The former Ravens defensive coordinator became the third NFL head coach and fourth member of the Colts franchise to win the award, which is given to an NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed.
Pagano returned to the sideline after being diagnosed three games into the season with acute promyelocytic leukemia, which is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow cells.
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“I am honored and humbled to receive this award,” Pagano said. “The encouragement I received from my family, friends, the Irsay family, the Colts organization, the City of Indianapolis and fans around the country was overwhelming. The outpouring of prayers, love and support from a community that hardly knew me, made me realize how fortunate and proud I am to serve this organization and city.”
Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians was the interim coach while Pagano underwent treatment for 12 weeks of the regular season.
From his hospital bed, Pagano was in constant communication with the coaching staff and players. He analyzed practices while continuing to game-plan schemes.
“I’ve got circumstances,” Pagano told the Colts in an an emotional locker room speech following a win over the Miami Dolphins. “You guys understand it, I understand it. It’s already beat (referring to the leukemia). It’s already beat. My vision that I’m living is to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then hoist that Lombardi Trophy several times.”
Pagano was back coaching three weeks later for a win over the Buffalo Bills.
The team sold CHUCKSTRONG T-shirts and wrist-bands to benefit leukemia research, established a collection benefitting leukemia research at their Oct. 21 game against Cleveland and also held a blood drive. Several Colts players shaved their heads in support of their coach, while thousands in the Indianapolis community followed suit. Two Colts cheerleaders raised $10,000 for leukemia research to shave their heads during the team’s Nov. 25 contest against Buffalo.
The Colts made it to the playoffs in Pagano's first season, losing to the Ravens in the AFC wild-card round.
“It’s really great to be back,” Pagano said when he returned to coaching. “Like a kid in a candy store, I get to come and be around the guys again. Do what I love to do and what I’ve done my whole life. Obviously we don’t ever want to take anything for granted. I want you to know, our entire country to know and everybody in the NFL that was so kind, generous, loving and supportive what a privilege it is to coach in the National Football League. It is the greatest sport in the world and I feel very honored.”