“Most roller coasters, you get off and you say, ‘Let’s go again! Let’s do it again!’ That was us last year. Right away this year, Chuck gave us our motivation: ‘Hoist that Lombardi Trophy.’ “
—Veteran Colts safety Antoine Bethea, on being motivated by coach Chuck Pagano in absentia last year, and in person this year.
ANDERSON, Ind. — Much to do this morning, winding up the 20-camp, two-game, 11,969-mile tour of NFL training camps, and covering another costly injury (Dustin Keller’s knee in Miami), but we start with the inspirational story and unlikeliest playoff team from 2012, and what the Colts are going to do for an encore.
First off, an acknowledgement of the real world in the NFL—even on good teams, change is constant. When Chuck Pagano stared out at his team on the first night of training camp here, he saw 47 percent new faces from 2012 (42 of the 90 players were first-year Colts), and, on the coaching staff, he saw a new offensive coordinator (Pep Hamilton) and special teams coordinator (Tom McMahon). Par for the course in today’s NFL. When Pagano watches practice, he sees so many new things. Such as first-round pass rusher Bjoern Werner working with free-agent Kenyan rugby player Daniel Adongo, teaching him about the game he just took up two weeks earlier. “We’ve got a German national teaching a Kenyan rugby player the art of the pass rush,” said GM Ryan Grigson. “Humanity at its finest! Our sport at its finest! That’s the new world of the NFL right there.”
Pagano lords over it all. Sitting in a golf cart on the practice fields at Anderson University one day last week, he couldn’t stop smiling about it. A year ago, Pagano felt worn down, run down, just plain lousy, in training camp. He thought he was just working too hard. But his energy was down, even after a good night’s sleep. He was diagnosed with leukemia, cancer of the blood, in late September. You know the rest. The team, inspired by Pagano’s fight and by late-game heroics by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, went 9-3 in his absence and earned a wild-card playoff berth.
Now for the encore. Whatever it is.
Eight days ago, the Colts opened the preseason against Buffalo, at home. Before the game, on the field, Pagano watched a video montage of the 2012 season—the comebacks, the inspiring cancer-stricken coach appearing at a home game in the middle of it all, the cheerleaders who shaved their heads to be one with the hairless Pagano. Quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen sidled up to Pagano.
“Did all that really happen last year?’” Christensen said.
“I say the same thing all the time,” Pagano said.
Pagano gets checked every three months. Each time they’ve checked his blood, he gets a text from his doctor, Larry Cripe, that says (he has it memorized), “You remain in complete molecular remission.” He’ll take an anti-leukemia concoction for two weeks every three months until early 2015, then he’ll be checked for three years after that. “Five years is the magic number for this type of leukemia,” Pagano said. “I’ve got a while to go, but they say the cure rate is up around 90 percent now. So I’m very optimistic. But to say it will never come back again, I mean, there’s cases all over. Like Robin Roberts—she beat breast cancer and then something else hit her. To say it will never come back again, who knows?”
But sitting here, on a sunny, unseasonably cool day in his adopted home state, Pagano looks like he always looked as a coaching lifer—tanned, fit, lively, his salt-and-pepper goatee the same as when he took this job 20 months ago. A bad back forces him to bike, not jog. He lifts a few weights to, at 52, stave off gravity. “I feel a thousand times better than last year,” he said. “I was just tired all last summer.”
I ask about what he can use to drive his team this year, seeing as though there will never be the kind of goosebumpy motivation of 2012 available to him—or maybe any NFL coach—this year, or in the future.
“That’s a great question that I get asked all the time, and it’s tough to answer,” Pagano said. “There’s always something, something that happens during the season—a devastating loss, an unfortunate tragedy, whatever it may be. To me, we play this game and make the sacrifices that we make for the love of the game, and the opportunity to hoist that Lombardi. But really, the only thing we are guaranteed as a group is this year. So, let’s take advantage of it and say this is our one shot. You think about the NFL today—we’ve got all these new faces in the meeting room. We’ve got this one year together, but are we guaranteed next year? No, so let’s throw all our chips in the middle and let’s give it everything that we have.”
Said Luck: “I can’t imagine anyone on our team—anyone in the NFL—needing some kind of extra motivation to go out and win. We don’t need it. We’ve all got it. We want to go further than we did last year.”
We’ll see. Motivation’s a tricky thing. We in the media probably overrate it. But I find it hard to believe there wasn’t something a little extra around this team last year when, 10 times a day, Pagano would text or phone from his hospital room or recovery bedroom at home to urge players on, with the littlest things. Like the time Pagano phoned Grigson one night at dinner to remind him to make sure he got a ball painted for castoff cornerback Darius Butler earning AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Or the time Pagano, at the first game he attended while still sick, got up on a swivel chair in the GM’s box to rap on the window between that booth and the assistant coaches and scream at them to look up at the replay because they might want to challenge a play. “I’m like, ‘Chuck! GET DOWN!’ ” said Grigson. “I mean, here’s this weak, sick guy, teetering up on a swivel chair, and if he falls …”
This year is going to be more football than made-for-TV movie. But Pagano will have no trouble passing on the message he’s believed since he took this job.
“Basically,” he said, “the message is what a privilege it is to play and coach in the NFL. Right when you start thinking that it is your right, you probably are gone. Because there’s somebody working extremely hard to try to get your locker, get your jersey number. You know how we’re judged as coaches. By one thing and one thing only—wins and losses. On the heels of what we went through last year, that’s at a new level. It’s heightened even more. I think it’s something that if it ever happens again, I mean, they say lightning can’t strike twice but who knows?
“In the hospital, I met people who weren’t going home. For example, a kid named Cory Lane, who was one of those coin toss kids at one of our games. Cory had written me a note while I was in the hospital and sent me photos and things like that. Well, he lost his battle last spring. He turned 16 years old and he lost his battle. So I mean, cancer is a bully. I’m just one of the fortunate ones. I realize that every day.”
On this day, Pagano, one of the fortunate ones, took the field and moved from group to group—showing some technique to a couple of rookie linebackers at one point, talking to the visiting parents of Reggie Wayne for a while, huddling with his secondary. It’s a new season, and no one’s happier about experiencing it than Pagano.