The visiting locker room at Gillette Stadium following last year's AFC championship game was eerily silent when a sharply attired Chuck Pagano walked briskly toward the door, rolling a suitcase behind him. He stopped only briefly, embracing linebacker Jarret Johnson as the two whispered a few words.
Neither man would be a Raven for much longer, but the reminiscing would have to wait. The hurt of being seconds away from beating the New England Patriots and going to the Super Bowl was still too raw, and Pagano had someplace to be. The following day, the Ravens' first-year defensive coordinator was due in Indianapolis to interview for the Colts' head coaching job. To the surprise of no one, he was hired.
With immense pride and purpose, Pagano returns to M&T Bank Stadium for Sunday's wild-card playoff game between the Ravens and Colts. A year after they won just two games, the Colts are the league's biggest surprise at 11-5. Along the way, Pagano has inspired his current and former players and the NFL community with his battle against leukemia.
"It's going to be special," said Pagano, 52. "Love all those guys, great relationships with so many people in that organization. They were so good to me and my family. I wouldn't be sitting where I am today if John Harbaugh hadn't given me the opportunity to join him when he first was hired as a head football coach there. To him and his family and the rest of those people, they know exactly how I and my family feel about them."
Sunday will be Pagano's second game back on the sidelines after being away for more than three months to get treatment. When he stares across the field, he'll see some of the people that he heard from regularly during that time, the emails, text messages and cards lifting his spirits while the chemotherapy sapped him of his energy and challenged his resolve.
Harbaugh, who plucked Pagano off the University of North Carolina coaching staff and named him secondary coach in 2008, text messaged him occasionally to check in. Safety Ed Reed, who was recruited to the University of Miami by Pagano and considers him a father figure, communicated with him often. Linebacker Terrell Suggs regularly wore a "Chuckstrong" T-shirt, and defensive end Arthur Jones sent Pagano a picture of a group of Ravens who had shaved their heads in their former defensive coordinator's honor.
Middle linebacker Ray Lewis, kept off the field by a triceps injury, wouldn't let a couple of days go by without sending a Biblical verse to Pagano that he found especially poignant and appropriate.
"It was just a bond that was created over the last few months that probably only me and him knew we had," said Lewis who will likely play in his final game at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday after announcing his pending retirement this week. "That's why every day I would send a Scripture to him, and I would send thoughts to him. We would keep each other laughing. So, for Chuck to come back here, the game will fade one day, but that brotherhood — that manhood that we created — will never die.I'm looking forward to seeing him and looking forward to [getting] this game started."
Pagano was a beloved figure in the Ravens' locker room because of his intensity, work ethic and his ability to mix biting wit with reassuring words. Under his leadership last year, the Ravens finished the season third overall in total defense and held down Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC title game. Ironically, if Lee Evans had held onto that Joe Flacco pass in the end zone or if Billy Cundiff had hit that 32-yard field goal, Pagano may never have made it to Indianapolis in the first place.
If either of those two things had happened, the Ravens may have advanced to the Super Bowl and there's no telling if the Colts would have waited another two weeks to fill their coaching vacancy.
"There's a lot of things that transpired through the course of the end of that [AFC championship] game that you look at and say, 'yeah we make that catch and score that touchdown or make that kick and go to overtime and win that football game and you don't have an opportunity to visit with somebody about a job,'" Pagano said. "It's funny how things happen,"
After spending the better part of three decades as an assistant coach both at the college and professional levels and after being nurtured in a football family, Pagano couldn't resist the opportunity to be a head coach, even if it was with an organization believed to be in the midst of a massive rebuilding project.
A couple of months into his dream job, Pagano experienced any person's worst nightmare. Feeling unusually fatigued and with bruises popping up on different parts of his body, Pagano went for testing during the Colts' bye week in late September. The testing and blood work revealed that Pagano had acute promyelocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow that is considered curable.
Even during his worst days as he struggled with the side effects of chemotherapy, Pagano kept up with his team by watching practice and game tape and talking daily with interim coach Bruce Arians. He was buoyed by the play of his young team — the Colts won eight of their next 10 games after the bye week — and the support that he continued to receive from those around the league.
"The best medicine that I could get was just the job that Bruce Arians did and the rest of this coaching staff and the way this team played for 12 weeks as I watched from either a hospital room downtown or from home once I got out of the hospital," Pagano said. "There was never doubt in my mind. I had a family to take care of. I had kids to take care of and a lot of people, from a family perspective, that were counting on me. They were very inspiring just watching this team week-in and week-out."
After the Colts' 23-20 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium, Pagano visited his players in the locker room. Looking thinner and nearly bald — side effects of the chemotherapy — Pagano said to his team: "It's already beat. My vision is that I'm living to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and lift the Lombardi Trophy several times."
Nearly two months later, with his cancer in remission, Pagano returned to the team in time for the Dec. 30th regular-season finale against the Houston Texans, getting a standing ovation when he exited the tunnel. After the game, a 28-16 Colts win, Pagano danced in the locker room, creating another indelible image.
"I can't put into words what he's going through and what his team is going through. I think they're playing on a different level," said Ravens cornerback Cary Williams who became a starter last year under Pagano. "They're playing for something else outside of football. There's a lot more emotional things involved especially when things hit that close to home to you. … Good things happen to good guys and I'm happy for that guy. For those guys to get to where they are right now, it's just a testament to how great of a person he is, how hard of a worker he is and just being able to fight through the struggles."
Harbaugh said that he looks forward to walking to the center of the field before Sunday's game and telling Pagano that he loves him and saying a silent prayer for all the Colts coach has been through.
Several other Ravens who have stayed in contact with Pagano talked excitedly about seeing him again, but once the game begins, the good sentiment will go out the window.
"We cherished the time we had with him," Jones said. "It's unfortunate that he's on the other side, but there's no joint championship. Someone's got to win. We're excited about the challenge."
Safety Bernard Pollard summed up the Ravens' feelings succintly, saying, "Chuck is a great coach. I'm sure the fans are going to welcome him."We're going to love him, we're going to embrace him, but, at the same time, we got to beat him."