“Life is tough. You have to focus on your position and not your condition.” Those are the words from Indianapolis Colts head coach, Chuck Pagano. He was on top of the world in 2012 as he reached the pinnacle of the coaching industry when he landed a head coaching job in the NFL. By Week 3 Pagano got the unfortunate news that he had acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL.)
Even with the devastating news, Pagano kept fighting. As word got out of his battle with cancer his team, the Colts, the NFL, and people all over the world supported him with wearing “CHUCKSTRONG” clothing. The Colts players and cheerleaders even shaved their heads to raise money for cancer research.
Feeling the support and love Pagano continued to battle as the Colts made it into the 2012 playoffs. His cancer went into remission and he was back on the sidelines coaching the team. 2013 saw his team go deeper into the playoffs. For 2014 the team’s expectations are even higher.
Pagano recently penned his story in his book called, “Sidelined: Overcoming Odds through Unity, Passion, and Perseverance” from Zondervan. His book is a fantastic read and is very inspirational.
I had the great pleasure to chat with Chuck Pagano about his book, his fight with cancer, football, coaching, and fatherhood.
Art Eddy: First let’s talk about your book “Sidelined.” As a football fan I knew your courageous story. Still there were things in this book that made me respect you even more. You said, ‘Recognizing with gratitude the many blessings in life is critical to keeping a positive attitude.’ I love that line and feel that more people should have that mantra. Is there a certain time in the day where you reflect on those words?
Chuck Pagano: I think there is never a specific time that I don’t think about those words. I have never really taken anything ever for granted. Going through with what we went through as an organization, as a team, and as a family I think it just puts things in perspective. We are not guaranteed tomorrow. We all know that. So we are going to take care of every day, every minute we have on this Earth.
AE: In your book there are a number of people stating how you were an inspiration to them as they watched you battle leukemia. Who inspired you as you were going through chemotherapy?
CP: Oh, there was so many. I have to start with my wife and my family. When you first get diagnosed you have a couple of minutes there with the doctor. He is telling you that you have the APL form of leukemia. He tells you what you have to go through in order to get through the process and beat this.
Then you come back to your wife and kids. I have a beautiful wife, three kids, and three granddaughters. My sole motivation and inspiration was that I signed up for that for life. They are counting on me to be there in life. Certainly I have got to finish the job. My team from the owner to the coaches like Bruce (Arians), the players, the city, this community and the fans, they didn’t know me Art. I was only here six or seven months before I got diagnosed. For the way they embraced me and my family is a debt that I will never be able to repay.
AE: Each chapter is filled with your thoughts and feelings as you battled cancer. What is the one major takeaway message you hope readers will take from your book?
CP: I think live in vision and not circumstance. We are all going to be faced with adversity. Whether it is being diagnosed with some disease or dealing with a tragedy in your family. Life is tough. You have to focus on your position and not your condition. My condition was that I was diagnosed with leukemia.
My position that I chose on how to think was that I was here to serve. I was going to beat this and be around for a long time for my family and my loved ones. If anyone can take anything from that book it is live in vision and not circumstance. Focus on your position. It is all about your attitude and your will to win and overcome.
AE: When you hear the phrase “CHUCKSTRONG” what immediately pops into your head?
CP: Family. I don’t know if Pat McAfee was the first one that tweeted that out. Again I don’t know who did, but laying in the hospital bed I had no idea that movement ever got started. My wife came into my room and she was the one reading me all the letters, emails, and texts as I was going through treatment and the induction phase.
She brought that to my attention. It was humbling. It was overwhelming. It just goes to show you that there are so many great people in this world. The support that I received through that movement and in the community to the team from the top down starting with the owner was phenomenal and very humbling.
AE: Take me back to the 2013 Wild Card Playoffs against the Kansas City Chiefs. You guys trailed Kansas City 38-10 in the third quarter. Your team then scored 35 second half points for the second biggest comeback victory in NFL postseason history. What did you tell your players at halftime to keep both their minds and hearts still in the game?
CP: From day one we have talked about process and how we were going to do business day in and day out. We talked about our culture and our environment. The process of the game is very simple. It is 60 minutes. It is one play at a time, give all you got, and don’t judge. What I mean by don’t judge is don’t ever look at the scoreboard.
You have a bad play? Put it behind you and move onto the next one. You have a good play? Same thing. You can get caught up in moments and be really hard on yourself or go over the top from an emotional standpoint. It can lead to two or three consecutive bad plays.
