The news coming from the Indianapolis Colts West 56th Street offices Monday morning was, to say the least, stunning.
During a hastily called news conference, teams officials confirmed that Colts coach Chuck Pagano has been hospitalized since last Wednesday after being diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia.
According to team owner Jim Irsay, Pagano had been suffering from fatigue and some unusual bruising on his body since the start of training camp in August. The first-year Indianapolis coach had initially attributed his fatigue on the rigors of his job and on the oppressive heat during the camp's duration.
When the symptoms didn't go away after the start of the season earlier this month, Tina Pagano urged her husband to go in for a checkup. Dr. Larry Cripe of the IU Health Simon Cancer Center made the official diagnosis.
The Colts did not have a game this past Sunday due to a regularly schedule bye week. Pagano put the team through two days of workouts Tuesday and Wednesday before a four-day break. He entered the hospital that night.
"It’s been a very difficult week. The coach was feeling some fatigue over the last few weeks, had noticed some bruising on his body that at first that he thought could have been from contact on the field coaching or playing with his grandkids or whatever. Eventually, through talking to his wife, Tina, she said, ‘You need to check that out because the bruising appears to be more and more prominent,'" Irsay explained.
"So we did have the coach go in, get fully evaluated on the bruising and his fatigue, and the conclusion came down that he did have leukemia. A very difficult blow for him, for his family. We always talk about God, family, football in that order. And certainly this has been difficult for him and for his family. Knowing Chuck, his first concern always is going to be for his children, for his grandchildren, for his wife, for others. That’s just the type of man he is. But I am optimistic."
While acknowledging that leukemia in any form is a serious disorder, the Colts owner remains confident in Pagano's ability to battle the disease.
"I feel with every fiber in my body and I know Chuck feels the same way, that he can beat this thing. And that when you get such a difficult diagnosis like this, it’s tough. But at the same time, in terms of other diagnoses that can come down as advanced pancreatic cancer, ALS, you can pick some out there that are extremely difficult and maybe almost incurable, that’s not the case here," Irsay said.
"The case here is we feel that and I know he feels that he will battle and get this disease in remission. It’s a marathon, there’s no question about it.
Pagano, who had been the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator before being hired as the Colts head coach in February, is expected to undergo treatment for at least six to eight weeks.
Indianapolis offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has been named as the team's interim head coach. He'll serve in that role for as long as it's deemed necessary. Irsay, though, said that he doesn't expect Pagano to be "all in" in terms of his coaching duties after his initial release from the hospital.
"I think it’s unlikely that he will be all-in as a head coach this season, that’s probably not in the cards where he’s going to be able to come back and be all-in this season. Certainly to be in the press box, to contribute, to do things, I’m going to let the doctor be more specific about that with his expertise on how this process goes but there are peaks and valleys," Irsay continued.
"Once you get better, there’s more chemotherapy and it’s a process of really getting back to yourself. We know the demands in this league of being a head coach. It’s one of the most demanding jobs that you can have in this country. So Bruce Arians is going to be our interim head coach. It was Chuck’s wishes and certainly had my blessing and [general manager] Ryan’s [Grigson] blessing on that."
Grigson said with Arians taking over the head coaching duties for the foreseeable future, the rest of the Colts' coaching staff will pick up any slack along the way.
“[The staff's responsibilities moving forward are] still evolving. Obviously this just happened pretty much the coaches were just informed. There’s such closeness to that staff, everyone is going to pick up the ball and run with it. They’re all going to come together. I saw that already [Monday] morning with them," he said.
"I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. Whoever needs to shoulder more is going to shoulder more, whoever needs to take on a new role is going to take on a new role. But I feel like we have the right guys in place to shoulder those loads.”
Cripe explained during Monday's press conference that APML, which is also referred to as AML (acute myeloid leukemia), is a cancer of the bone marrow. Pagano is currently in semi-isolation at the IU Health Simon Center.
"He was evaluated for bruising and that evaluation demonstrated changes consistent with acute leukemia. He was hospitalized Wednesday night and we initiated treatment at that time. I’m here because the coach has asked me to be here. He wants to deal with this challenge in a very forthright fashion and he wants to assure everybody that he is not interested in not being forthright in telling people what’s happening," the cancer specialist said.
"First of all, the goal of the treatment I’m about to describe is to cure the disease. That means that he’s returned to a fully-functional life, the life that he worked so hard to earn and he’s looking forward to leading the Colts to some Super Bowls. However, the process is long, and complicated, and we are just starting right now. For the next several weeks, this will be day-by-day. We’ll be vigilant and we’ll do everything we can to assure and help him reach a full recovery."
Team officials requests that all cards, letters and message of support for Pagano and his family be sent to the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center at P.O. Box 535000, Indianapolis, IN 46253. They also ask that no flowers be sent.