Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano sniffed the snot back into his head and wiped the tears out of his eyes as he stepped up to the podium in the press room. This was not the usual Monday afternoon press conference from an NFL head coach. This press conference marked Pagano's official return as the team's head coach, or what he described as "the second-happiest day of my life."
The happiest day of Pagano's life was July 1, 1989, when he married his wife Tina. Those were his first public words back on the job this week. He thanked his wife for spending every night in the hospital curled up on a rickety rollaway bed at his side.
After thanking his wife and family, he choked back more tears, paused, and continued with a long list of thank yous. He thanked owner Jim Irsay, GM Ryan Grigson, the players, the fans, his doctors and everyone right down to the cooks and orderlies.
When Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in September, he experienced an outpouring of support. ChuckStrong banners and bracelets popped up all over Indiana and in every stadium hosting the Colts. A pair of the team's cheerleaders shaved their heads in solidarity and to raise money for cancer research. A 9-year old cancer survivor wrote him with tips on how to beat the disease, including a steady regimen of strawberry popsicles to ward off the mouth sores caused by chemotherapy.
Pagano described the ChuckStrong movement as "overwhelming" and "humbling," citing its role in his speedy recovery. "My job now is to give back," he promised.
Cancer treatment is a horrendous thing. Losing your hair is just one relatively minor side effect of a process that works by killing just enough of the body to eradicate the cancer cells. As million of Americans can attest, getting through it requires a particular resolve and no shortage of inspiration. Pagano's Colts gave their coach a heavy dose of both as they kept winning games.
"These guys inspired me," Pagano said.
Bruce Arians was the first call Pagano made after taking the Colts job. It was also the first call he made after learning of his leukemia diagnosis.
Arians stepped into the void left by Pagano. He rallied the players and staff behind their coach. Together, they won nine games and sewed up a playoff spot from a roster cobbled together from a team that won just twice last season.
"You did it with dignity and with class," Pagano said of his friend and fill-in coach. "You're everything I knew you were and more.
"Damn, Bruce, you had to go and win nine games," he joked. "Tough act to follow. I've got my hands full."
Those nine wins have Arians being mentioned as a coach of the year candidate. For now, the awards talk can wait. Pagano and his friend have one more game to play before starting an unlikely playoff run in less than two weeks.
If the playoffs started this week, the Colts would face the Baltimore Ravens. That could still change depending on the results next week. Regardless of which team Indianapolis does face, Pagano and his team is likely to be underdogs.
Taking questions near the end of his presser, Pagano explained his formula for beating cancer. "Faith, believe and you're will, with that will you can overcome anything."
It's a lesson that just might give Pagano a new third-happiest day of his life come January.