INDIANAPOLIS –On January 25 of this year, Chuck Pagano was introduced as the head coach of the Colts.
On December 24, he re-introduced himself as head coach after spending the last three months waging a successful fight with leukemia. It was a special moment, one Pagano identified as truly significant.
"The happiest day of my life was July 1, 1989. That's when I got married to my wife, Tina," said Pagano as he thanked her for being a "warrior, soldier and soul mate.
"I told you the best day of my life…today is number two."
With that, Pagano is back with the Colts. He mixed with his players and coaches at a meeting this morning, one where he received a standing ovation.
Just past noon, Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay welcomed Pagano back officially.
"What a joyous occasion. We're in the playoffs, we're ecstatic about that. The main thing we're ecstatic about is Chuck is here, and he's healthy," said Irsay. "To be here now, it's just a joy. I want to thank everyone, the entire state of Indiana and people throughout the country who have prayed and gotten behind Chuck…with the support that means so much to him."
Pagano spent a great deal of time thanking his supportive family beyond Tina. He was referring to his children, parents and other loves ones. He also was citing those in and outside the Colts organization and to many in and beyond Indianapolis.
"I knew this was a great place," said Pagano. "If you're going to have to go through something like we went through, there is no place I'd rather be than right here as a Colt, living in this great state of Indiana and going through this with everyone (here) and everyone who supported us. I'll forever be in debt to each and every one of you. There is no better place."
Pagano is re-entering the fray that saw his team go 9-3 in his absence. Taking the "60 Minutes, One Play at a Time, All You Got" message he instilled this spring, the team has not dropped consecutive games all year and has produced an NFL record-tying seven wins in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Indianapolis earned a playoff bid with yesterday's 20-13 comeback win in Kansas City, and Irsay is ready for Pagano to return to the sidelines.
"I know Chuck is ready for this challenge," said Irsay. "I know the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey of the second half of the season, which includes the playoffs. We are so excited."
Arians lauded interim field leader Bruce Arians for winning nine games in his absence. Arians was the first person Pagano called when he landed the Colts' job, and Arians was the first person Pagano reached when he was admitted with his illness in late September.
"What a masterful job you did, Bruce," said Pagano. "You carried the torch. All you went out and did was win nine ballgames and got us our 10th win yesterday, and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity, and you did it with class.
"The entire coaching staff, all the work you've done and put in, I can't thank you enough. To our players, for their effort and work, I told them this morning the sky's the limit for this group. There is no quit."
Arians joined Irsay in having a special feeling in Pagano's return.
"It was awesome," said Arians of the morning meeting. "You could feel the happiness that the players and the coaching staff had. (It was) just unbelievable reception when he walked in. It was a really good feeling, especially on Christmas Eve."
Safety Tom Zbikowski is one of the most intuitive players on the roster. Just as he saw how Arians weaved his way into the process by keeping Pagano's message, he sees the same ease the situation will have now with Pagano's return.
"Seamless," said Zbikowski. "The two coaches have similar philosophies, similar approaches. They've been friends. They've been coaching for quite some time. This team, this staff, this organization is so united that there's not going to be much of a transition at all. It's just going to be like old times."