INDIANAPOLIS –Bruce Arians has seen many things in a coaching career that dates back to 1975.
What he experienced on Sunday, however, was a first when his close friend, Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano, let him know he would have to step aside to fight Acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Arians, a 2007 prostate cancer survivor, knows he must fill Pagano's role, though it is not a circumstance he wishes existed.
"This is not an easy day for all of us, not the way that I had ever dreamed about addressing a group like this," said Arians on Monday at a hastily-arranged news conference. "I know we are going to get through it. We do it the way we do as coaches and players – one day-at-a-time, one play-at-a-time."
Like many players and coaches, Arians was away from Indianapolis over the bye weekend. He heard from Pagano just prior to returning, and it was a call that gave Arians pause. It also drew a distinction between working and the human side of sport they both love.
"When Chuck called me yesterday, I was floored," said Arians. "I was down South at my house in Georgia and was getting ready to come back on the flight when he called. He was chatting like he's always chatting, then he dropped the news on me. My first reaction is, 'How it is? Is everything going to be alright? How's Tina? How's the girls.' He wanted to totally convince all of us that everything was going to be great, like he always does.
"When I talked to him about football, it was the easy part of the conversation. Football is not who we are, it's what we do as players and coaches. It doesn't define us. Family does. Faith does. That was more the conversation. The football part, you just go on, you march on. That's always the way this business has been. … He doesn't expect it to stop. He expects us to pick it up and keep it rolling until he gets back. That's exactly what we're going to do."
Pagano and Arians have known each other for years. They served together in Cleveland from 2001-03, with Arians being the offensive coordinator and Pagano being the secondary coach. They clashed as opponents in 2004 when Arians went to Pittsburgh as receivers coach. They butted heads in earnest for the last four seasons as Pagano served as Baltimore's secondary coach (2008-10) and defensive coordinator (2011), while Arians was the Steelers' offensive coordinator.
Their relationship expands well beyond the field, as well as across many years.
"Chuck and his family, (we're close). Johnny (Chuck's younger brother) and I worked together here a long time ago and in New Orleans together (1996). I've known Sam (Chuck's father) and his mom, they're kind of like my West Coast family," said Arians. "Chuck and I worked together in Cleveland. We battled when he was in Baltimore and I was in Pittsburgh. For a few good years there, we had great games that always went to the wire.
"There's always been a great mutual respect. His family is my family. When he made the call for me to come (to Indianapolis), there never was a doubt or hesitance on my part to join him. I knew he'd do this right. He's doing it the right way, and we're going to continue that until he comes back."
The kinship and ethic between the pair leads Arians to know Indianapolis will have a good chance of surviving Pagano's absence.
"Chuck has laid a foundation here that is on rock-solid ground. The players know it. The coaches know it. We will continue his fight," said Arians. "He will do fine. I know him. He's a fighter. He's survived tough times already in his life. As a cancer survivor myself, I know that these first few days are really hard on you. As he and I talked yesterday, it's just a matter of time."
Arians was the head coach at Temple from 1983-88. It is the only time he has served in the lead role. He took the Colts through a practice Monday, and the team will return on Wednesday to start preparations in full for Green Bay. Arians relayed the specific message he delivered to Pagano's troops.
"That this foundation is built solid, and we know how to do it. It's just a matter of continuing on to build what we started," said Arians. "If Chuck can't make it back for the regular season, why can't we extend the season? Play a few more games until he gets back. We're going to get some guys healthy. We're going to get better each week. Let's extend the season for him so he can come back."
Owner and CEO Jim Irsay said earlier in the day that the organization's goal would be to win on Sunday and deliver a game ball to Pagano. Kicker Adam Vinatieri echoed that, as well as Arians' charge to keep a season alive until Pagano can return.
"Keep on playing until he can get back," said Vinatieri. "We'd all like to get out there, play well and bring him a game ball. We're going to do everything we can do to that."
Quarterback Andrew Luck believes it is essential for the team to play to its ability because it is something Pagano wants and expects.
"I think it's almost more of an obligation to him, for us to (continue) the foundation he's laid so far, hold up (our) end and work and do what he would want," said Luck. "If we can come into work the way he came into work and the way he did things, hopefully we'd hold our end of the bargain and see him back out here."
The familiar phrase, "Next Man Up," precedes both Pagano and Luck in Indianapolis. Luck believes this is an extreme situation that pertains to that phrase.
"Absolutely. I think it is. We have to find a way to get it done," said Luck. "We need to do everything in honor of what Coach Pagano's going through, in honor of his fight that is much more severe and maybe much more 'real world' than playing a kid's game for a living."
To honor an ailing friend, Arians has made a request of Irsay.
"I asked Mr. Irsay if we would leave the light on in his office permanently until he comes back, and we are going to do that," said Arians. "This football team will survive. Today is about Chuck, and we'll get ready for the Packers on Sunday. We won't miss a beat because he's laid that foundation that we will all take and run with right now and make him proud. Chuck wants us to get back to work."
Doing so is a tough reality of the sport. Pagano, Arians and many others associated with the NFL have seen this happen.
"That's just the way it is in this business. It just so happens it's cold at times when as a coach, you have a player injured on the field, you just move the drill down 12-15 yards to keep practicing so the doctors can do their job for that player," said Arians. "That's what we have to do right now. We have to move on today, get through today and get ready for the Packers. I know that's the way Chuck wants it."