UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: September 2, 2013

In the span of nine months, Chuck Pagano was given the best news of his professional career and then struck with the most devastating news of his life.

On Jan. 25, 2012, the Indianapolis Colts handed Pagano the reins of their rebuilding team and named him their head coach—his first top coaching job after almost 30 years as a college and National Football League assistant. Later it would seem all too ironic that Pagano took over a team whose helmets were marked with a horseshoe—a sign of good luck.

Nine months after leaving the Baltimore Ravens for Indiana, the life Pagano had dreamed of—and earned—was in jeopardy of coming to a tragic end as he sat in a doctor’s office and was given the startling news: He had acute myeloid leukemia. His bone marrow was producing abnormal white blood cells, interfering with his healthy blood cells.

The 2012 season was three weeks old, and Pagano was just days shy of his 52nd birthday when he finally listened to the urgings of his wife, Tina, and saw a doctor. He had been plagued by unusual bruises and extreme weakness for weeks—fatigue, he figured, that came with the territory of being a head coach. As a “football guy,” Pagano says, he never thought anything like this would happen to him. Most of his life had been spent in what felt like a bubble of invincibility. A football coach is supposed to be mentally and emotionally stronger than anything, Pagano thought.

“We all think the day will never come when you will run out of gas and the tank will be empty and it’s time to move on,” Pagano says. “Then you hear that word—leukemia—and you have a brief moment of why? But then you have to get on with this new reality and focus on, What do I have to do to get better?

Cancer does not discriminate. It doesn’t pass over famous actors, or politicians or football coaches. But what happened after Pagano’s diagnosis is a story that touched everyone in the game of football, and millions of people beyond. It smacked of a perfect Midwest charm—just the thing Indianapolis is known for—as the bond between the Pagano family, the Colts, their community, and the NFL as a whole made for the feel-good story of the 2012 season, or any season, for that matter.

A man who became the model of resilience and purpose, Pagano and his story transcend sports. Without his blessing or his knowledge, he became the face of a movement, Chuckstrong, the name that would symbolize an entire sport’s universe rallying behind one man’s determination to live on in spite of the tough hand he was dealt. After rounds of chemotherapy, drug and radiation treatments in what would become the longest season of his career, Pagano’s cancer is in remission. Life is more precious today than it was yesterday, and he says it will be even more so tomorrow.

“As we went through the process, and now being on the back end of it and looking at it right now, you can say, ‘OK, look, I don’t think God makes any mistakes,’ ” Pagano says, “My wife said there’s no way he would put us in Indianapolis and then have this happen. But it’s pretty clear now why it happened. Fortunately you have a platform to win football games and championships, but now you have an opportunity to give back to everyone else who is battling the disease. Whatever good this does, I’m going to take the time to give back to everybody I can give back to.”

The Luck of the Colts

The news of Pagano’s diagnosis and months-long treatment plan broke on Oct. 1, as the Colts were coming back to work from their one scheduled off-week of the season. With the head coach already in the hospital for an “arduous” stay of up to six weeks, the team was directed, on an interim basis, by Bruce Arians, Pagano’s top offensive assistant and close friend.

The two had inherited a mess in January, taking over a Colts team coming off a 2-14 season and a public relations nightmare in the impending release of iconic quarterback Peyton Manning. But the club’s dreadful 2011 season did put the Colts in place to draft a new franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck of Stanford, the No. 1 overall selection that spring, and they entered 2012 with the youngest roster in the league.

After the Colts lost the season opener, Pagano got his first victory in Week 2, a thriller against the Minnesota Vikings that came down to a late field goal. They lost again in Week 3, and when their head coach was taken from them, all signs pointed to a football season slipping away before it ever really had a chance.

Yet somehow, with Arians at the helm and Pagano watching from his hospital bed, the Colts won and kept winning. They pulled off an incredible upset in the first game without Pagano, beating the powerful Green Bay Packers, and later put together winning streaks of four games and three games. With “luck” on their side, the Colts became a team that played with the traits their head coach instilled during training camp—camaraderie, determination, accountability.

Meanwhile, down the street from Lucas Oil Stadium, in Pagano’s room at Indiana University’s Simon Cancer Center, the well-wishes and outpouring of support rolled in. The Indianapolis and NFL communities wanted to be part of the movement to support Pagano. Naturally, the Colts rallied behind their coach, but so did others from every walk of life—thousands of emails and letters came in from across the country, offering solidarity and prayers to the Colts’ field general. “Chuckstrong” became the team’s rallying cry.

