Every once in a while, you come across a sports story that goes way beyond the field or the court. Every once in a while, you find a story from the sports world that inspires even those outside that realm. Every once in a while, you find an inspirational sports story that really isn't about sports but rather about life.
Such is the story of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano and the 2012 Indianapolis Colts, and that story is told in Pagano's recent book, "Sidelined: Overcoming Odds through Unity, Passion, and Perseverance" (Zondervan, 2014). Pagano was hired as the Colts' head coach in 2012, though no one could have imagined what that first year would hold. After just three regular season games, Pagano was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Instead of spending his first season as a head coach battling for a division title or a Super Bowl title, Pagano was spending his first season as a head coach battling for his life. He overcame leukemia and returned to the sidelines to coach the Colts in their regular season finale after an incredible and unexpected successful season. He is still the team's coach today, entering his third season as the Colts head coach - the cancer hasn't returned and he's still aiming to hoist that Lombardi Trophy.
Spend any amount of time with Chuck Pagano and you'll realize that while he's good at what he does for a career, he's an even better person. This has been evident in the few short conversations I've had with him, and it's evident in his book as well. To see how his players care about him - to read Pagano recount stories about players like Reggie Wayne and Cory Redding visiting him in the hospital and worrying about him, to read about how players in the locker room would always be asking how Coach was doing, to read about how Jim Irsay, Ryan Grigson, Bruce Arians, and the rest of the Colts organization completely supported Pagano - it's clear that his team has bought into his message.
What is that message? It's the central theme of his book: faith, family, and football - and absolutely in that order, without exception. Pagano tells the story about how when his wife, Tina, checked him into the hospital she needed to use a fake name to ensure that the news didn't get out before the team heard. She choose Duane Johnson after the actor, or, as the actor is called, "The Rock." That was the name Pagano was checked into the hospital under, although it's clear in reading the book (and he even notes it at one point) that while Pagano was called "The Rock" in a joking manner, in all seriousness Pagano's "Rocks" while he was fighting for his life were Jesus Christ and his wife Tina, as well as the rest of his family (both by blood and his Colts family).
Chuck Pagano's relationship with Tina is also delved into with great depth in the book and it's an inspiring story about how Tina stood by his side in the midst of great adversity, supporting him all the way and helping him make it through victorious - whether it was by staying in the hospital with him, by giving him someone to laugh and cry with, or by constantly checking with and following up with the doctors, Tina stood by Chuck's side and it's clear that Pagano's family emphasis that he stresses with his team isn't just a saying, it's a way he lives his life with his own family as well with his wife, daughters, and grandchildren.
Pagano brought that family emphasis to the Colts, and former Colts head coach Tony Dungy wrote in the foreward how he was struck with the fact that Pagano is emphasizing the same culture that Dungy did as head coach: faith, family, and football. The Colts team and the Colts organization truly is a family, and Pagano went into great detail about this, and in fact it was perhaps the most prevalent issue throughout the entire book.
Of course, while Pagano talks about faith and family, he also talks about football a great deal. He goes through the entire 2012 season in good detail, giving insights and tidbits that even the most ardent Colts fan will learn from. At the same time, however, he gives enough background that even those who don't know much about football can easily follow along. Pagano gives good backgrounds on guys like Jim Irsay, Ryan Grigson, Bruce Arians, as well as a brief history of the Colts franchise and guys like Ray Lewis and George Halas - as well as a guy named Peyton Manning, who the Colts faced in 2013 (which Pagano also talks about in his book and which fans will still learn from, though he doesn't go into as much detail, instead just devoting a single chapter to the 2013 season).
