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. Indianapolis (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.”
Indianapolis 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?”