Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano turned 53 on Wednesday.
Such announcements are usually pleasantries rather than worthy of news coverage, but in Pagano’s case, it’s a poignant milestone because his celebration of this birthday became a matter of grave doubt after he was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago.
“A year ago on my birthday I was downtown at Simon Cancer Center, just starting that (chemotherapy) process,” Pagano said Wednesday during his teleconference with Seattle media in advance of Sunday’s Colts-Seahawks game in Indianapolis.
“I’m glad we’re a year removed, and feel very blessed and fortunate to be back to normal and be able to do what I love to do,” he said. “And what a privilege it is to coach this great sport.”
The story of Pagano and the Colts last season was the stuff of melodrama. He coached nearly 30 years before landing his dream job: becoming a head coach in the NFL.
And shortly thereafter he was emphatically reminded that maybe the job wasn’t as important as he thought.
It started with fatigue during training camp. But his first camp as a head coach could be expected to invite exhaustion – from stress if nothing else.
But dark purple bruises started appearing. And that was not to be expected.
On Sept. 26, the diagnosis
of acute promyelocytic leukemia prompted him to go on leave and start treatment, with Bruce Arians stepping in as interim coach.
While fighting the draining effects of the treatment that sometimes made him so weak he’d sleep up to 20 hours a day, Pagano kept up with the team via his laptop, and watched the daily videos of practices.
Dedicating the season to Pagano, the Colts, behind rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, bounced back from a 2-14 season in 2011 for a 9-3 record under Arians. Pagano made an emotional return for the final regular-season game and coached the Colts in their playoff appearance.
“It was a very emotional process,” Luck said Wednesday. “(It) put a lot of things into perspective. There were some great things that happened last year, but the most important was him coming back to coach. It was emotional – draining at times – but for Coach Pagano to be healthy was the best thing about last year.”
For his efforts in the interim, Arians landed the head coaching job with the Arizona Cardinals.
“It just almost seems surreal, as good as I feel, and to be back to normal,” Pagano said. He said he is considered in remission.
He is also in awe of the support he received, and of the way his team performed in his absence – many of them shaving their heads at the point when the treatments rendered Pagano bald.
“You sit back and think about what these guys did and what this coaching staff did, and what Bruce did that whole time was really remarkable,” Pagano said. “And it speaks to the character and integrity and what great people those guys are.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll watched Pagano’s progress last season.
“I know the impact he’s had; he has the ability to really move people, and obviously he’s inspired the whole program,” Carroll said. “He’s off to a great start as a head coach, that’s for sure.”
Pagano knows a great deal more about Carroll, recalling meeting him through a coaching friend when Carroll was head coach of the New York Jets. The indefatigable Carroll was walking through the facility dribbling a basketball looking for a pickup game, Pagano said.
“I respect the heck out of him and all he’s done for our sport and all he’s done for the National Football League, and the energy and passion he coaches with,” Pagano said of Carroll. “He’s been a great mentor and role model for a lot of us.”
The biggest compliment might be unintended. The Colts this season look a great deal like the Seahawks on both sides of the ball, and their stats are eerily similar.
That fact makes this week’s game between the 4-0 Seahawks and 3-1 Colts seem vitally important to each team’s fortunes.
But it’s certainly not a life-or-death matter, as Pagano will gladly remind you.