INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The details, dripped in raw emotion and complete with a storybook ending, are a bit fuzzy to Chuck Pagano.
“I was heavily dosed up on meds,’’ he said with a wry smile, “so I don’t remember anything other than the final score.
“Blame it on Dilaudid. It’s pretty good stuff.’’
So was the game that unfolded Oct. 7, 2012 in Lucas Oil Stadium.
It wound up being Indianapolis Colts 30, Green Bay Packers 27, but the bottom line doesn’t begin to do it justice.
While his Colts were battling their emotions and the Packers, while they were overcoming a 21-3 halftime deficit, while they were following Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis to one of the most seminal victories in team history, Pagano was down the street at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center.
The team’s first-year head coach had been diagnosed with leukemia Sept. 26. He was hospitalized immediately and began chemotherapy.
The team was informed of Pagano’s situation five days later, seven days before its meeting with the Packers.
“It was weird. It was bizarre in a sense,’’ Luck said, thinking back to when the organization was shaken to its core. “I think the gravity of the situation hit guys at maybe different times.’’
Bruce Arians – Pagano’s long-time friend and offensive coordinator who would serve as interim coach for 12 games – broke the news to a stunned team.
“You have BA stand up there and tell you that Chuck is sick and is in the hospital and then you have a doctor come into a team meeting, which is unprecedented in my career, and talk about what he’s going through,’’ Luck said. “But it didn’t hit me then. I remember it hitting me when I walked out to practice and coach Pagano wasn’t there. ‘Okay, this is real life,’ you know?
“It certainly provided a lot of perspective I think on football, on life, and just thankful that coach is healthy, really, at the end of the day.’’
The memories are stirred and bubbling to the surface leading up to the Colts’ Sunday trip to Green Bay. It’s their first meeting since that emotional afternoon in 2012.
Arians laughed when asked about the players rallying to win one for their stricken coach. Again, they trailed 21-3 at the half.
“I thought we were going to lose by 50,’’ he said.
They didn’t. Luck would throw for 362 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed six times for 24 yards and a TD, celebrating it with an emphatic spike and by patting a #CHUCKSTRONG banner draped over the end zone façade.
Wayne? The Packers game checks in as No. 1 on his list of greatest individual career games.
“The best,’’ he said.
Wayne played with a heavier heart than most. His friendship with Pagano began at the University of Miami. He agreed to re-sign with the Colts during an offseason of upheaval at the urging of Pagano.
“I wanted to go out there and do it for him,’’ Wayne said.
He wore orange gloves in recognition of Pagano’s fight with leukemia, and delivered them to him in the hospital the next day. They hugged, cried, rehashed the game.
Wayne was the catalyst to the 18-point comeback, catching 13 passes for a regular-season career-best 212 yards.
Appropriately, he completed the comeback with a 4-yard twisting, stretching touchdown catch with 35 seconds to play.
“When it was all said and done, when it was all zeroes on that clock, I just wanted to make sure that everybody knew 87 left it all on the field today for various reasons,’’ Wayne said. “And the biggest reason was for Chuck.
“Everybody in Indianapolis knew about my relationship with Chuck. It had a great ending for everybody. It was by far my best game.’’
Pagano was the inspiration, even if he insists on downplaying his role as absentee coach.
“It was a great win,’’ he said. “One of the great comebacks by this team and that locker room by those players that are still here.
“That’s what it is; it’s a great memory. But I certainly had nothing to do with it.’’
The significance of the moment wasn’t reserved for the Colts. The Packers willingly found themselves swept up in it.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy didn’t have a strong relationship with Pagano at the time, but admitted the situation “hit home for all of us.’’
On the Friday before the game, McCarthy was informed the team was purchasing CHUCKSTRONG T-shirts for Packers players to possibly wear during pregame warm-ups.
“I addressed it in the team meeting and everybody was excited about it,’’ McCarthy said. “I think it just shows you the solidarity of the National Football League. It is a family and I think it hit home for everybody, not only what he was dealing with and when.
“That’s probably the one positive thing I remember about that game because it didn’t end up very well . . . I am just glad to see Chuck doing very well.’’
Rodgers didn’t need much prodding to rehash his last meeting with the Colts.
“I know there were a number of us wearing the ‘CHUCKSTRONG’ T-shirts,’’ he said. “We started off fast and had things going and turned the ball over a couple of times in the second half and they got back into it and beat us. I believe it was Andrew’s first year, right? I think he put up like 400 yards passing or something like that.
“But yeah, I remember that and the atmosphere. This league is a connected league. When a coach or player deals with something much like you saw with (Eric) Berry last year on Kansas City, they have a big support system in the league and it was great to see Chuck beat it and obviously Eric come back and play so well last year after his battle with cancer.’’