INDIANAPOLIS –At 10:00 a.m. today at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, Head Coach Chuck Pagano strode down a few steps to a podium in the team meeting room and encountered a warm moment from a friendly crowd.
Players and coaches rose and provided Pagano, absent for three months while battling leukemia, with a heart-felt round of applause.
"It was very exciting. Everybody got up and there was a standing ovation," said Robert Mathis. "It was a great scene, a great feeling. Anything that you want to call it that is good, it was that. It is great to have him back."
Pagano coached three games this season before being diagnosed with the illness. He waged a fight much different than the ones faced by his team for the 12 games he was away.
The Christmas Eve return by a beloved head coach was a moment that transcended football.
"It was one of those moments that you only get to experience once or twice in your life," said Pat McAfee. "We had the opportunity after the big win over (Miami) to hear him speak.
"Today, it was another one of those situations. You get to witness a guy who has done something almost miraculous."
Like his teammates, McAfee was surprised by Pagano's illness. It was announced during the team's open week in late September. Players were assured his return would occur, and McAfee said it was something Pagano never doubted.
"When this happened and the leukemia diagnosis came out, nobody really expected this. He told us today that he never had any doubts," said McAfee. "We were super-pumped to see him. It's one of those things where we were told what was going to happen and when it actually comes to fruition, it's amazing."
Antoine Bethea started his career under another beloved Colts coaching figure, Tony Dungy. Dungy was the type of leader who inspired deep feelings in players, and Bethea felt a strong emotional tug with Pagano's return.
"It was good. He got a standing ovation," said Bethea. "It felt really good to be able to see him come back and knowing he'll be back for good."
The team was 9-3 in Pagano's absence and under the direction of interim leader Bruce Arians. Arians acknowledged freely that the December 30 game with Houston was Pagano's targeted return, and Bethea says it played a role in the team's performance.
"It was a little extra incentive for guys to play hard to get him back," said Bethea. "To get him back in the form and fashion we've done at 10-5 and going for our 11th win, he'll be on the sidelines for the last game knowing there is more to come. The future is out there."
Pagano's fight took on a national following. His inspirational locker room speech after the Miami win on November 4 reached millions. McAfee noticed what was initially a moment inside the Colts' building took on larger, different meaning.
"We've realized since this whole leukemia situation came about and the ChuckStrong movement started that this was bigger than (football)," said McAfee. "Today put it all into perspective again. It's much bigger than us. We didn't want to let him down. We're going to keep it moving.
"It's bigger than us. It's bigger than the game. It's all about a relationship with a coach who has meant a lot to us."