INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The Indianapolis Colts thought they'd run through all possible emotions since head coach Chuck Pagano's return to work after a long layoff due to a cancer. They were wrong.
Sunday's home game against the Houston Texans, which saw Pagano working the sideline for the first time since his diagnosis with leukemia last fall, was heartfelt for fans, players and the coach, himself.
“Overwhelming. Humbling," said Pagano, who profusely thanked Indianapolis fans for showering him, his family and players with support during the past three months.
"They’re the best. I can’t thank them enough," he said. "To be down on the sideline again with the coaches and with the team and with everybody, it was a blessing. It was a blessing."
Pagano missed most of the season - the past 12 games - to undergo intensive treatment for leukemia, including chemotherapy. He officially returned to work a week ago to get back into the routine of coaching and prepare his team for its season finale against Houston.
But it wasn't until he stepped onto the Colts' home field at Lucas Oil Stadium, he said, that the reality of what happened hit him.
Greeting Pagano was an announced crowd of 66,957.
“It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel, with all of the cameras flashing when he walked out," said rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. "I think that was sort of a lift that he gave us. It was energy. Just to have his physical presence and seeing him on sideline was great."
The Colts completed the dream-like sequence with a 28-16 upset over the Texans, who had beaten Indianapolis in Houston just two weeks earlier en route to a division title in the AFC South. The Colts finished the season with an 11-5 record and a wildcard spot in the playoffs; they play Sunday in Baltimore.
Wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who played at the University of Miami when Pagano was an assistant coach there, said the team wanted Sunday's win over Houston. Pagano's return made them want it that much more.
"If you ain’t full of intensity already, than you probably don’t have a heartbeat," he said. "Everybody is glued in. Everybody is locked and loaded, and hopefully we can go out there and play good ball.”
Sunday's game was long circled on the calendar. Back when Pagano stepped aside in early October, he hoped to return to work in time to finish the regular season.
Of course, he noted, "There was no guarantee that we would make that day."
It wasn't guaranteed for Pagano.
Nor was it certain the Colts would be in this position.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' stated goal as interim coach at the time was to extend the season and give Pagano a chance to coach in the playoffs. At the time, the Colts were off to a 1-2 start.
Last week Pagano credited Arians - and the rest of the Colts coaches and players - for their resilience throughout the year. The Colts lost only three more games after he stepped aside. They won 10.
Most of all, Pagano said, he felt lucky just to be back.
“It’s like a dream come true again," he said. "It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be down there."
Tom James covers the Indianapolis Colts for the Terre Haute, Ind., Tribune-Star.