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Sports Business

Circumstances thrust Pagano into spotlight; his vision keeps him there

December 26, 2012

Four months ago, most Indianapolis Colts fans, let alone central Indiana residents, couldn't pick Chuck Pagano out of a lineup.

Today, my 87-year old mother, who has never watched more than a handful of Colts plays in her life, knows his story.

Dr. Larry Cripe of the IU Simon Cancer Center was told in September that his newest patient was the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Cripe walked right past Pagano without recognizing him.

Cripe said he was looking for someone bigger, tougher, maybe more grizzled and perhaps adorned in gaudy jewelery. He envisioned Bill Belichick or Mike Ditka. Instead he found himself looking at an unassuming fellow sipping a cup of coffee.

The moment was pure Pagano, a man preferring to work behind the scenes in the glitzy world of the NFL. He seldom sought the spotlight, and he rarely found himself in it.

He is the type of guy who prefers carrying a lunch pail to ordering room service. He’s all Pabst Blue Ribbon and never Dom Perignon

He was the yin to the Twitter-loving, sometimes-boisterous, always-colorful Colts owner Jim Irsay's yang.

Pagano grew up in Colorado, the son of a longtime high school coach, and played football at the University of Wyoming. His 29-year coaching career included 14 stops—from the University of Miami to Boise State, from the Oakland Raiders to the Baltimore Ravens.

His relative anonymity ended abruptly when, during the Colts’ bye week in September, Pagano received the leukemia diagnosis. Cripe says now that in the first week or two after the diagnosis, Pagano could have died.

Suddenly, Pagano's health seemed to become the people's business. And the unassuming coach didn't shrink from it.

He and his doctor chose a path of transparency too often eschewed in the world of professional sports. He made inspirational speeches to his players about not letting "circumstances" define you, but instead living "a vision." Pagano spoke of living to dance at his daughters’ weddings and to hoist the Lombardi Trophy. And he made it clear the former was far more important than the latter.

In a year with much debate over whether Minnesota's Adrian Peterson or Denver's Peyton Manning is more worthy of NFL's comeback award, there's little doubt in Indiana that if that honor were extended to coaches, it should go to Pagano.

He energized an uncertain team. He moved a skeptical fanbase. He inspired a community. His story even spawned a line of ChuckStrong merchandise, which has largely sold out at Colts shops. Even opposing players were moved, with the visiting Packers donning ChuckStrong T-shirts before their game with the Colts.

And best of all. Pagano's story isn't over.

He indicated at his Christmas Eve press conference that the ChuckStrong movement will live on. There is already talk that the coach will work to form a foundation as soon as this storybook football season concludes.

Pagano left little doubt that he will work to make a difference in the fight against cancer. Pagano knows well that while he has won his battle for now, the larger war is far from over.

Back when Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson offered Pagano the Colts’ head coaching job, Pagano replied, "Let's hunt."

In terms of the Colts’ playoff run and pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy, as well as Pagano’s quest to dance at his daughters' weddings and make a difference in the fight against cancer, let the hunting begin.

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