Tribune Star Correspondent
The players on the Indianapolis Colts roster thought that they had gotten most of their emotions out of their system early last week when head coach Chuck Pagano returned from a near season-long leave of absence.
They were wrong.
Pagano has been battling a form of leukemia for the past 12 weeks. He was forced to step away from his job and responsibilities with the team as he spent three grueling sessions of chemotherapy. Instead of preparing for games each week, Pagano was literally fighting a bigger battle for his life.
Even though he went back to work last Monday and spent the last seven days getting back into the flow of being a coach again, it wasn't until he stepped back on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday that the reality of what he had been though finally touched him.
With an announced crowd of 66,957 on hand to officially welcome Pagano back to the sidelines, his players and his assistant coaches knew that they were watching and participating in something very, very special.
“It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel with all of the cameras flashing when he walked out [for pre-game warmups]. I think that was sort of a lift that he gave us. It was energy. Just to have his physical presence and seeing him on sideline was great," rookie quarterback Andrew Luck said after the Colts' 28-16 upset victory over AFC South champion Houston.
"It's uplifting as someone who knows this guy and has a relationship with him. It was great to see him out there. From a football aspect, it’s nice to have his presence because he knows a lot about the game, situational football, and [we're] glad we could go out and get a win for him.”
Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who is perhaps the closest of the Colts' players to Pagano due to their days together as player and assistant coach at the University of Miami, had wanted to see a performance against the Texans that befitted the fight that their coach has shown over the course of the season.
"I think everybody has been focused, as they would have been anyway. Not to take anything away from coach coming back. We are truly happy he is back and we all want to go out there and win. Having him back, we want to continue to play tough at home. We’ve got the team that beat us pretty good a couple of weeks ago that’s a division opponent," Wayne said late last week.
"If you ain’t full of intensity already, than you probably don’t have a heartbeat. Everybody is glued in. Everybody is locked and loaded and hopefully we can go out there and play good ball.”
“I think that’s why we did not want to lose. It’s his first game back in right before the playoffs starting [this weekend]. I know there’s been talk of resting guys. Coach Pagano is not of that school of thought and we’re behind him 100 percent. We’re glad we could go out there and fire on full cylinders, per se. Just to get a win, I think means the world to the players," Luck said.
Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, who may have played his last game in a Colts' uniform at Lucas Oil Stadium, agreed.
"It was great to see Chuck back out there. I’m not going to say that we went out there and played just great just because Chuck was here because Chuck’s presence is always there," Freeney said.
"We wanted to go out and Chuck’s message to us is about momentum. Just building that momentum for the playoffs and working on the things we want to work on, which we did. It was great to do it when he’s around. He’s family and it was great to see him out there with us.”
Pagano, in his own way, appreciated the win more than anyone else.
“Overwhelming, humbling. The fans, if I didn’t thank them, I’ll thank them again. We’ve got the very best fans in the National Football League. The outpouring of support and prayers and everything that they’ve shown me and my family and what they did for this team week in and week out, they’re the best. I can’t thank them enough. To be down on the sideline again with the coaches and with the team and with everybody, it was a blessing. It was a blessing," he said.
"I am very humbled by it and anytime you get taken away from what you know and what you’ve done your whole entire life and all of the sudden you’re kind of sidelined, so to speak, and then you have an opportunity. We had a[game date] targeted [to return], there was no guarantee that we would make that date."
Just a chance to coach again, to be on the sidelines again, served as perhaps the best medicine.
“It’s like a dream come true again. It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be down there. You know you have thoughts coming back. We talked about it’s just like riding a bike. You just jump back on and start pedaling,"Pagano said.
"It’s like anything else that you’ve been doing for so long. Just to get out of there and get back to the [Colts Farm Bureau Insurance practice] facility and get back with the team and go through the normalcy of a regular week and be back to doing what you love to do I’m humbled by it and I’m very blessed.”