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Monday, June 23, 2014
Inside Slant: Pagano finds his own balance

By Kevin Seifert

A particularly ghoulish list has circulated around social media in recent years. Maybe you've seen it: The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, as recorded by a palliative nurse. No. 2 -- "I wish I hadn't worked so hard" -- seems most applicable to the NFL, where coaches and staff members work unimaginable hours for all but a brief window of summer.

Wrote the nurse: "All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence."

Sidelined
While recovering from leukemia, Chuck Pagano vowed that neither he nor his staff would sleep in the office once he returned.
Keeping that thought in mind, I spoke Monday morning with Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano as part of a series of interviews to promote his book "Sidelined." Did Pagano consider jumping off that treadmill after his September 2012 leukemia diagnosis? Even for a moment, did he contemplate a quieter life in remission with his wife, three daughters and three granddaughters?

"That never crossed my mind," Pagano said. If anything, his time watching the Colts from an Indianapolis hospital reaffirmed the place work has in his life. But for a minor concession, which we'll reveal in a moment, Pagano charged back into his job without a second thought.

"Besides my family, really for me, it's football," he said. "It's my only love and passion besides my family, and it helped get me out of that hospital. There was never a moment where I said, 'I want to do this or that if I get my health back.' The best medicine I got was watching that 2012 season unfold. That was enough for me."

I suppose it's easy to render judgment on another person's worldview, but I found Pagano's to be reflective of his industry. Ascending to a head-coaching job requires a singular focus, one accepted and supported by family members, and isn't conducive to drifting professional thoughts. NFL head coaches define themselves by long hours, pursuit of goals, and competition. They fight off adversity and avoid changing directions as a result.

Pagano was 52 at the time of his diagnosis, in his first year as a head coach after 27 years as an assistant. All of his time on the proverbial treadmill had built to that point -- and, he believed, brought him into a role that helped him navigate his illness. It was a time for a football coach to attack rather than run.

In the quiet moments of his hospitalization, Pagano made but one largely symbolic pledge that, for him, struck a balance between work ethic and life perspective: No more sleeping at the practice facility, for himself or his staff.

"I know that there are coaches who do end up sleeping on the sofa in their office," he said, "and that can be part of the business. But the one thing I told myself is that if I was fortunate to get out of the hospital and get back to the facility, that one thing I was going to demand of our guys was to go home at night. Working hard and working smart are two different things, and I wanted our guys to work smart enough so they could do that one little thing each night.

"If we're having to stay here and sleep at night, we're probably overcooking this thing too much. You've got to rest, even in this business. If you don't have your health, you don't have anything."

This seemingly minor demand is actually a big deal, and I hope it catches on around the league. Staying at the office all night is as much a show of disorganization, competitiveness and misguided face time as it is of strong work ethic. Some ambitious assistants feel uneasy leaving for the night if there are still cars in the parking lot, so Pagano makes it easy on his guys.

"If we have time and guys need to get out," he said, "I'll go 'Paul Revere' up and down the halls and kick them out of the building. If you're running on fumes, you get to a point of diminishing results. Get some rest."

That's about as much life-work balance as you're going to get from an NFL head coach, and it has served Pagano well since he returned to the field 18 months ago. He has been taking a drug known as ATRA (all trans retinoic acid) every three months for a two-week stretch, and his last dose is due in the fall. At that point, he will undergo testing every six months for three years to confirm his continued remission.

In the meantime, proceeds from Pagano's book will fund additional research to spur more success stories like his.

"Really, what this whole process has done is put everything in perspective," he said. "We all understand the expectations and pressure of this job. But in reality, we're blessed to coach and play a kid's game. We know what we signed up for, but this is what I do. Wouldn't want it any other way."