<
>

Chuck Pagano stays strong

Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has temporarily left the sidelines but continues to inspire his family and his team. AP Photo/Jim Prisching

You want to talk about the speech, but I want to talk about the man.

In my hometown of Boulder, Colo., the Paganos were our Kennedys.

They were all charmers -- with biceps. I used to cover the dad, Sam Pagano, a high school coaching legend who picked off state football championships like a cop shooting carnival bottles. His All-State sons, Chuck and John, could flatten silos. Hell, their paper boy could've run for mayor and won.

They were the best our town had to offer. That's why it seemed impossible, that 1979 day, when tragedy moved into their house.

Chuck and John's sister Cathy was dead at 22. Killed in a jeep accident in California. Cathy, the bubbly one. Cathy, the one who always showed up with a chocolate cake for her dad after every game.

"I remember Chuck driving home from college, getting out of the car and just sort of collapsing into my parents' arms," says John, now 45.

The Pagano family picked themselves up and started leading again. The two boys became fine coaches in college and the NFL. John became the defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. This season, Chuck Pagano became head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Everybody from Boulder nodded and said, "Seems about right."

And then, late this September, tragedy knocked again.

Chuck's wife, Tina, was on the phone telling Chuck's parents her husband would have to stop coaching and fight a dangerous form of leukemia, right away.

"I could hear Tina's voice, but I went blank," Chuck's mom, Diana, remembers. "And I thought, just for a second, 'I can't take this much pain again.'"

In San Diego, John flinched at the news. "When you bury a sister, man, that's something nobody wants to go through. And then, when you get the word [on Chuck], it's something you just can't imagine."

But Chuck, 52, had three things going for him to stay alive: (1) With luck and grit and chemo, this kind of leukemia is curable; (2) he'd gotten a break with an early bye week to get some stubborn bruises checked out and caught it early; and (3) Chuck himself.

Chuck Pagano has always been as unstoppable as the wind and twice as unpredictable. In the first grade, his teacher called Diana and asked if she could tie him to his chair to settle him down. "Sure," Diana said, "as long as I can come down there and tie you to yours." He'll turn left when you think he's going right. But there's always a reason. The man could motivate a tree sloth.

"Coach Pagano's an inspiration," says Colts QB Andrew Luck who just shaved his head in solidarity, along with more than 20 teammates. "I love him. We all do." No wonder every Colts player wears a "Chuckstrong" T-shirt during pregame warm-ups.

But a constant chemo drip and 25 days in one hospital bed will get down even a 5,000-hour energy drink like Chuck. So when his brother flew in from San Diego on a rare day off two weeks ago to spend 10 hours with him, he had his own motivational speech to give him.

"Listen," John said before he left. "Anybody comes in that door, you show strength, you show grit and you show them how you're gonna whip this thing. 'Cause you are."

And so it was that when Pagano crawled out of bed, got cleaned up, and walked into the Colts' locker room after their win Sunday over the Miami Dolphins, you knew he was going to say something to put a lump in your throat the size of a grapefruit.

"He wasn't really supposed to talk after the game," says a Colts staffer. "His doctor wanted him to stay in a confined space with not a lot of contact with people, to avoid germs. But next thing you knew …"

… he was in among his players. He took off his hat for the first time and revealed his hairless head. In high school, he and his Fairview High School teammates used to shave their heads as a vow to beat one rival or another, but this time, it revealed something I'd never seen in a Pagano before: frailty.

Until he started speaking, that is, and then he was as Chuck as ever. With a cracked voice and glistening eyes, he vowed to his men that he'd live "to see two more daughters dance at their weddings" and to "hoist the Lombardi [Trophy] with you guys."

I cried watching it. His parents cried. Watch the video. Even the player behind him in the video cried.

"He just blows me away," his dad says. "He's such a leader, such a coach, such a man."

"He is reaching another place," says his mom. "He's got information coming from high places. I put Cathy in charge of all that."

"That's Chuck," John says. "He inspires me every day."

He starts another round of chemo this week, and it's going to clothesline him, just like the first round. He'll be flat enough to slide under the door. But I know Paganos, and they don't stay down long. He knows cancer turns things upside down. You have to get sick to get better. Bet you he's back on the sideline by mid-December.

The question is, can his family take the stress of that?

"I can," Diana insists. "I'm Chuckstrong."