Pagano mentioned how in the locker room they have the words, "Trust, Loyalty, Respect" in the locker room underneath the Colts logo and how that's not just something they say but something they live out. He talks about how they need to stay the course no matter what happens and that he won't get too high after wins or too low after losses. He talks about how the team's goal is to win the Lombardi Trophy. He has incredibly high praise for Jim Irsay, Ryan Grigson, and Bruce Arians, and with Irsay especially Pagano is clearly grateful and clearly genuine in his praise, even saying that, "There isn't a better person in the NFL" (93). Reading about how Irsay helped out during Pagano's battle with leukemia, Pagano isn't just writing it because Irsay is his boss - he clearly means it. And, in something that I'm sure is to the delight of many fans, there's even "a rolling ball of butcher knives" reference.
Pagano gives several insights into the past few years behind the scenes at both the Colts complex and into the workings of the Colts franchise. When he was being interviewed for the head coaching vacancy by Irsay, Grigson, Pete Ward, and Dan Emerson, at one point Grigson scribbled something down on a piece of paper and showed it to Ward, who just nodded in agreement. Pagano later found out that Grigson wrote that, "Players will run through a brick wall for this guy." A few years later, that statement rings as true as ever. Pagano's precision is impressive as he recounts statistics for Andrew Luck in his rookie training camp at Anderson University. Or did you know that Reggie Wayne's now famous orange gloves were sent by the Miami Dolphins as the Colts struggled to find them on short notice, and did you know that they're displayed in Pagano's home office today? And he even gives insight into what he means when he calls someone a "horseshoe guy," writing (188),
"The horseshoe emblem of the Colts shows seven nails or studs. Each one represents a quality we want in a player/leader for our team - smart, tough, dynamic, physical, character, integrity, and respect. That's what we mean when we say we're looking for a horseshoe guy - guys who play the game the way it was meant to be played. Players who want to be a part of something bigger. Something great."
This book is most definitely about football, yes, but more so, it's a story about life. It's a story about overcoming obstacles. It's a story about persevering and fighting. It's a story about how there's more to life than football - a big acknowledgement from an NFL head coach. But Pagano demonstrates with both his life and his words that his priorities are faith, family, and football, and in that order. Pagano's character is revealed throughout the book, as is his humility. His players and co-workers love him, and you'll have a hard time coming away from this book without feeling the same way.
While reading the book, I was reminded of the words of former Colts tight end Dallas Clark, who retired with the team last week. Clark said that after spending time with two other teams he could definitely say that, "There's not 31 other teams like this. This is special." That's the same feeling you'll get from reading this book, and the reason this team is special is because of the people who make up the franchise - whether it's Jim Irsay, Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano, or someone else. The Colts are in good hands in terms of leadership and you'd be hard pressed to draw any other conclusion than that after reading this book.
Cancer sucks. Most of those reading this have probably known a loved one who has suffered from it. Ryan Grigson lost his father to cancer when he was a kid. Bruce Arians battled prostate cancer and overcame it. Reggie Wayne has lost three people close to him because of leukemia. Clearly, cancer is a far-reaching disease with devastating effects. Chuck Pagano acknowledges that he is just one of many, many people who has battled or is battling the disease, and he is committed to doing whatever he can to encourage those fighting and to help find a cure. To date, the ChuckStrong campaign has raised close to two million dollars to support cancer research (per the book), and Pagano holds annual ChuckStrong galas to raise money for it, plus part of the proceeds from this book will go toward that as well.
As Pagano wrote, "Adversity will always be a part of life. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - circumstances don't define us or determine who we are; they only reveal who we are" (181).
I read a lot of books on a regular basis, and I can honestly say that "Sidelined" is one of the best I've read in a while. Chuck Pagano's story will inform both the avid fan and the non-football follower and will serve as an inspiration for everyone reading the story that is told in it's pages. Pagano is a cancer-survivor and is active in encouraging those currently battling it and in raising support to find a cure for the disease. Pagano is committed to dancing with two more daughters at their weddings and hosting the Lombardi Trophy. Pagano is the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, but that doesn't define who he is. For Pagano and the Colts, it's faith, family, and football - in that order.
If you are interested in ordering a copy of "Sidelined: Overcoming Odds through Unity, Passion, and Perseverance" by Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, you can do so here - I highly recommend it and it most definitely is worth the read.