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Coach Chuck Pagano’s fight against cancer inspired Colts

INDIANAPOLIS — First day, first practice back on the job, though it would be some time before Chuck Pagano felt his body was again at full strength. The chemotherapy was curative, but also exhausting, debilitating. The Colts rookie coach, diagnosed with leukemia less than a month into the 2012 NFL season, was told by doctors early that November that his cancer was in remission.

So here he was, the franchise Horsehoe hat back on his head, a life reclaimed and renewed, watching over the Colts kickers as they worked out at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. Pat McAfee, then in his fourth season as the club’s kicker, muffed one of his first kicks.

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“And I’m figuring, ‘Hey, this guy just beat leukemia, he’s going to be all happy-go-lucky, just super chill . . . you know, happy to have his life back,’ ’’ McAfee recalled Thursday afternoon, pondering what it’s like to be around a coach universally liked, and thoroughly embraced, by his players. “But you know what, I hit like a shank, and he chewed me out. And I looked at him with his, ‘Hey, you know, like lighten up, man, you just beat leukemia.’ ’’

Not quite. In fact, quite the opposite. It took Pagano nearly 30 years to land the gig here, his first NFL head coaching appointment, and less than eight months into the job he was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. So come back, be handed back the hope that he might one day see his daughters’ weddings, and laugh off the details? Even in practice? Nope. Not what the doctor ordered.

‘’He just looked at me and said, ‘We got a game to win,’ ’’ recalled McAfee, who’ll be with Pagano’s Colts in Foxborough on Sunday, facing the Patriots for the right to go the Super Bowl. “So Chuck’s always on task. He’s always been with us. I used to get texts from him when he was fighting leukemia and he would be watching practice film. Even though he wasn’t with us, he’d keep in touch with us, and it’s just awesome to have him back. His story will always be inspiring.’’

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Now 54 years old and with more playoff wins now than in either of his first two years on the job, Pagano’s inspirational story is being retold again under the spotlight that comes with the NFL playoffs every year. In successive weekends, the Colts first dismissed the Bengals and then last Sunday drummed out the highly favored Broncos, whose quarterback, Peyton Manning, not long ago was the main thread of virtually every football story line told in this town. Now the story is about Pagano and his faith, loyal, winning Colts.

On Sunday, the national TV cameras repeatedly showed an endearing shot of Sam Pagano, the coach’s father, watching intently, chewing on an unlit cigar, as he stood on the sideline in Denver. When it was over, father and son hugged as if they were back together at Fairview High in Boulder, Colo., where Sam was the coach, Chuck was a safety, and all that mattered in life was family, faith and football. Those three constants are what Chuck Pagano repeatedly has stressed as being the key components in his recovery.

Coaching odyssey

Cigar-chompin’ Sam Pagano will not be at the game in Foxborough.

“Too far for him, he’s 75 years old,” his son said Thursday with a smile. “He could barely get to Mile High Stadium from Boulder. He’s worn out from the last one.’’

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There is a rich Pagano football heritage in Boulder. Sam coached high school ball for over 20 years and won three state championships at Fairview. Both his sons, Chuck and John, played for him, and both have gone on to be career football coaches. John is the San Diego Chargers defensive coordinator. Such was the payoff for sitting around countless hours at home, reviewing dad’s high school game tapes.

“[Chuck and John] used to come to practice when they were little and play on the tackling dummies,” Sam Pagano recently told longtime Indianapolis columnist Bob Kravitz. “As they got older, Chuck would help the secondary coach, get him the balls, or John would help the linebackers coach.’’

Before landing the job as Colts coach, Pagano, who went on to play college ball at Wyoming (Class of ’84), lived out a familiar, if protracted, coaching odyssey, one that began on the USC sidelines as a graduate assistant in 1984 and 1985. He hopped around considerably for the next 27 years, more than half of those spent in the college ranks with the University of Miami, Boise State, East Carolina, UNLV and East Carolina. And prior to landing his first NFL job as coach of the secondary in Cleveland (2001-04), he had a second run at UMiami, a half-dozen years tutoring the secondary and special teams.

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The big career break here didn’t come until January 2012, by which time Pagano had coached two more years with the Oakland Raiders, and four with the Baltimore Ravens — with yet another year of college ball (North Carolina) sandwiched in between. When new GM Ryan Grigson called him to interview for the Colts job, Pagano was 52, old for a first=-time head coach in the NFL, and he was feeling particularly beat up given that his Ravens had just been dumped by the Patriots in the AFC Championship. Grigson nearly had to plead to get him to interview.

“It’s so hard . . . to win football games,’’ Pagano said Thursday, noting that the sting of losing that year to the Patriots still lingers with him. “It’s so hard to get to this point. All the sacrifice, all the blood, sweat and tears that these players and coaches, everything that they sacrificed — to be that close and not have an opportunity to go play for it all. When you think back on it, it still sits in your craw.’’

Nonetheless, Pagano sat for the interview, during which an impressed Grigson scribbled on a notepad to himself: ‘’Players will run through walls for this guy.’’

In very short order, Grigson offered him the job, to which Pagano responded with a succinct, “Let’s hunt.’’

Chuck Pagano led the Colts to an 11-5 record in 2014.
Chuck Pagano led the Colts to an 11-5 record in 2014.AP

Never giving up

The Colts were off to a 1-2 start in 2012, Pagano blessed to have a rookie quarterback sensation, Andrew Luck, in place to begin the franchise revival. But then came the stunning diagnosis of leukemia late that September, followed by weeks of chemotherapy at a local hospital, the top coaching job handed on an interim basis to then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Frail but undaunted, Pagano made it back to coach the Colts in their final regular-season game that season and then a playoff loss to Baltimore.

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“You know, I never lost sight of our vision from Day One, the minute I was diagnosed,’’ Pagano recalled following Thursday’s workout. “I knew what I had to do to get back, but I never lost sight of our vision and what our ultimate goal is. We’ve got plenty of work to do, obviously, to still obtain that goal, but football is among other things that got me back, and that vision is what got me back.”

Pagano, in partnership with Bruce A. Tollner, an NFL agent and author, came out last summer with his book: “SIDELINED: Overcoming Odds through Unity, Passion and Perseverance.’’ ChuckStrong, a charitable foundation born from his ordeal, has raised some $2 million in the fight against cancer. Two dozen Colts players, along with a couple of the club’s cheerleaders, shaved their heads in support of Pagano when those charitable efforts began in 2012.

“He is probably one of the most inspiring humans in the NFL,’’ said McAfee. ‘’You are talking about a guy who was fighting for his life for 14 weeks and returned to the sideline in the same season.’’

In total, from the time of his absence after Game 3 in 2012 until his return for the final regular-season game, Pagano was sidelined for 89 days. But “sideline’’ was only a technicality. Truth was, he kept a Colts depth chart taped on the wall of his hospital room throughout his weeks there. By October, he was attending home games, watching from the suite of owner Jim Irsay, and on Nov. 4 made a visit to the dressing room following an emotional 23-20 win over Miami.

“You know what? We just never really took any day for granted, just put things into great perspective for all of us,’’ Pagano said, asked if he continues to think of his health battle two years ago, especially when he’s on the job. “We know what a privilege it is to coach and play in the National Football League, and it’s not our right.

‘’So every day we come through these doors and we come into this building, we’re very grateful, we’re very thankful. Again, we don’t take any days for granted.”

Nothing for granted. Including such things as an errant practice punt. For Pagano, all the moments count.


Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.