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INDIANAPOLIS – There walks the Chuck Pagano everyone remembers, shaking hands, laughing, revealing that extroverted personality.
Remember him in September? Back before leukemia reared its ugly head on his body, forcing him into a fight no one would wish on their enemy, let alone the good-guy new Indianapolis Colts coach? He fought the cancer and won.
But even when Pagano returned to the sidelines at the end of the 2012 season, he looked understandably fatigued.
Six weeks later, scouting the NFL Combine for new players, the September Pagano was back in the house.
“I don't know if I'll ever be the same,” Pagano said. “I feel pretty normal now, as far as going through the normal stuff a football coach goes through day in and day out. Whether I'll ever be exactly the same, I don't think it'll ever be that way. But I feel good and most of that is behind me and I feel good about where I'm at.”
Asked if his doctors had any specific restrictions about attacking his job again, Pagano turned mischievous.
“Very little media obligations…” he said, joking.
The NFL Combine is a time for looking at the future, picking out which players have the goods to be drafted, to fill a slot, to help a team become more of a contender. It's fitting, in a way, to see Pagano where he is now, looking to the future.
He'll talk about the past, the cancer fight. He'll marvel at how his team reacted, winning more games than they had a right to. He'll wax a little melancholy, wishing Bruce Arians was still wearing the horseshoe, figuring out which players would make Andrew Luck more effective. But Pagano's absence catapulted Arians to head coach at Arizona, another example of good rising out of a bad situation.
Pagano is very much about the future, even as he knows the cancer's remission requires periodic checks to make sure it remains so.
“I still have a process to go through,” Pagano said, pointing to his regular medication and periodic checks.
He needs five years of remission for a full bill of health.
Five years can be an eternity in NFL coaching.
“After you're in remission five years, they give you a certificate and a badge and send you walking,” Pagano said.
He's walking already, of course. Pagano recognizes the standard the Colts set in his truncated Year One, winning 11 games, making the playoffs, establishing a young offense capable of big things. He said he's excited about Pep Hamilton taking over as offensive coordinator. Hamilton will change some things up – Pagano said the Colts have no plans of giving out all the secrets – as he installs more of a West Coast style offense. Hamilton worked with Luck at Stanford. They worked well together.
Pagano and Colts general manager Ryan Grigson are doing their due diligence at the combine, interviewing players, analyzing data and trying to decipher needs in the draft. There's an upcoming stretch of free agency that will play a part, of course. Will the Colts pursue players such as Ed Reed, a long-time friend of Pagano?
Not shy about one area, Pagano said signing Colts free agent punter Pat McAfee is a high priority.
That's the type of candor that Pagano brought with him when he took the job. It was a sharp departure from the previous front office directed by the guarded (to put it mildly) Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell. Arians, of course, made transparency a part of his routine as interim coach.
Many pointed out that Arians' everyday approach was intended to fulfill Pagano's previously set mission. That upbeat, positive approach – even though Arians could be quite abrupt when necessary – was another aspect of the Pagano style.
The players responded to Pagano's style via Arians' surrogate coaching.
“From Day One, they bought into what our plan was, what our vision was,” Pagano said. “Look at the first game I was away, they came back from a 21-3 deficit to upset Green Bay at home. Then they had a devastating loss and came back and never lost two games in a row. Resiliency. Perseverance.”
Pagano is nothing if not resilient. Perseverance might as well be his middle name.
Friday afternoon, walking through Lucas Oil Stadium, shaking hands, making people feel at ease. That's the Pagano from a year ago. It's good to see him back.