Chuckstrong: Leukemia Couldn't Stop Chuck Pagano from Living His Dream

By Yaeger, Don | Success, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Chuckstrong: Leukemia Couldn't Stop Chuck Pagano from Living His Dream


Yaeger, Don, Success


* 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. …

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