To his players, Chuckstrong meant that if Pagano had to lose his hair because of chemo, so would they. One by one, the Colts shaved their heads in honor of their coach. Then, Megan M., one of the Colts cheerleaders, pledged to shave her head if Colts fans raised $10,000 for cancer research. Before she knew it, $20,000 was raised. So Crystal B., also a Colts cheerleader, said she too would go bald. Both women made good on their word, and had their heads shaved on the sidelines during a game.

It wasn’t just the Colts or their cheerleaders who were Chuckstrong. The Ravens, Pagano’s former team, jumped in as well. All of the defensive linemen shaved their beards, and defensive tackle Art Jones shaved his head in a show of solidarity with Pagano.

By November, while still undergoing treatment, the coach was able to attend a game for the first time since his diagnosis. On Nov. 4, following a win over the Miami Dolphins, the team’s third victory in a row, he offered a locker room speech for the ages.

Battling tears, he told the group, “You refused to live in circumstances. You decided, as a team and as a family, to live in a vision…. That’s why you’re already champions, and well on your way. I’ve got circumstances. You guys understand it, I understand it. It’s already beat. My vision that I’m living is to see two more daughters get married…. I’m dancing at two more weddings, and we’re hoisting that [Lombardi] Trophy together, men. Congratulations. I love all of you.”

Game Plan for Destiny

Spurred by emotion, the Colts fought hard and finished the season 11-5, making it one of the greatest turnarounds in NFL history. Arians became the winner of the league’s Coach of the Year honors for successfully guiding a team he never really thought of as his own. “I value anyone that calls me a friend,” Arians said of Pagano during an interview with NFL Network in March. “Chuck and I have been friends for a while. The things that happened this [past] year were so unique and different to make a friendship even stronger. What he went through daily [was tough]—what I went through was easy.”

Pagano, for one, disagrees with Arians’ assessment of the work he did in the head coach’s stead. “We are judged by our records, and at the end of the day you keep your job based on wins and losses,” Pagano says, “But this is a people business, and it’s always been about relationships and team-building. I am going to prepare and do everything I possibly can so I will not let the man next to me down. At the end of the day, win or lose, if you are approaching your job with that mindset, to prepare like a pro, you come to work every day to be best you can be.

“I want my guys to treat people with respect, play with great effort, and play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. And then whatever happens, happens. If the whole team thinks like that and has that mindset, then I guess—regardless of what happens—that’s success.”

While fighting for his life, Pagano relished the Colts’ play. By late December, he was cancer-free and able to coach again, making it back to the sidelines for the final game of the regular season, a win against the Houston Texans. It was the perfect cap to an improbable journey. After the contest, Pagano said it was a dream come true to be back, and his players talk about their season mimicking a movie script.

The Colts were back in the playoffs, but lost in the first round to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Ravens. But no defeat on the field could trump the victory Pagano felt for himself, his team and the friends who were there for him in Indianapolis and around the country.

As the Ravens raised the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans after their Super Bowl victory in February, they thanked one another and their fans in Baltimore. But they also thanked Pagano, their former defensive line coach who touched the lives of so many of them and who, while not in Baltimore, was still very much a part of their championship  run.

Then-Ravens safety Ed Reed called Pagano his “dad.” Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said, “I have tremendous respect for him, personally. I love his family. All of us got real close here, and he’s one of my closest personal friends in coaching. What he’s been through, and the whole thing, is just  phenomenal.”

Pagano chokes up recalling the sight of his friends in Baltimore honoring him while reveling in their Super Bowl triumph. “It was overwhelming and humbling and blew me away,” Pagano says. “It tells you that for all the bad things that are going on, the tragic things that are happening, there is so much good. There are just good people with good hearts out there.”

There’s Always Next Season

With his cancer in remission and luck or the Chuckstrong spirit in his corner, Pagano is ready for 2013, and this time, he plans to be there every step of the way. In late July, the Colts kicked off their training camp in Anderson, Ind., and the four-week preseason is already underway. The Colts are good again and there’s hope that they’ll be good for a long time to come, though they experienced a sizable turnover in the offseason, most notably Arians departing for Arizona to become the head coach of his own team, the Cardinals.

In the NFL, change is inevitable. But still in place for the Colts are the principles learned in the Chuckstrong movement—people are inherently good and ready to rally together when times are tough.

“They ask me all the time, ‘Are you glad life is back to normal?’ Well, I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same,” Pagano says. “I have so much inspiration and hope from so many people, letters, stories—my family, this football team. I told myself I need to get through this because I have a wife, three daughters and three granddaughters that are counting on me to be there for a long time. So now I have a chance to touch as many lives and as many people as I can.”

One of the best qualities a football coach can have is amnesia, the ability to forget the past—to learn from it, of course—but to focus on correcting it and perfecting the future. Pagano believes that in life, just as in football, we all are sure to be defeated at some point, but how we respond is what counts.