INDIANAPOLIS – Friday night at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center was a special occasion as approximately 75 coaches, players and organization members participated in the Second Annual Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala.
The event brought together almost 500 people in tailgate attire to help raise awareness and funds for cancer research at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center.
Funds raised will be used to support cancer research projects and accelerate the translation of laboratory discoveries to patients in Indiana and beyond.
"We're here for one reason and that's to raise money for cancer research," said Chuck Pagano. "Like our goal and vision we're chasing every day is that Lombardi (Trophy), the goal and vision of the Chuckstrong gala is to do the same thing.
"We have a vision and goal for someday finding a cure for all cancers. Somebody a long time ago had the passion, perseverance and resources, and they came up with a cure for APL, the kind of leukemia I had. The cure rate went from 50 percent to low 90s.
"That's the reason I'm here, like the people (from IU) who were willing to serve and donate their time and money. We're setting a lofty goal. Why not start here in Indianapolis, stamp out cancer and go from there."
In 2012, Pagano's first season as Colts coach, he noticed bruising and fatigue during training camp and at the urging of his wife, Tina, he sought medical help.
Pagano was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). Under care at the IU Simon Cancer Center, he was able to fight the disease over a 13-week period before returning to the sidelines.
The Colts that year went 11-5 and made the playoffs, and his appearance at the Houston finale, a 28-16 victory, was one of the more poignant moments in the club's Indianapolis era.
Pagano started the tailgate in 2013, and the event raised $1.1 million through corporate sponsorships, live and silent auctions and a matching gift of $50,000 from the Paganos.
The total was reached partially through the sales of 18,603 Chuckstrong T-shirts and 22,038 wristbands as Colts fans, football fans and people everywhere were inspired by his battle.
Pagano and the organization have kept the cause visible since, and it continues to strike vibrant chords.
"You never know, cancer can hit anybody," said guard Donald Thomas, who spent that year with New England. "People have died from cancer in my family, and people have survived cancer.
"To have cancer awareness and make people more aware of it, you never know because it can hit anyone. It's a very important function, and it's for a great cause, period. I want to be involved with it, and I think everyone else should be involved, too."
Said tackle Josh Chapman, "The value of this event is to support people in the community who supported our coach when he was down. We want to give back to those people. I love being a part of this cause and giving back to people (in need).
"This is a great camaraderie around us. It's a team thing, and a lot of guys stick with each other. It's an organization thing, and we stick with the organization."
Coby Fleener was a rookie when Pagano was stricken, and he is happy to support the cause and his only NFL coach.
"I think raising money for that kind of cause is beneficial for everyone. There are no losers in an effort like this," said Fleener. "Coach Pagano has done so much for me as an individual, for my teammates and the organization, how could I not support him in any way possible? To me, it's an honor."
Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson joined the Colts this off-season after eight years in Cleveland. He noticed the story going on in Indianapolis that year, and cited Pagano as one reason why he has come on board.
"You're dealing with a good guy. He's been through a lot in his life," said Jackson. "The guy is high on life, and I want to be around people like that."
Tackle Gosder Cherilus battled the inspired Colts team that year while with Detroit. The Colts' dramatic 35-33 comeback win was among signature moments that year, though all paled greatly when Pagano returned.
Cherilus, one of the biggest-hearted players, loves this cause and finds his coach among one of the centerpieces of the fight.
"I'm here to support Coach Pagano," said Cherilus. "How could I not? If I were the one doing the same thing, he'd be right there for me. He's shown it many, many, many times.
"I'm fully committed to Chuck and this cause. If he wants to do this more than once, I'll be here."
Pagano has just finished a checkup and says he is in "full molecular remission." He has been having the checkups every three months for the past 18 months and with taking his medicine (ATRA), says the goal to be considered completely recovered is five years.
"We've never really taken any days for granted. Now, you have a little different perspective," said Pagano. "We know the pressure and expectations that come with this job, but we're playing a kid's game. It's a privilege to coach and play a kid's game, the stakes are high.
"When you go through what these many of these people have been through and you deal with circumstances and cancer, we're very lucky. It puts everything into perspective."