INDIANAPOLIS – A year ago, Chuck Pagano stood at a podium and introduced himself to Colts fans everywhere.
In planned remarks that went about 20 minutes, Pagano spoke richly about himself and how fortunate he was. He spoke of the program he wanted to help build with the Colts, one that would have the Lombardi Trophy returning to Indianapolis more than once.
He spoke from the heart because he knew he was fortunate to be in the position. Now 52 weeks later, he feels even luckier to be the man at the helm.
“This is the greatest job in the world,” said Pagano. “To have the opportunity to be one of 32 is very humbling. It’s a great honor. We coach and play the very best sport in the world, the best team sport. It’s humbling and it’s an honor to be one of those guys. You hope you do a good enough job to be able to keep it as long as you want.”
As Pagano sat in his office, the room where lights burned for three months while he fought leukemia, he was amazed how quickly one year had gone by.
“It flew by so fast. With everything that transpired from day one until now, it seems like it was yesterday,” said Pagano. “Ryan (Grigson) was talking to guys and pushing them through my door. We were interviewing and trying to get a staff together. We were talking about the players who were coming and going and who we were keeping. All the different things you didn’t have to worry about as an assistant and the many things that came across your desk. It flew by really fast.”
Seventeen new coaches were hired. While some prominent players stayed with the team, more departed. They were replaced by veteran free agents, draft picks and other rookies.
For the Chicago opener, only 22 of 53 players remained prior to Grigson and Pagano’s arrival, a number that shrunk to 16 by season’s end. While fielding nearly 70 players during the season, there were about twice that many brought through the program without making it.
“Putting the team we put together (was fun),” said Pagano. “(We) mixed in a bunch of free agent acquisitions, draft guys, rookies. For them to come together as a team and do the things we asked them to do from day one – not listening to any pundits on what we can do and what we should do, just to work and do everything we ask – (was good).
“To be able to win 11 games, have the turnaround we had with a rookie quarterback and all the rookie offensive personnel we played, for them to mature and grow and do what they did in such a short time is a testament to their resiliency, to the type of men they are.”
In particular, Pagano recognized key players that helped the first-year program succeed.
“The leadership the pillar guys showed, the veterans (was important),” said Pagano. “If we didn’t have those guys around, I don’t know that we would have been 11-5, make the playoffs and have a shot at our number one goal, the Super Bowl. It was neat.”
Much like his preaching to the players, Pagano found himself giving the same instruction to his staff.
“It’s the same thing we talk to our players about, ‘It’s the process, one play at a time, one day at a time, 60 minutes, all you got,’ ” said Pagano. “Sometimes, there can be so many things thrown at you that you never had to deal with before. It can become overwhelming. I learned to take it one day at a time. Don’t let things overwhelm you. Attack one project at a time, get it done, put it away and move on to the next thing.”
Beyond the game was the illness Pagano suffered after the third game. The leukemia tested his strength, and that of his family and team.
Defeating the illness that put him through a series of treatments revealed to him the depth of his inner fortitude. He also was distanced from the excitement, yet he felt it.
“Dealing with what I dealt with off the field, you’re a lot stronger than you ever think you are to get through the circumstances,” said Pagano. “I watched from afar. They were my inspiration, just watching them fight and battle, never quit, work the process and play for 60 minutes. They didn’t look at the scoreboard and judge. You had seven fourth-quarter comebacks and won games.
One year smarter, Pagano is leading the charge into year two. It is one he relishes. The resiliency he saw organization-wide is what he wishes for this year. He has talked about the standard having been set, and that it must be met again.
It is a challenge he will face with a year’s lessons learned, professionally and personally.
“One thing we don’t do is take any day for granted around here,” said Pagano. “You try to get the most out of every day. Moving forward, things are in place. We have a great foundation built, and there is a lot to build on. I’m really looking forward to year two.”