Coach Chuck Pagano came running out of the tunnel to music and cheers. He huddled up with players and special guests on the field. It had the feel of a game day. Only instead of Lucas Oil Stadium, it was the Colts practice facility. And the enemy wasn’t an opposing football team, but a deadly disease.
“This is all about coming together, raising awareness, support, research, and trying to stamp out cancer. It’s an egregious, egregious disease. It doesn’t discriminate,” he says. “There are people that are battling right now. There are people that lost their battle. There are people who are going to battle.”
Pagano won his battle against leukemia in 2012. But beating cancer himself wasn’t enough. Now in remission, Pagano won’t stop fighting until everyone wins.
“I think we can knock it out right here in Indy. We start here and then we’ll go from there.”
The Colts hosted the fifth annual Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center on Friday night and raised over one million dollars for the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center. It’s the same facility that treated Pagano and together, they’ve raised more than $4.7 million for cancer research.
“That’s what the selfless doctors and scientists and researchers do – they grind and they grind and they grind – and they may not see their work,” says Pagano. “The people that came up with the concoction that cured me, to cure APL (acute promyelocytic leukemia), that was 30 to 40 years ago. They have no idea that they got me well or anybody else who had APL.”
Chris Stamatkin, researcher at the Simon Cancer Center, was on hand to showcase some of what they’ve been able to do through their collaboration with Chuckstrong.
“What it’s doing is really putting us in the big league in terms of the equipment that we can use,” he says. “We help a lot of these researchers to develop experiments to validate and to push their science a little bit further than they can afford to or do themselves in their own labs.”
It also allows them to bring in the best researchers – the star quarterback, so to speak, to lead their research teams.
For die-hard Colts fan and two-time cancer survivor, Nicole Richards, the Chuckstrong event is near and dear to her heart.
“I’ve done all my treatment at IU, so to come and see all the people come together – not only for Chuck, but all the money going to Simon Cancer Center – it just makes it that much more personal,” she says. “It’s amazing how each year we raise more and more, the people get more and more excited, it just kind of makes you feel good – being a cancer survivor and seeing so many people come together for something so important.”
Matt Davis grew up in South Bend, Indiana and now lives in Fort Myers, Florida. He came up for the gala for the first time last year, he came back this year, and he says he may come back every year.
“I’ve known Coach Pagano now for three or four years and I can hardly even talk to him without crying. I don’t know what it is, but just knowing what he’s gone through – to me, it’s very emotional.”
He gets choked up talking about the Colts game against the Green Bay Packers in 2012, the first game the team played after finding out Pagano had cancer.
“When I saw Andrew run in the end zone, I think it was in the second half when they made their comeback – and he ran in the end zone and ran behind the goal post – they had the Chuckstrong banner with the ribbon and he took his hand and patted it. I was sitting down in Florida watching that and I didn’t care who won the game at that point.”
“There’s two sides to this whole thing,” says Pagano. “Football is one thing and then there’s the human side.”
It’s the human side that brought former wide receiver Reggie Wayne up from Miami to support his former coach and longtime friend.
“When Chuck enters your life, he touches your soul. He finds a way to get everybody to come together. And that’s what you love about him. He’s a great man, he’s a great husband, he’s like a father figure to a lot of us. Whenever he puts his hand on something, it always turns out big,” he says. “What he’s doing here is awesome.”
Dr. Pat Loehrer is the director of the IU Simon Cancer Center. He says what impressed him about Pagano was his willingness to shine a spotlight on himself while battling a disease that makes most people want to hide.
“I knew him from a distance as a football coach, but what I know now is him as a human being – and that far surpasses anything that he’s done on the field.”
Pagano’s strategy to beat cancer is the same one he uses to beat an opponent – bring in the right people, give them the tools and the support they need, and never, ever give up.
“Regardless of what the win – loss record is for the Colts, Chuck is a winner every year for the rest of his life,” says Loehrer. “He is a true champion.”
The work being done in Indianapolis will benefit cancer patients not only in Indiana, not only in the U.S., but worldwide.
“We want to do good, but we want to be great,” Pagano says. “I think good will last our lifetime, but great will be around long after we’re all gone.”
For more photos from the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala, click here: http://www.colts.com/photos/photo-gallery/2017-Chuckstrong-Tailgate-Gala/e3d1461e-a23a-4cf4-8e11-3f8265f527a2.
To watch the video, click here: http://www.colts.com/videos/videos/2017-Chuckstrong-Tailgate-Gala/682feded-29a4-435c-904c-56528d244e05.