INDIANAPOLIS–* *Sunday just after 4:00 p.m., Colts players walked off the field at Lucas Oil Stadium with a 17-13 victory over visiting Cleveland.
It was another mission completed at home, where the Colts are 3-1 in 2012.
Moments later, Owner and CEO Jim Irsay was given a chance to address his players and coaches in the locker room, and he informed them that Head Coach Chuck Pagano had watched the game from his Indianapolis home after being discharged this morning from a local hospital.
A happy locker room felt an exhilaration that topped the on-field achievement.
"It's awesome that he had the opportunity to go back home and watch the game from the comfort of his own home," said kicker Adam Vinatieri. "I can't imagine staying in the hospital that long and going through what he's going through. Just being able to be in your own home and watching it from your own couch (is wonderful).
"That's a huge victory to be able to go home. The next step is we can't wait until he gets back in the facility and is around us. That's huge that he's back home and doing well."
The team's beloved coach had spent the past three weeks fighting a treatable form of leukemia. He was diagnosed with the illness on September 26, after the team's third game and during its bye week, and Pagano started the recovery protocol immediately.
Pagano had received a few members of the team while in the hospital, and he had texted messages to players and instruction to coaches along the way – frequently.
Safety Tom Zbikowski learned along with the players after the game that Pagano had gone home. Zbikowski, who played for Pagano in Baltimore, had just visited Pagano on Friday. Like a coach and friend, Pagano gave him some tips that may have showed up today as Zbikowski had two tackles and two passes defensed as the defense excelled in the win.
"I went and saw him on Friday. I stopped in and it was good to see him, just joking around with him. He was resting a little. Just the little texts he sends are an inspiration. (He said) just to cut loose a little bit, just play, not think so much," said Zbikowski. "We didn't find out until after (the game he went home). That makes it that much sweeter to know he was out of the hospital. He was in good care (in the hospital), but there's no place like home. It's one step closer to maybe being here. We're all excited that he's going in the right direction."
As Pagano got comfortable, he saw his team score enough points on its first two drives to win the game over Cleveland. He had to wait until the final second ticked off the clock, however, to exhale.
Cleveland recovered from a 14-6 halftime deficit to come within a point. Vinatieri added a third-quarter field goal, but Cleveland reached the Indianapolis 39 at the two-minute warning.
Pagano has seen his team win twice already at home in the final minute, while a loss to Jacksonville three days before his illness was detected came also in the final 60 seconds.
On fourth-and-six with 1:57 to go, cornerback Jerraud Powers broke up a Brandon Weeden pass. Indianapolis was able to milk all but one second off the clock and a final Cleveland completion that featured multiple laterals was snuffed out at the Browns' 42.
The feeling of victory was about to be lifted higher when players learned the news about their coach from Irsay.
"I'm thrilled to hear about that. I'm more thrilled about that than the win," said quarterback Andrew Luck, who completed 16-of-29 passes for 186 yards, while rushing twice for touchdowns.
Pagano has touched a chord with all players during his time here, inspiring them to play on the field and represent themselves well in the city. One of the most noteworthy performers, Pat McAfee, was thrilled about his coach's news.
"In a process that involves morale, I think going home and getting back to what you're used to is huge win for him," said McAfee. "Obviously, it's a positive locale where he is going and how his rehab is going. It's amazing thing. We're happy to get the win for him."
Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians has guided the club to a 2-1 mark in Pagano's absence. His first game at the helm for Pagano was the team's 30-27 victory over Green Bay two weeks ago in dramatic fashion when the team bounced back from a 21-3 halftime deficit.
That day, Irsay presented Pagano with the game ball in the hospital. Today, Arians was the first to announce the news of Pagano's personal victory beyond those who were on hand in the locker room.
"Great news, Coach Pagano celebrated this one at home. He was at the house, released. We're really excited about that. That's probably as big as the win today," said Arians. "He's been released to his house. The treatments will go on from there. I'm sure he's doing great right now. Hopefully, he didn't get too dag-gone exhausted again coaching."
The Colts have been resilient this season. An opening day loss in Chicago was followed by a home win with eight seconds left over Minnesota. After a tough last-minute loss to Jacksonville, the Colts rallied to beat Green Bay. A 35-9 loss last week to the New York Jets found Indianapolis come back Sunday and run the ball for 148 yards, while limiting the Browns to 55 yards.
It is the first game this year Indianapolis has out-rushed an opponent. It came with a defensive line that was missing starters Cory Redding and Fili Moala, plus a reserve in Martin Tevaseu. Linebacker Robert Mathis also was out, while linebacker Dwight Freeney fought through a tender ankle.
Still, the grittiest Colt is Pagano, and players and the organization are joined by Colts and football fans everywhere in hoping for his quick return.
"It's just icing on the cake when you know he's going in the right direction, that his fight is hopefully nearing the end here in the near future," said General Manager Ryan Grigson. "We just have to get him well and get him back here at some point. It sure is a good feeling to know he is out of there and he's getting ready to conquer this thing."