He had spent 26 days in the hospital showing leukemia what ChuckStrong was all about, and finally, through the chemotherapy and medications, Chuck Pagano was back where he belonged, the light in his office kept on for him until he could coach the Colts again at the end of a magical 2012 season.
And when he stood before his team in an emotionally charged and joyous meeting room, with the game ball he had requested from the equipment guys from the playoff-clinching win the previous day over the Chiefs so he could give it to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, his trusted friend who had held the head-coaching fort in his absence.
“Being the man and person that he is, was, during that time, just his makeup, he just fell back into his normal job,” Pagano recalled.
“It’s was always about the TEAM TEAM TEAM. U. S. Unity over Self.
“It’s a debt of gratitude that you can’t repay with a game ball.”
Their friendship began in 2001 as assistants for three seasons with Butch Davis’ Browns. Arians was offensive coordinator. Pagano was secondary coach.
“There’s a guy that was full of love and passion and love for the game and love for his players,” Pagano recalled. “Organized, detailed. This guy was a blast to be around. He was just a lot of fun to work with.
“We loved our Fast Fridays. He had the little green truck he called Ole Green (chuckle). Ole Green was really reliable for B.A.”
The vagabond coaching life would send Pagano to Oakland, to Chapel Hill, to Baltimore. It would take Arians to Pittsburgh where he helped mold Ben Roethlisberger until the Mike Tomlin Steelers fired him.
Only days after the Colts hired Pagano, at 51, to his first head-coaching job, he called Arians and asked him to be his offensive coordinator.
“He’s on the street, he’s semi-retired. First guy that came to mind was B.A.,” Pagano said.
Arians was heading from his Georgia home back to Pittsburgh when he answered the call.
“He always liked calling everyone, Cuz,” Pagano recalled.
“ ‘What’s up, Cuz?’
“ ‘Get your butt over here, and let’s talk about you running this offense.’
“‘Aiiight, Cuz, let’s set it up.’”
Colts owner Jim Irsay was the one who handled the Peyton Manning drama, and the legendary quarterback’s farewell press conference on March 7, 2012, paved the way for the drafting of Andrew Luck with the first pick. Arians would be his quarterback whisperer. Lucky Luck.
“He’s one of the most relatable coaches there is,” Pagano said. “That’s his gift. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody say a bad thing about B.A. You could see that relationship right from the jump. There was a connection there.”
Arians, 60 minutes from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy with the Bucs, hasn’t been much different coaching Tom Brady to Super Bowl 2021.
“Tom Brady coming in with six Super Bowls, there’s respect there, and you gotta earn that respect, and just like with Andrew that respect and trust and all that stuff was earned over time, but you could see it start to blossom early,” Pagano said. “But B.A. knew what he was talking about, he knows football, he knows that position. He had instant credibility with Andrew.
“You could just see, from the minute training camp rolled, you could just the special bond, this relationship building.
“B.A.’s not afraid to coach ya. And I don’t care who you are. Whether you’re 43 and got six Super Bowls, he’s gonna coach ya, he’s gonna tell you when you do good, and then when you’re not doing good or something’s wrong he’s gonna tell ya. And he’s not afraid to have those critical conversations, those tough conversations and hold guys accountable, and that’s what players respect.”
Pagano knows better than most how much Arians wants to beat Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid and the Chiefs.
“There’s no greater competitor,” he said. “He hates losing more than he loves winning. So practice was always trash talk. He wouldn’t say kill, he would say kilt. ‘We kilt ya today.’
“He would wear black socks to practice and pull up his pants or his sweats, and he’d have black socks on. He knew it was a competitive day. He knew we were gonna get some one-on-ones in. Nobody likes to throw the ball down the field more than Bruce Arians. So he’d pull up his pants or his sweats and be talking crap, and he’d walk around the D-backs and stuff, he’d show ’em his black socks. ‘Gonna kilt ya today, we’re going after ya today.’ ”
No risk it, no biscuit indeed.
“That’s his mantra,” Pagano said. “Unbelievable swag, unbelievable confidence. From the Kangol on backward, he’s doing the same thing today with a tweak here or there offensively that he’s always done.”
Arians worked hard, and Pagano recognized that he worked smart. “He’d have that backpack over his left shoulder, that Kangol on backwards, I’d see him start to walk out of his office, 3, 3:30 — ‘Aiight Cuz, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ He was off to the damn golf course,” Pagano said.
Arians, who turned 60 that October, had overcome prostate cancer in 2007. And now, like everyone else in the Colts organization, he was in shock when Pagano revealed that he would be fighting for his life at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center.
“He was just like, ‘Don’t worry about a thing.’ Don’t you worry about one fricken thing in football. You just listen to the doctors, and you just get well. Don’t worry about s–t. We got this,’ ” Pagano said.
Arians called him every day. Brought him a variety of different-sized Kangol hats. “It was never about football first,” Pagano said. ‘How you doing, Cuz? How you feeling, Cuz? Whaddya need? What can we do?’ ”
Irsay had NFL Network installed for Pagano, and everyone else. The club kept him connected during and after his hospital stay with the practice hard drives.
The Colts won nine of 12 games.
“Watching him and watching those guys for 12 weeks, going through what I was going through — I had to do the medicine and the chemo and all this stuff,” Pagano said. “They got me healthy. They inspired me, you know? I was able to stay connected with those guys and watch the games and watch the practice film and FaceTime and text and communicate. They got me healthy. They inspired me by what they were doing on the football field. They weren’t supposed to win any damn games.”
“He damn near killed himself doing that job,” Pagano said. “He was exhausting everything that he had.”
Pagano won the season finale against the Texans before losing the AFC wild-card game to the Ravens. He recently announced his retirement as Bears defensive coordinator after 36 NFL years. He’ll be watching Arians on Super Sunday from his Indianapolis home,
“It couldn’t happen to a better guy,” Pagano said, “B.A.’s easy to root for, man. I’m gonna be rooting really, really hard for him.”
Pagano called his friend a few days ago with this message:
“Hoist that damn trophy, dance under that confetti with your family, and get the hell right to the damn hills. And just start enjoying life, and get yourself another 20, 25 years of great health raising them grandkids.”
Pagano chuckled and said: “He laughed. He said, ‘nah Cuz, you know I’ll be doing this forever.’ ”