INDIANAPOLIS –Football always has been an emotional sport played by emotional men.
Sunday in Indianapolis was a bit different as the Colts hosted Miami. Moments before Indianapolis took the field to battle the Dolphins, a game that would put the winner at 5-3 and very much into the playoff hunt, Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians had his team circled for a final word.
Then, he sprung a surprise.
"I'd called everybody up for the prayer and said, 'Open up the back door.' We never do that," said Arians. "They (players and coaches) looked, and Chuck (Pagano) came through the door.
"When they finally saw him, it was great. He was great. It was great to see him. We know what he's fixing to go through (with more leukemia treatment)."
Pagano was around the full team for the first time since being diagnosed with leukemia in late September. He had visited with his coaches and a few players this past Monday at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, but he had not seen the entire squad in more than a month.
As the team was ready to exit the locker room, Pagano had a particular message.
"You can't control the circumstances. You're dealt a hand, and you play it out. It was going to take all 60 minutes with all 53 guys. That's what he said," said Arians.
Indianapolis engaged in a game that was tied twice and had six lead changes before kicker Adam Vinatieri's 43-yard field goal with 5:58 left accounted for the winning points.
The Indianapolis offense amassed 516 yards, including an NFL rookie passing mark of 433 yards by Andrew Luck. After yielding 17 first-half points, the Colts limited Miami to three in the second half, making a stop on downs inside two minutes at midfield in icing the win.
An emotional Pagano congratulated the team afterward for its heart and fighting spirit, a competitive integrity and drive that has led it past obstacles to a 5-3 record when most observers dismissed the club's chances. It was a warm moment for everyone present.
"It was incredibly special day just having Chuck in the building, being here," said Owner and CEO Jim Irsay. "I didn't know how long his energy would hold up but just him being here made the win that more special.
"This year has been so emotion and so much has happened with the different victories and this one. It's hard to rank the moments because there have been so many of them, but this one ranks up there. It's incredible. Having Chuck here with us and having him in the locker room afterward was super special."
Like Irsay, Arians was emotional after the win.
"To have him in the locker room after a win was bigger than the speech before the game. It meant so much to the guys to do that for him and to play 60 minutes. That's what he preaches. We're very proud of the win for these guys," said Arians.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne is the most senior Colt and has known Pagano since collegiate days at Miami. He felt a certain a very special emotional tug.
"It was having the opportunity to go out there and play together. We have a foundation that's built. Let's continue to build it. We all have obstacles in front of us. We have to be able to move around those obstacles. He put his situation with ours, it's no different," said Wayne of Pagano's message. "One beautiful thing he said was that the obstacle (leukemia) he has was beat. That just makes you want to go out and play even harder.
"It was an emotional time. I'm glad he was able to come share his moment with us. I don't think there wasn't anyone in this locker room today who wouldn't give anything to get a 'W' today for him. I wasn't sure if he was still here or was at home but when he walked in after the victory, it was hard to hold everything back. There were teary eyes. It took everything we had to get it done. It was sweeter to have him here."
Safety Tom Zbikowski came to Indianapolis from Baltimore just after Pagano joined the Colts. He has shared many moments with the field leader and having him around today was memorable.
"It was good to see him and to see the way he has responded (to the illness and treatment)," said Zbikowski. "We just loved having him around, having him back, hearing his voice, seeing him again. It feels right – winning three games in a row and seeing your coach come out of the hospital and be in the locker room."
Linebacker Dwight Freeney experienced a moment that transcended the game itself.
"You can't measure how much that lifts a team. He's one of us," said Freeney. "To see the look on his face, especially before the game and definitely after the game was priceless. It tells you it's a little bit bigger than football."
"He brings so much emotion and we love him so much. To see him here, it tells you he's feeling a lot better. His fight's not over it yet but for him to come out, it's amazing. It was very emotional when he spoke (afterwards). We got a victory and that type of victory, for him to witness it, I bet his heart was thumping."
Pat McAfee felt the significance of the moment in having his head coach back around the team.
"He's one of the guys who through this situation has been there with us basically through Bruce Arians. Bruce always says, 'Chuck said this. Chuck said that.' When we finally got a chance to see him and feel his presence, his charisma is contagious," said McAfee. "His leadership is unreal. When you got a chance to see him, it was a priceless feeling.
"Today after the game when he spoke to us, I don't think there was a guy who wasn't choked up. It's because we appreciate and respect him so much. A guy like that comes into your life, you feel honored, lucky. It's great to hear him say he's going to beat it (leukemia). We've all been saying it but to hear it from the man himself, it's amazing."
Indianapolis upped its mark with a third straight win. Arians moved to 4-1 in Pagano's absence, tying the franchise record for interim head coach victories. The Colts moved in a positive direction in the effort of staying "in the hunt," a term Arians has used recently and openly.
Now the team has a game in Jacksonville on Thursday. That was the last opponent Pagano faced before being diagnosed. Arians wants the team to keep up with the approach that has marked the last three weeks.
"Just go to work tomorrow. Don't worry about December and January," said Arians. "We're beat up. That was a physical football game. We're going to play a divisional game on the road. We have to respect the process each day. Take one day at a time."