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Pagano’s struggle with disease calls forth sports clichés


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INDIANAPOLIS — It’s an industry where visible injuries are, for the most part, pinpointed and rectified. Torn ligaments, broken bones, damaged tendons. Deep bruises that couldn’t be prevented even by the most advanced padding available.

Every so often, though, it’s the obscured ailment that grabs professional football and forcefully horse-collars it out of bounds with no hint of a penalty flag. The shocking suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau immediately come to mind.

It’s glaringly cliché to insist the news of Chuck Pagano’s fight against leukemia puts sports in its proper place, which is to say many a rung south of humankind on life’s ladder of importance.

Cliché or not, it’s true. Pagano is a husband, father, grandfather, son, brother, uncle and so much more to those who know and love him. Family members and close friends who over the years have seen the coach with his guard lowered during everything from Christmas mornings to birthday celebrations.

To them, football immediately jumps to a back burner if not off the stove altogether. Now it’s about doing everything they possibly can to help Pagano get his leukemia in remission so that he’s able to stick around for another 30 or 40 years to watch his two granddaughters grow up and perhaps have children of their own.

Among the oddest of twists pertaining to Pagano’s misfortune is that today is his birthday. He’s spending No. 52 in the hospital. Hardly the backdrop he had in mind, I’m sure, but health is going to trump football every single time.

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay spoke first at Monday’s news conference. The understandably somber occasion did include a smattering of chuckles as Irsay told the story of how Pagano was more than a little bit irritated his hospital room didn’t include NFL Network on television.

Seems the coach wanted to watch his old team, the Baltimore Ravens, play Cleveland. He couldn’t. Irsay is looking into it.

The Colts have played only three regular-season games this campaign, which means people in this area were just starting to become familiar with the team’s first-year coach. His mannerisms. His tendencies.

This much we already knew from his stint as the Ravens’ defensive coordinator: Chuck Pagano doesn’t back down from a challenge.

This is a man who in 2011 had the green light to flex his vocal chords at Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata if what was taking place on the field wasn’t to his liking. Right there is probably all you need to know about Pagano, who is fast finding out life can be the ultimate contact sport.

Having a front-row seat while listening to Irsay, general manager Ryan Grigson and now-interim head coach Bruce Arians speak Monday morning, it became clear how much they genuinely care for Pagano.

He’s not some figurehead who seeks out snippets of celebrity, but a blue-collar guy with tremendous work ethic who is being paid to return the franchise to prominence.

He is what he is, and if you don’t like it, well, the large vertical rectangle over there is the door.

Even though he played strong safety at the University of Wyoming in the 1980s, Pagano learned long ago football games are won or lost in the trenches. And now he’s there, engaged in the most important scrum of his life, one complete with chemotherapy, prescribed medications and moments of loneliness and uncertainty.

This is life. Who can explain it?

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