Some things are bigger than football.
Cancer is one of those things.
On Thursday night, Chuck Pagano returned to Indianapolis for the 7th annual CHUCKSTRONG Tailgate Gala. Hosted by his former team, Pagano was welcomed back with hugs, handshakes, and high fives.
Former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano returned to Indianapolis last night for the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala, which brought together more than 450 people to help raise awareness and funds for cancer research at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center (IU Simon Cancer Center). Funds raised support cancer research focused on improved treatment options for patients.
The head coach of the Colts for six seasons, Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in October of 2012 - just months into his new job. The city and the team rallied around him while he sought treatment at Indiana University's Simon Cancer Center. During that time, the team slogan, #COLTSTRONG became #CHUCKSTRONG and that became his mantra for beating cancer.
Now the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears, Pagano was joined on Thursday by members of the Bears organization, including Chairman George McCaskey and head coach Matt Nagy.
In a seemingly unprecedented move, two NFL teams came together for one night in support of one man and one cause. And the man who brought them together couldn't have felt more blessed.
"Going back to a community that barely knew me, I had only been here a short time - the way they embraced me and my family and supported me through my cancer journey, I'm forever grateful. I'm forever in debt," Pagano said. "This is how we pay it forward. This is how we pay it back - by encouraging and helping others."
Helping other cancer patients is something Pagano has been doing since the day he was diagnosed.
"For people who have cancer, they become included in this fraternity or sorority that they didn't want to be a member of. But actually, it opens up an extraordinary family of love," said Dr. Pat Loehrer, Director of the IU Simon Cancer Center. "You don't get it until you're there, but once you're there, you realize you're not alone. And that's one of Chuck's big mottos, 'Never fight alone.'"
On Thursday night, the Colts, the Bears, the IU Simon Cancer Center, players and fans came together and raised $1.86 million dollars to help other cancer patients win their fight.
"For us to do research, it requires a team just like it does for the Colts," Loehrer said. "We need a team of scientists and researchers. We need equipment just like you have in the equipment room. We need money for pilot projects to allow people to do innovative experiments that will provide the background to get larger grants. Over the last five years, the number of grants we have received has gone up 47 percent and in large part because of the money and support we've had from CHUCKSTRONG."
Over the past seven years, CHUCKSTRONG has netted almost $7.5 million dollars for research at the IU Simon Cancer Center. Part of that funding brought Dr. Rachel Katzenellenbogen from Seattle to Indianapolis as the inaugural Chuck and Tina Pagano Scholar.
"It's an honor to be doing this work in their name," she said. "This funding is allowing me to bring smart people into my lab. We think of interesting questions that haven't been answered yet that will help us understand what causes these cancers and what we can do to identify and treat them faster."
The fact that a football coach used his cancer story to bring people together and help patients who have yet to be diagnosed was something Katzenellenbogen found both humbling and inspiring.
"He touches people through the work that he does in mentoring players and mentoring coaches in the positions he's held. But his longterm commitment to making sure that other people who have cancer get the best treatment based on the best research is just touching thousands and thousands of people," she said. "And it speaks to the brotherhood and community amongst the NFL that two different teams are here together."
Football is family.
It's not just a saying.
On Thursday night, the Colts and the Bears proved it.
"Chuck, he's not our head coach any longer - but it still feels like he's part of us because of the things he did while he was here and continues to do for our community," said Pete Ward, Chief Operating Officer of the Colts. "Our owner and Chuck are very close and will always be very close. They love each other. Everybody loves Chuck. He's made such an impact here, as has his wife, Tina."
It's not unprecedented, Ward said, for a former Colts coach to continue to have an impact in the Indianapolis community - citing Tony Dungy and the work he continues to do as part of the Colts family.
It speaks to the kind of people the Colts bring into the organization - men who transcend the job and leave a legacy that's far greater than wins and losses.
"One of the lessons you learn from Chuck is that his disease and cancer and family and faith supersede the game - and sports becomes a mechanism to make a real difference in the world," Loehrer said. "To be able to work and leverage that to make a difference outside of your work - it doesn't get any better than that."
Asked what compelled the Bears to join the CHUCKSTRONG Gala, McCaskey's answer was simple - Chuck Pagano.
"Chuck's a special guy and it's an important cause and we're happy to help in any way we can."
Chuck Pagano didn't battle cancer alone. He had the support of his family, his team, his community, and his game.
CHUCKSTRONG isn't just his story, it's history - Colts history, Indianapolis history, NFL history - and how they all came together to rally around one of their own.
"It really is a story of love and friendship," said Loehrer.
And it's a story that doesn't end.
"We committed a long time ago that we would be there for each other," Pagano said. "As long as I'm still living and breathing, I'll always be dedicated and committed to this cause and dedicated and committed to this city and to the IU Simon Cancer Center to do everything I can do to help this cause and this initiative."
Cancer is bigger than football.
And so is Chuck Pagano.