Chuck Pagano was pretty emotional, too.
The Colts got their coach back on Monday. Much like the team, he beat long odds and arrived well ahead of schedule.
One day shy of three months after being diagnosed with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (APML), a cancer-free Pagano returned to work with a heartfelt, personal and extremely emotional press conference a the team’s West 56th Street complex.
“I’m ready to go,” Pagano said. “As Dr. Cripe (of the IU Health Simon Cancer Center) told me, he said to be prudent, be smart with how you attack this thing. …I’ve still got a strict regimen to stick to and there’s a plan for the next couple of years and a few years after that.
“This thing’s rolling pretty good if I just don’t get in the way. I feel great. My weight’s back, my energy’s back, it’s just a blessing to be back here.”
Pagano returns to a team that went 9-3 in his absence and stands 10-5, having secured the fifth seed in the AFC playoff bracket heading into the regular season finale against Houston Sunday in Lucas Oil Stadium.
But there was little discussion of the upcoming game.
“I know Chuck is ready for this challenge,” said owner Jim Irsay. “Speaking to his doctor multiple times, I know the time is right for him to grab the reigns, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey.
“It’s been a miraculous story. It’s a book, it’s a fairy-tale, it’s a Hollywood script. It’s all those things, but it’s real.”
Pagano first met with the team at 10 a.m. and received a standing ovation before the players settled down and became a rapt audience.
“You could’ve heard a pin drop,” said safety Tom Zbikowski, who followed Pagano to the Colts from Baltimore. “Everyone was hanging on any word that he was saying. I think it just shows that even the guys’ first time meeting him, shows how much respect they have for what he brings to the table and just the type of the person he is and the camaraderie of this team.
“We were all waiting for him. We all got behind coach Arians and everybody else on the team did. It was good to welcome him back and move forward now.”
Then came the public press conference at 12:15, which Pagano opened by thanking as many people as he could, from Irsay to the hospital janitorial staff and everyone in between.
He was particularly complimentary of Bruce Arians, who guided the team while Pagano was undergoing treatment and may well become the first interim coach to win the NFL’s Coach of the Year award.
“When I asked Bruce to take over, I said, ‘You’ve got to kick some you-know-what and you’ve got to do great,’ but damn, Bruce, you had to go win nine games?” he said, laughing. “Tough act to follow. Best in the history of the NFL and that’s what I’ve got to come back to. I’ve got my hands full. I told them today, I thanked all the staff and everybody and the team, I’ll try just not to get in the way and do the very best I can to get back into this.”
Because the Houston game is inconsequential for the Colts, who will travel to face the No. 4 seed — possibly Pagano’s former Ravens — in the wild-card round of the playoffs, this is an ideal time for his return.
There is no pressure to win the Houston game, allowing both the coach and the team to get back into their normal rhythm.
All involved made sure to point out there would no disruption, no distraction, and that the transition from Arians back to Pagano would be seamless.
“When he left and coach Arians took over, it was the same intensity,” said Reggie Wayne. “We’re just putting it back to the way it was, just a different face talking in front of the team, but a face that we were already used to. So nothing changes.
“Hopefully you see a team that’s even more motivated just having Chuck (Pagano) out there and knowing what he went through, all the hard times and all the dedication that he put in to getting back here.”
After taking Christmas off, Pagano, Arians and the Colts will get back to work Wednesday.
“My job as the head football coach,” Pagano said, “is just beginning all over again.”