Chuck Pagano's contract extension with the Colts was celebrated with fanfare rarely seen for an NFL coach.
Because Chuck Pagano has become more than a football coach in Indianapolis and in the NFL.
His public battle with leukemia in 2012 mounted a CHUCKSTRONG movement on social media and in the community and it landed him in a unique position. One he didn't ask to be put in, but one he has embraced nonetheless.
"I think he is Indianapolis' ultimate cancer fighter. I mean, he is the epitome of a cancer survivor giving back to the cancer community and he's very uniquely positioned to do that," says Amber Kleopfer Senseny, Senior Associate Director of Development for Indiana University's Simon Cancer Center.
After coaching the last game of his final season under contract, Pagano's future with the Colts was uncertain.
As the end of the season neared, a quiet whisper turned into a loud cry. In the spirit of CHUCKSTRONG and in a movement reminiscent of 2012, players, fans, and members of the community rallied around Coach Pagano.
Colts fan Mike Bostic came up with the hashtag #ChuckStay and started a social media campaign to bring Pagano back, saying he felt with all his heart that Chuck should remain the coach of the Colts.
"I think he represents so much more than just football. I think he's shown us all how to handle adversity and live each day fully. And I can't think of a better person to lead the Colts and be a representative of Indianapolis."
Ultimately, the team agreed.
Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward says the Colts weren't surprised by the support. And they agree, Pagano is a great fit for Indianapolis and the team.
"Indy loves Chuck. He bonded with our community almost immediately following his arrival in 2012, and he's touched a lot of lives here over the past four years."
And most importantly, "He's also won a lot of football games."
Ward acknowledges that Indianapolis is a place where how you win matters. It's part of a culture and part of the Colts' culture.
"I think Indy appreciates humility. We saw how our community embraced Tony Dungy and it's similar with Chuck."
Amber Kleopfer Senseny has worked closely with Pagano planning his annual CHUCKSTRONG Tailgate Gala, which raises money for cancer research. It's that humility she marvels at.
"You don't have to be somebody to be somebody to Coach. If you have cancer, it doesn't matter who you are, he's going to reach out, he's going to make sure that you know that you are loved and you are thought of and I just think that's really impressive."
And the same goes for his event, which has been held every spring since 2013.
"He has never given us the impression that this is anything but a labor of love for him. He just acts like this is his privilege to be able to serve in this way."
This year's event will be held on Thursday, April 21st. It also serves as a kickoff to the 2016 season. It's a gala like no other, where guests arrive in their tailgate finest and rub elbows with players, coaches, and Colts executives like Ward, who serves as Chairman of the Development Board for IU Simon Cancer Center and who Kleopfer Senseny says has paved the way for the event every year.
"We start the evening by transforming the indoor practice field into sort of an adult playground. So, people come in and they're running the 40 alongside maybe a player or a friend and it's all timed and there's a whiteboard where people are writing up the best times and comparing your time to a player's time," she says. "There's all sorts of inflatables where you can try to throw the ball through. There's a JUGS machine and you can try to catch the ball."
And there are plenty of Colts players in attendance.
"There is tremendous player participation, there always has been. David Thornton (Colts Director of Player Engagement) is on our committee and helps rally the guys. But frankly, I don't think it's a very hard sell. I think those guys love Pagano and it's obvious that they love Pagano and they come."
*The CHUCKSTRONG Tailgate Gala is a corporate sponsorship event sold by the table. For information, contact Amber Kleopfer Senseny at IU Simon Cancer Center at: 317-278-4510 or email@example.com.
The third annual Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala was hosted by the Colts and Chuck Pagano. The event raised money for the IU Simon Cancer Center.