Grigson: ‘‘You've got to, please tell me you’re kidding.’’
Pagano: ‘‘I would not joke with you about something like this.’’
The medical staff, understanding the need to keep this quiet until players and coaches returned from their bye weekend four days later, admitted Pagano under an alias. Tina Pagano came up with the name of a former Hurricanes player turned celebrity who lived near them when they were in Miami: Dwayne Johnson.
‘‘The nurses would say, ‘What do you want to go by, do you want us to call you Mr. Johnson, do you want us to call you Dwayne or The Rock?’ And I said ‘What are you talking about?'’’ Pagano said.
Virtually everybody else was kept out of the loop until Pagano called Arians that Sunday night.
Arians, a prostate cancer survivor, was stunned.
‘‘My first reaction was how is it? Is everything going to be all right? How’s Tina? How are the girls?’’ Arians said the day after he found out. ‘‘He wanted to totally convince all of us that everything was going to be great like he always does. When I talked to him, the football was the easy part of the conversation. Football is not who we are, it’s what we do. As players and coaches, it doesn’t define us, family does, faith does.’’
The reaction from players and coaches was similar after they were told at a team meeting Oct. 1.
‘‘It puts everything in perspective. We still play a kid’s game,’’ said Reggie Wayne, who met Pagano 16 years earlier when both were at Miami. ‘‘People living out there with life decisions every day. It just pushes me more and more to go out there and play hard and give it everything I've got, and in some kind of way bring home a game ball for him.’’
On that next Sunday, Oct. 7, with most players dressed in pink for breast cancer awareness, Wayne lived up to his promise. He got the football across the goal line in his orange gloves—the color for leukemia awareness—to complete an incredible comeback against Green Bay.
It was only the start of a season full of remarkable feats—seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter,, Arians’ record-tying nine wins following a midseason coaching change, the Colts’ first playoff berth without Manning since 1996 and, of course, the grand celebration for Pagano’s return to the stadium in November and his actual return to the sideline on Dec. 30.
Back at the Simon Cancer Center, Pagano was still fighting.
The chemo made him ill. He lost weight and his hair. And it was just as tough watching games with his wife.
‘‘She'd be the first to tell you, never again,’’ Pagano said, starting to laugh. ‘‘We did 12 of them. They got better as they went, but you know Green Bay was the first one, and I'll never forget, the first time they snapped the football, she started screaming and throwing stuff and gyrating and I just looked at her and said, ‘Really? We've got three hours of this? This is exactly how you act during a game?’ She looked at me and said ‘What? What are you talking about?’ I just kind of laughed.’’
The Colts raised money for leukemia research through the Chuckstrong campaign, and Pagano received hundreds of letters and emails from other leukemia patients including one from a 9-year-old boy who told him to stay positive, believe and use the strawberry Popsicles to avoid mouth sores.
With each passing day, Pagano was winning. Cripe sent him home from the hospital Oct. 21. Two weeks later, Cripe said the illness was in complete remission and he even gave Pagano clearance to start attending home games.
Indy clinched its playoff berth on Dec. 23 at Kansas City. The next day Pagano walked into the team meeting, reclaimed his job as head coach and turned off the light switch in his office, the one Arians had left on since the Oct. 1 announcement that Pagano was taking an indefinite leave.
‘‘I've cried so much already, it’s like I don’t know if I have any more tears in there,’’ Wayne said when asked how that Dec. 24 team meeting went. ‘‘I'm just glad to see him back. He’s a great man as well as a great coach.’’
The private reaction was nothing like the rousing reception he received Dec. 30 when an entire league watched Pagano walk back onto the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, put on his headset and lead the Colts to a 28-16 victory over AFC South champion Houston.
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips hugged Pagano. Arian Foster tapped the Chuckstrong sign in the back of the end zone after scoring a touchdown and during the locker room celebration, Robert Mathis prompted Pagano to jump around and chant like he was a teenager.Continued...