaching duties this season. He will be replaced on an interim basis by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
“He will do fine,” Arians said, his voice cracking as he recalled his own fight with prostate cancer in 2007. “I know him. He’s a fighter. He’s survived tough times already in his life. As a cancer survivor myself, I know that these first few days are really hard on you but as he and I talked yesterday, it’s just a matter of time.”
The news hit hard in all corners of the team complex.
Team owner Jim Irsay, who began his career as a Colts ball boy in the early 1970s, said the only comparison he could come up with was Vince Lombardi’s cancer diagnosis during the summer of 1970.
New general manager Ryan Grigson read stoically from his prepared notes, and Arians struggled to hold back tears.
After practice, players signed a get-well card that read in part, “We are in your corner 100 percent. Get rest, but we can’t wait to get our leader back.” The usually jovial comments were replaced by concerned looks and serious discussion about life — not football.
“When I first heard about it, my heart dropped,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “You think about your family members or someone that’s actually been affected by it. But Chuck will fight this thing and he will beat this thing, there’s no doubt in my mind.’
It didn’t take long for the Colts to figure out how to honor the first-time head coach who rekindled excitement in the locker room and around town after the Colts’ awful 2-14 season a year ago.
“I asked Mr. Irsay if we would leave the light on in his office permanently till he comes back and we are going to do that,” Arians said.
The news trickled out publicly just as players and assistant coaches were returning to the team complex after the Colts’ bye week and one day before Pagano’s 52nd birthday.
He was admitted to an Indianapolis hospital last Wednesday to begin treatments for acute promyelocytic leukemia, an illness in which the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells that interfere with healthy blood cells. Symptoms can include weakness, weight loss and easy bruising or bleeding.
Pagano’s physician, Dr. Larry Cripe, said the coach will be treated with chemotherapy and drugs — a process that usually requires patients to spend four to five weeks in the hospital. Irsay said he expected Pagano to stay a bit longer, six to eight weeks. Indy (1-2) hosts the Packers (2-2) on Sunday.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, the No. 2 draft pick behind Andrew Luck, wrote on Twitter: “Football is football. But Life is more important. Sending Prayers up for Coach Chuck Pagano during this trying time.”
Chargers coach Norv Turner, who has known Pagano since 1984 when they were both on the Southern California staff, echoed Griffin’s sentiments and acknowledged that Pagano’s younger brother, John, the Chargers defensive coordinator, struggled with his emotions last week.
“You get all caught up in losing a game to Atlanta and then on Wednesday morning you get a call that your brother has leukemia,” Turner said. “It puts things in perspective. John did a great job this week, unbelievable job, handling what he had to handle and then getting ready.”
Indy officials asked fans to send cards through the team headquarters, but said Pagano could not receive flowers. He is being kept in a “protective” environment where the air is filtered and hand-washing is essential.
And until Irsay and other front-office staffers walked into the team meeting Monday, players had no idea anything was wrong.
“The goal of the treatment is to cure the disease,” Cripe said, declining to discuss the survival rates for patients with this form of leukemia. “That means that he’s returned to a fully functional life, the life that he worked so hard to earn and he’s looking forward to leading the Colts to some Super Bowls.”
Cripe said Pagano’s wife, Tina, had been at his bedside each night. Irsay said she was the one who pushed him to see the doctor after noticing unusual bruising on his body.
With most players and coaches out of town over the weekend, Pagano, a father of three girls, notified Arians in a heart-breaking call Sunday.
“When Chuck called me yesterday, I was floored. I was down south at my home in Georgia and he was chatting like he always chats, and then he drops the news on me,” Arians said, remembering how he struggled to drive home after the doctor told him he had cancer five years ago. “My first reaction was how is everything, how’s Tina, how’s the girls, is everything going to be all right?”
It was yet another blow for a team that has faced more than its share of adversity over the past decade.
Seven years ago, then coach Tony Dungy’s 18-year-old son, James, was found dead in an apartment in Tampa, Fla. The death was later ruled a suicide. Dungy missed Indy’s next game, then returned for the final week of the regular season. In 2006, the Colts were jolted again by the death of Reggie Wayne’s brother, Rashad, in a traffic accident.
The few veterans still hanging around from back then hope to pass on the lessons they learned back then to one of the youngest teams in the NFL.
“Because it blindsided us all, we haven’t really had a chance to talk about that,” outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. “But we will relay that message because we’ve been through it.”
Irsay isn’t sure when Pagano will be back and said only that he hopes Pagano will be able to coach from the press box later this season.
Arians made it clear to the players that if Pagano can’t make it back before the Dec. 30 regular season finale, there is another option they can control.
“Why can’t we extend the season so he can come back?” Arians said.
Last year, after losing ironman Peyton Manning for the entire season because of multiple neck surgeries, one of the preseason’s Super Bowl favorite was terrible and wound up with the No. 1 draft pick and the impetus to rebuild. Manning, the longtime face of the franchise, and a handful of other fan favorites were released in March as the Colts embarked on a major rebuilding project — a project Pagano had been expected to oversee in the next big chapter of his family’s coaching legacy.
In addition to his brother’s stint with the Chargers, Pagano’s father, Sam, won three Colorado state championships as a high school coach but never took a college or pro job.
While the Colts attempted to take a business-as-usual approach at Monday’s practice, nothing was the same. Even defensive players seemed surprised that Arians was cheering when they came up with turnovers.
Grigson and Arians were still trying to figure out how the coaching duties will be handled during Pagano’s absence, and the focus was increasingly on things of far greater significance than just football.
“I think short of death, this is the worst type of news you want to hear,” Luck said. “We’ll do everything we can in honor of what Coach Pagano is going through in honor of his fight, which is much more important than this kid’s game we play.”
Universally, the Colts insist Pagano will win this battle.
They just hope they can give him a special gift next week.
“I know in meeting with the team, in meeting with the coaches, there’s nothing more than we want to get that Green Bay game ball and have a victory game ball and be able to walk that into the hospital and put that in his hands,” Irsay said. “That’s our goal.”