We cleaned up the mistakes at halftime. Here is what we need to do to correct those things. Let’s go play 30 more minutes, one play at a time, don’t judge and let’s start digging our way back into this thing. In 2012 we had seven fourth quarter comebacks. In 2013 all the comebacks we had when we dug ourselves out of huge holes. Some were too deep to dig out of, but certainly the Kansas City game just showed our resiliency and the grit that our coaches and players have. We know where it sits in playoff history, but that is why you play and coach. It is for moments like those.
AE: Being in a head coach in the NFL from what I read and see seems like a highly stressful and time consuming job. How do you balance work and family?
CP: You have to make time. The people that sacrifice the most are the families. It is the wives and the children. In 28 years before landing this job there were 12 stops along the way. What I and everyone who coaches at any level see is that it is the families who pay the major price or sacrifice the most. I put one of my daughters in three different high schools. At the time it was heartbreaking. They will tell you now though that it taught them grit. It taught them the adapt or die mentality.
Still you have to make time. I think everyone in the league had date night. In college it was Thursday night because you got done with work a little bit earlier. In the NFL it is Friday night. That is when my wife and I make time to have date night. It is tough because the demands like you said are tough. The time requirements are hard on everybody, but have to have balance. We all understand the expectations Art, but we all know what we signed up for. There is a fine line there, but you have to have balance.
AE: You and the Colts seem to keep on improving season by season. Getting players back like Reggie Wayne is a huge plus for you guys. Having a quarterback like Andrew Luck doesn’t hurt either. I take it your expectations for the 2014 season are even higher.
CP: No question about it. We had the same ones when we got together in 2012. With that mindset and the veteran leadership we have in that locker room and getting the players back like Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, and Donald Thomas we are looking to do better. We lost five offensive players last year and a credit goes to our offensive staff for keeping things going.
Having Andrew (Luck) certainly helps things and the sky is the limit for Andrew. He is going to keep getting better and better. The expectations are what they are, but we are not going to get ahead of ourselves. We will continue to work, to grind, and chase perfection. We will try and go out starting on the 23rd of July when we resume training camp and try and get better, go one day at a time, and one game at a time and see where the chips fall.
AE: What are the main set of morals you look to instill in your children as they grow up?
CP: Well Art our core values at the Colts are trust, loyalty, and respect. I think everyone wants to teach their kids to respect and love one another. I grew up in a big family. My wife grew up in a big family. We do have three daughters. We always wanted them to love one another and treat each other with respect.
They are going to have their battles just like we did when we were growing up. They are going to fight. At the end of the day it is “The Cider House Rules.” We will say love one another and respect one another. We try to say any job that you start regardless what it is you should finish the job and do it right.
I think that is what grit is all about. We need to teach our kids grit. That adapt or die mentality takes place because we put them in those situations with all the moves we had. We tried to instill in them to do their very best. At the end of the day it is just like our players. If you can look yourself in the mirror and say I did everything that I possible could do to do my best. It can be anything in school, cheer or dance competition. It was to compete really hard, play to win, and play within the framework of the rules and respect everybody.
AE: I have two young daughters three and six years old. I see some challenges they will face that I didn’t have to deal with. What do you think are the biggest challenges that kids face now in today’s society?
CP: I feel for you Art. Now with social media and having a three and six year old daughters and to see where technology is at right now. I think that is the biggest challenge parents face now. It is tough. One in elementary school may not be bad. Once they hit middle school and high school you just have to equip these kids with grit.
Make sure their self-esteem is sky high. When peer pressure hits and they have to make decisions, they start dating, and do those types of things they have to make great decisions. If they feel really good about themselves and the peer pressure won’t kick in they can say, ‘Hey no I don’t think so. I will pass, but thanks anyway.’ That is what you want.
AE: Well said. You are also a grandfather as well. What is the best part about being a granddad?
CP: Oh at the end of the day they get to go home with their parents. (Both laugh.) I say that jokingly. We are so blessed with three beautiful granddaughters. We got twins that are seven years old, Addie and Avery and baby Zoe is almost two years old. Tara, our oldest daughter is great mother. She has done a great job raising those kids.
Just to be able to spend time with them and we are going back to visit them soon is great. To have those moments are great. A lot of them are around the pool. How many slushies can we order? How many hot dogs and fries can we order? How many fries will end up in the pool? (Both laugh.)
Coaching them to walk out on the diving board and eventually jump in your arms is great. Then you go back next year and they are doing backflips off the board by themselves. Watching them grow, learn, and become young ladies make us very grateful. My wife and I are very grateful and blessed.
Thanks to social media we obviously can’t spend all the time with them, but we do a lot of FaceTime. It helps when you are away for a long time. Just seeing faces on the computer makes it easier when you go back home. You walk through that door and they know who you are. They don’t forget the nicknames. They call my wife Gigi and they don’t forget that stuff. It is awesome.