INDIANAPOLIS — It took Chuck Pagano less than nine months to instill his fighter’s mentality and hopeful spirit in the Indianapolis Colts.
He will need both to survive the biggest battle of his life — leukemia.
In a somber news conference Monday, the Colts announced that their new coach had been hospitalized for cancer treatment and probably would not return to full coaching duties this season. He will be replaced on an interim basis by offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
“He will do fine,” Arians said, his voice cracking as he recalled his own fight with prostate cancer in 2007. “I know him. He’s a fighter. He’s survived tough times already in his life. As a cancer survivor myself, I know that these first few days are really hard on you but as he and I talked yesterday, it’s just a matter of time.”
It didn’t take long for the Colts to figure out how to pay tribute to the first-time head coach who rekindled excitement in the locker room and around town after the Colts’ awful 2-14 season a year ago.
“I asked Mr. Irsay if we would leave the light on in his office permanently till he comes back and we are going to do that,” Arians said.
The shocking news trickled out as players and assistant coaches were returning to the team complex after the Colts’ bye week and one day before Pagano’s 52nd birthday.
Pagano was admitted to an Indianapolis hospital last Wednesday to begin treatments for acute promyelocytic leukemia, an illness in which the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells that interfere with healthy blood cells. Symptoms can include weakness, weight loss and easy bruising or bleeding.
Pagano will be treated with chemotherapy and drugs, said Dr. Larry Cripe, Pagano’s physician. The process usually requires patients to spend four to five weeks in the hospital, but Colts owner Jim Irsay said he expected Pagano to stay a bit longer, six to eight weeks. Indy (1-2) hosts the Packers (2-2) on Sunday.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, the draft’s No. 2 pick behind Luck, wrote on Twitter: “Football is football. But Life is more important. Sending Prayers up for Coach Chuck Pagano during this trying time.”
Indy officials asked fans with similar sentiments to send cards through the team headquarters, but said Pagano could not receive flowers. He is being kept in a “protective” environment where the air is filtered and hand-washing is essential.
“The goal of the treatment is to cure the disease,” Cripe said, declining to discuss the survival rates for patients with this form of leukemia. “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.”
Cripe said Pagano’s wife, Tina, had been at his bedside each night. Irsay said she was the one who pushed him to see the doctor after noticing unusual bruising on his body.
Arians was notified of the illness in a phone call with Pagano; players and the other assistants didn’t find out until Monday — another blow for a team that has faced more than its share of adversity over the past decade.
Seven years ago, then coach Tony Dungy’s 18-year-old son, James, was found dead in an apartment in Tampa, Fla. The death was later ruled a suicide. Dungy missed Indy’s next game, then returned for the final week of the regular season. In 2006, the Colts were jolted again by the death of Reggie Wayne’s brother, Rashad, in a traffic accident.
Irsay isn’t sure when Pagano will be back and said only that he hopes Pagano will be able to coach from the press box later this season.
“He’s going to be greatly missed, there’s no question about it in terms of his intensity, his energy, his leadership, the things that made him the candidate that (general manager) Ryan (Grigson) and I selected ultimately as our head coach,” Irsay said. “I know in meeting with the team, in meeting with the coaches, there’s nothing more than we want to get that Green Bay game ball and have a victory game ball and be able to walk that into the hospital and put that in his hands. That’s our goal.”
Last year, after losing ironman Peyton Manning for the entire season because of multiple neck surgeries, one of the preseason’s Super Bowl favorite was terrible and wound up with the No. 1 draft pick and the impetus to rebuild. Manning, the longtime face of the franchise, and a handful of other fan favorites were released in March as the Colts embarked on a major rebuilding project — a project Pagano had been expected to oversee in the next big chapter of his family’s coaching legacy.
Pagano’s father, Sam, won three Colorado state championships as a high school coach but never took a college or pro job. Pagano’s younger brother, John, is the defensive coordinator with the San Diego Chargers.
While the Colts attempted to take a business-as-usual approach at Monday’s practice, nothing was the same.
Grigson was still trying to figure out how the coaching duties will be handled during Pagano’s absence, and the talk about statistics focused on things of far greater significance than offensive or defensive rankings.
“This is not an easy day for all of us,” said Arians, a longtime NFL assistant who has never been a head coach. “Not the way that I had ever dreamed about addressing a group like this. But I know we are going to get through it.”
The Colts have no doubts Chuck Pagano will win the battle.
“We are very optimistic. Chuck is a fighter,” Grigson said. “As we talked to the players this morning, the best medicine for him is for the team to continue to fight four quarters and to show him what he said is still in existence and it will be.”