INDIANAPOLIS — Mental toughness is something instilled in most football players and coaches at a young age.
For Chuck Pagano, it was an attribute he found he had to cash in time and time again in 2012, when he was diagnosed with leukemia.
Now in remission after a courageous battle, Pagano has used his story to try to inspire others, as well as to raise awareness — and millions of dollars of funds — for the disease and those trying to find a cure.
On Friday, the Indianapolis Colts head coach was recognized for both his courage and his work with his CHUCKSTRONG foundation, when he received the Spirit Award at the Indiana Black Expo's Annual Summer Celebration.
Pagano was one of five to be honored on Friday at the Black Expo's Corporate Luncheon. Also receiving awards were Grammy Award-winning singer Dionne Warwick (Living Legend Award), actor Larenz Tate (Screen Image Award), legendary Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown (Lifetime Achievement Award) and Indiana Black Expo leader Leroy Robinson (The Rev. Charles R. Williams Excellence Award).
"It's truly a great honor to be here," Pagano said in a press conference Friday morning. "And I'm very grateful to stand in the midst of such greatness."
In a Corporate Luncheon that followed, Pagano was presented his award by legendary Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who said of Pagano: "That's my coach... That's my brother."
"Reggie, I am your coach," Pagano said. "But most importantly, I am your brother. For life."
After spending many years as a successful assistant coach and coordinator in the National Football League, Pagano was hired as the Colts' head coach on Jan. 25, 2012.
But just three games into the regular season, he was given a shock that nothing on the field could ever match.
"After 28 years and many moves — I think 12 — along the way, the phone rang, and I got my dream job," Pagano told the crowd on Friday. "And about eight months to the day — Sept. 26, 2012 — I was diagnosed with leukemia."
Fun candid images from the 2016 Chuckstrong Gala.
Pagano quickly found out that he wasn't alone in his battle, however.
After taking a leave of absence from the sidelines, Pagano — with the love and support of his family, friends and millions of fans across the state of Indiana and worldwide — battled the disease head-on.
Less than two months later, Pagano's doctors at the Indiana University Health Simon Cancer Center said the head coach was in remission.
Pagano has used used his battle for the greater good, taking the "CHUCKSTRONG" label used as a rallying cry for his team and its fans and turning it into his own foundation, which has since raised almost $4 million for continued cancer research.
Through it all, Pagano recalled Friday, it was the people of Indiana that inspired him to keep fighting.
"They didn't know me from Adam's house cat, but for them to embrace me and my family the way they did was just unbelievable," Pagano said. "This is a great, great community, and I love Indianapolis, and I love my job, and I'm very very grateful and thankful for the opportunity to continue to build what we're building here."
Taking a deep breath behind the lectern on Friday — and peeking at the tremendous activists in the front row also waiting to be honored — Pagano once again thanked those at the Indiana Black Expo for their graciousness, and for their acknowledgement of his story.
"I'm very, very grateful to be here, and it's an honor to be receiving this award, again, amongst such great people, such great legends — icons, if you will," he said. "So thank you very much."