7:19 PM EDT, July 5, 2014
Say this for the Indianapolis Colts, they don't go quietly.
They were the only team to beat the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers last season. They rallied from a 28-point deficit for a 45-44 victory over Kansas City in a wild-card game, the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.
And their relentless determination was embodied by quarterback Andrew Luck's iconic, second-effort touchdown plunge, when he recovered a fumble near the goal line and then leapt Superman-style to reach the ball in for a touchdown.
"He had the God-given ability and instincts to pick that damn thing up and triple-jump himself into the end zone and stretch that ball over the goal line," said Colts Coach Chuck Pagano, reliving the moment over the phone this week. "I've got goose bumps talking about it. The hair on the back of my neck is standing up.
"That's grit in five seconds."
As grit goes, few Colts can match Pagano, who almost two years ago was diagnosed with a treatable form of leukemia. He missed much of that, his rookie season as a head coach, while his replacement, Bruce Arians, went on to become the first interim to win coach-of-the-year honors.
Pagano coached his first full season in 2013, with his Colts matching their 11-5 record from the previous year and going undefeated in the AFC South. They lost to New England in the divisional round of the playoffs.
In his just-released book, "Sidelined: Overcoming Odds through Unity, Passion and Perseverance," Pagano details his personal battle with the disease and his memories from a season when "Chuckstrong" became a popular NFL buzz phrase.
"The way people supported me and embraced me, it was humbling and overwhelming," said Pagano, who wrote the book with his agent, Bruce Tollner, and is donating all profits to cancer research. "And now I have the chance to do the same thing, a chance to serve and give back to all the people who are going to battle. Hopefully, people can use it as a tool to help them in their fight."
Arians, who was Indianapolis' offensive coordinator when he stepped in for Pagano and now is head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, made sure the 2012 Colts never forgot who their head coach really was. He left Pagano's office undisturbed, kept the lights on, and made sure no one sat in Chuck's spot on the team bus or plane.
"We needed a symbol to remind us of the fight that was going on," Arians said this week. "It was his fight. No one sat in his chair. No one walked in his office. Never turned his light off. He was coming back. He was the head coach and no one forgot it. We had to fight every day at practice to keep going until he could come back."
For the players, the head-spinning chain of events was surreal, and the lessons they were reminded of during the turbulent 2012 season stick with them still.
"Coach talked about not letting circumstance define you," Luck said by phone this week. "That hit me well. If you put it in football terms, you've dug yourself a hole but don't let it define the rest of the game. You still have a chance. It's trying to make the best out of every situation.
"I know that's very cliche, but when Coach Pagano says these things they never come off as cliche. There's a lot of heart behind everything he does. He typifies that."
Pagano said his cancer is in "complete molecular remission" and soon he will be weaned off the high-octane medication he began after chemotherapy.
"It's nowhere as tough on your body as when you're going through chemo," he said. "But it's a pain in the butt just taking the 50 vitamins my wife leaves out for me every morning. Minus one more it will be good."
He said he'll be checked every six months for the next three years, adding, "I'm lucky. I'm blessed."
From the start, he approached his diagnosis the way he would a Sunday opponent. It was all he knew how to do, and, by his thinking, what other option did he have?
"When my doctor told me, it was, 'What are my odds, and what's the game plan?'" he said. "You're sitting there and you've got your wife sitting next to you. I've got three daughters, and they're all counting on me. I signed up for life with this deal with them, and who's going to take care of them? It was pretty simple. From that moment on, not one time did I ever question if I was going to get out of there or not."
Said Colts defensive end Cory Redding: "He didn't look at the scoreboard. If the numbers were low or high, he kept fighting."
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