We tend to put athletes on such a high pedestal that it’s shocking to find out they’re human. Scandals shake our beliefs, everyone feels their loss, and when some athletes get the news that they have cancer like Babe Ruth or Chuck Pagano, we’re devastated. Perhaps it’s because many people have experience with cancer firsthand or otherwise. That’s why Chuck Pagano’s victory over cancer gives so many fans hope.
Getting the tragic news
In retrospect, the signs were probably obvious. The Chicago Sun-Times reports, “Chuck Pagano had so many deep purple bruises on his thighs and torso that his wife actually thought he was tackling his players during the Colts’ training camp in 2012. He felt so tired that he might as well have been. He pressed on, though, because that’s what coaches do in the first year of a job they’ve dreamed about their whole life.”
Pagano had just been named head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. After years of coaching at the college level for the University of Southern California (USC), University of Miami, Boise State University, East Carolina University, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), Pagano had proved he had what it takes to coach in the NFL.
He got his chance in 2001 when he was named as secondary coach for the Cleveland Browns. He would later coach with the Oakland Raiders and the Baltimore Ravens. In 2012, he was named head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Everything seemed to be looking up for him with the exception of those strange bruises.
If it hadn’t been for a bye week that happened on week four rather than week nine as planned, Pagano might have found out too late he had leukemia. As it stood, he took that week to go to the Colt’s doctor.
Blood work was scheduled, and Pagano finally learned why he was bruising so easily. He had acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Chuck Pagano battled for his life
Bruce Arians, the Colts offensive coordinator, was named the interim coach when Pagano made the announcement. Pagano would be out a total of 12 weeks as he battled for his life. Once he received the diagnosis at the hospital, he couldn’t even go home because of his compromised immune system.
Treatments began immediately. Pagano had come to the hospital with no expectation that he would be staying overnight, but he ultimately had to stay for the next 26 days.
His time in the hospital didn’t prevent him from working, however. The owner of the Colts, Jim Irsay, was horrified to find out that the hospital didn’t offer the NFL, and paid to have it piped into every room. The players filmed every practice, so Pagano was able to watch it on his computer.
The team also really reached out to him through FaceTime and text. Pagano was surprised and incredibly moved by the love and respect he got from the players who he hadn’t known for long at all. He told the Chicago Sun Times, “They didn’t know me or my wife or my family. We’d only been there a short time. But the way that they supported us and myself, wow.”
According to the Bleacher Report, the Colts would ultimately finish the 2012 season with a 11-5 record. Pagano would also be able to return as head coach, as his cancer had gone into remission.
Life after leukemia
Whether you are the one with cancer or it’s a loved one, life can feel like it comes to a standstill when you get that initial diagnosis. All the plans you once had now seem meaningless as you focus on battling the cancer. Then one day, your doctor informs you that you’re in remission, and suddenly you have to start planning for the future again.
For Pagano, that meant returning to the field and the job he loved. He proudly served as the head coach for the Indianapolis Colts from 2012-17. Tragically, he was fired in 2017 due to a failing season, according to SB Nation.
Pagano would take a year off to act as a consultant for the NFL in 2018. In 2019, he gladly accepted the defensive coordinator position for the Chicago Bears, where he was gladly welcomed. But Pagano will always have a soft spot for the Colts, who helped him through such a trying time in his life.
When asked about his battle with cancer, Pagano told the Chicago Sun-Times, ”We don’t take any days for granted. Every day that we get, we try to kick its ass, take full advantage of it. If you get another one, we’re going to do the same thing the next day. ‘Live full, die empty’ is the motto now.” It’s the ‘Chuckstrong’ motto.