INDIANAPOLIS – Chuck Pagano spoke openly when he arrived on the Colts’ scene in January of 2012 for wanting to build relationships with his players.
Pagano’s words were not empty ones, and players flourished last year under that guiding principle.
Rookies contributed, veterans led and the team jumped nine games in the standings and took flight to the playoffs.
Friday, he said the rookie camp was like being back to his coaching roots.
“It’s like they’re freshmen in college all over again. It’s kind of neat that way. It’s great for the coaches starting over, and it’s great for these kids.”
Pagano is a relentlessly positive sort, displaying that approach long before last season started and certainly early once it did when he was diagnosed with leukemia.
He fought hard and maintained contact with his players through a 12-week treatment that took him from the sidelines.
From his hospital bed, Pagano texted players and coaches to keep those relationships firm. He offered text message instruction to a young player like
Presto, Hilton “housed” one return 75 yards against Buffalo in a key November win.
On the eve of camp Pagano felt he was ready to go because he had so much lost coaching time last year.
That first meeting was vintage Pagano. Staring draft picks, undrafted free agents and 13 non-contract tryouts in their eyes, Pagano told them to dream big again.
“I told them (Friday) night, ‘You’re here. I don’t care how you got here, but you’re sitting in an NFL meeting right now. You made it to this point.’ ”
The first exposure to an NFL camp is an anxiety-ridden time for a newcomer.
Once in the early 1990s, an undrafted free agent from an ACC school got one peek at the veterans in the locker room and starting inquiring about the possibility of a front office internship.
(In those days, the rookies were not split from the veterans in the camp held after the draft.)
Pagano masters every moment and used one of his coaches – defensive coordinator Greg Manusky – as Exhibit A that anything is possible in the NFL.
“We talked about a lot of guys (who had pro careers),” said Pagano. “We talked about a guy like our defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, who sat around in 1988 when they had 12 rounds in the draft. Guys sit around for seven (rounds) now and act miserable. Can you imagine sitting around for 12 rounds?
“He sat there and went undrafted for 12 rounds and ended up getting in a camp and played 12 years in the National Football League.
“Anything can happen. You’re here. We don’t care how you got here. Take advantage of the opportunity.”
Manusky played in 178 games with Washington, Minnesota and Kansas City prior to starting a coaching career that is entering a 13th season – a quarter century NFL career for an undrafted player.
“I was touted to get drafted when they had 12 rounds, and I didn’t. I was frustrated and upset,” said Manusky. “During that time, playing in the NFL was the only goal in my life. I was fortunate to get a free agent tryout with Washington. It was the best experience I ever had because I had a place to pick, rather than being selected somewhere where maybe I didn’t fit into their scheme.
“I ended up making the team, so what started out as a negative (not getting drafted) really impacted my career in the best way.”
As day two of camp gets underway, players have a baseline of experience now in seeing how things run. There will be high notes and low notes as they are fed instruction.
“It’s a beginner’s mentality for all of us,” said Pagano.