For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1
When it comes to pro sports coaches, Chuck Pagano is as real as it gets.
We can debate the X's and O's and commitment to the fullback and various quirks of his Sunday performances as Indianapolis Colts coach. Twitter is full of self-appointed expert second-guessers. I might be one, come to think of it.
But there's no questioning Pagano's compassion for people or his sincerity.
He was in Fort Wayne on Thursday, speaking to the Big Brothers Big Sisters annual banquet at the Grand Wayne Center and he spoke from the heart. He had some note cards that would make sure he wrapped things up by 9:15 p.m. He tagged on another half hour of unscripted honesty.
He brought a cloth napkin to the podium with him, knowing he might get emotional as he talked about how everyone has “circumstances,” but those who rise above circumstances do so with a vision.
Pagano took his audience back to his fight with leukemia in 2012, and revealed things about his journey that I'd never heard him speak about before.
One of the lighter moments he shared came when he recalled his nurse entering the room during his first day at the Simon Cancer Center. She called him Mr. Johnson.
He said he looked at her with a puzzled expression.
“Would you prefer I call you Dwayne or should I call you 'The Rock'?” she said.
Turns out, the hospital agreed to give him an alias so his players wouldn't find out he was hospitalized before the Colts had a chance to share the news. Pagano joked that not only was he going to be in for a battle, “my wife is obviously in love with The Rock. Now I'm gonna have a fistfight on my hands.”
His wife, Tina, whom Pagano calls “my coach, my rock,” had suggested the alias to make Pagano smile in the midst of the frightening start of his cancer fight.
Pagano mentioned how, when he was finally hit with the reality of having leukemia, he had a choice to make in his approach.
He said he thought back to a week earlier, after the Colts had lost to Jacksonville in Week 3 of the 2012 season. Colts defensive end Robert Mathis gathered the team in the locker room after the game.
“Robert said, 'Listen, there's no pity parties in football. Man up. We'll come in watch film and fix what's wrong,' “ Pagano said.
So, that moment when he faced the prospect of the long battle ahead to regain his health, he said Mathis' speech came to mind. He said he had the usual “Why me?” moments, thinking about how he had just started his dream job.
“Doc, give me the game plan,” Pagano recalls saying after remembering Mathis' inspiration.
“We all have circumstances we're faced with,” Pagano said.
Pagano talked of players who have embraced the chance to take their circumstances and make the most of them. He praised linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who came to the Colts from the Canadian Football league after playing for “that powerhouse, Mary Hardin-Baylor” in college.
Pagano explained his favorite phrase, “Stay with the process,” that he says helps the Colts through rough stretches in games and contributes to the team's knack for comeback wins.
He talked about how the Colts embrace building a team, surrendering ego in the process. He praised owner Jim Irsay for setting the foundation of the franchise's family-oriented approach.
Pagano talked about how the Colts – like the Ravens, who he worked with prior to coming to Indianapolis – have a singular goal of a Super Bowl championship.
“It isn't about the money,” Pagano said. “The money makes it nice. But we play for the Lombardi (Trophy). It's about your legacy. What are people going to say about you 10 years from now?”
Pagano turned that idea to the crowd, encouraging people to embrace the Big Brothers Big Sisters concept of giving time to befriend and mentor young people.
“The play does not care who makes it,” Pagano said, dialing back to the team concept in football. “Make sure you're in the right spot when the play shows up.”
Pagano has a heavy schedule ahead. The Colts open official offseason workouts next week. The NFL Draft is the second weekend in May. New players and old will have to mesh together. “The process” begins in earnest again.
Pagano brings a perspective to his job that other coaches don't have, a perspective gained through his life-threatening situation. It's taught him to avoid looking back or lingering on mistakes.
“The sooner you understand life is tough, it gets easier,” he said. “You have to live in a vision, not in circumstances.”
Pagano's on-field vision, which he mentioned more than once, is hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. That would confirm he's a winner in the ultimate NFL game. He's already shown it everywhere else.