The story of Indianapolis Colts Coach Chuck Pagano is quickly becoming one of the biggest of this NFL season. And that's because it's about more than football. A lot more.
It seems every NFL season delivers a story that’s a bit bigger than the game, about a little more than football.
Last year, it was Tim Tebow, with his prayerful kneeling and his unlikely rise from bench warmer to successful starting quarterback.
Tebow wasn’t the best quarterback and his Denver Broncos wasn’t the best team last year, but they certainly did capture the imagination of much of the football-watching world.
Tebow-mania was infectious, and even if you didn’t care about the guy or his team, many couldn’t stop watching. That may be partly because ESPN and other networks wouldn’t stop dishing it up, but it had more to do with the compelling nature of the story.
This year, that larger-than-the-game story is quickly becoming the tale of Pagano, the Colts rookie head coach. The Colts, like the Broncos a year ago, are turning out to be better than expected. In the Colts’ case, much better. They’ve already won as many games as the majority of pundits thought they would all season. It’s difficult to imagine this team was 2-14 a year ago.
The Colts, like the Broncos a year ago, seem to be finding a way, and the will, to win.
Any other year, and the focus would be more on Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the unbelievable numbers he’s putting up. But this year, the spotlight is shining brighter each week on Pagano.
That’s because Pagano’s story is one that encompasses more than football. Last month, Pagano’s fight to turn around a losing football team turned into a fight for his life when he was diagnosed with leukemia. His impact suddenly expanded from the Colts locker room and sidelines to a much larger world of leukemia and cancer patients past, present and even future.
While Tebow fought a tidal wave of naysayers and struggled with a lack of skills required to be a prototypical NFL quarterback, he faced nothing like Pagano is staring down this season. There's nothing more sobering than the type of life-threatening illness that Pagano is facing. And there's nothing more inspiring than watching the human spirit thrive under those circumstances. That's why I think Pagano's story has the potential to reach greater heights and have a broader impact than Tebow's. Though the final chapter is far from written on either man's story.
Pagano’s and the Colts’ 2012 story now has a much broader audience than merely football fans and sports aficionados.
Pagano’s heartfelt post-game speech on Sunday about his plans not only to hoist the Lombardi Trophy some day but to also dance at his two daughters’ weddings reached people on a level that has much more to do with humanity than football.
The Indianapolis community has been quick to support Pagano. As of Monday, the Colts have sold 9,735 ChuckStrong T-shirts for $20 each and 11,080 ChuckStrong bracelets for $2 each. The proceeds going to benefit leukemia research at the IU Simon Cancer Center.
There are bigger on-field stories this year. Atlanta’s quest to stay undefeated, Peyton Manning’s return to the field—in Denver, and the Giants’ drive for a Super Bowl repeat are all arguably bigger football stories than the upstart Colts.
But in terms of pure humanity, those pursuits of gridiron greatness pale in comparison to Pagano’s desire to dance at his daughters’ weddings.
And some day, if Pagano hoists the Lombardi Trophy as a cancer survivor, that will be a football—and human interest—story for the ages.