How an Improbable Tragedy Changed Both Bruce Arians and Chuck Pagano

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How an Improbable Tragedy Changed Both Bruce Arians and Chuck Pagano
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Cancer is never good news.

Cancer destroys bodies. It destroys lives. It destroys families, homes and communities. It leaves emptiness in its wake and has no regard for the people it affects. It runs roughshod over otherwise healthy individuals and leaves them as husks of their former selves.

Yet, as with any evil in this world, many of the people affected by it have the unique ability to rise above and find themselves better—even more whole—than before. In modern parlance, this is called the "silver lining" to life's dark clouds. Our culture craves these types of stories for strength and comfort—examples of honorable people rising above and winning battles we hope we never have to face.

Through an improbable tragedy, the Indianapolis Colts and the Arizona Cardinals share such a story.

On Sept. 30, 2012, Colts coach Chuck Pagano called his offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and gave him the news that he had been diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Les Carpenter of Yahoo! Sports recounted the story:

Arians knew Pagano had not been feeling well and had been to see a doctor a few days before. However, Pagano began the conversation in his usual, confident tone so Arians didn't ask about the coach's health as they chatted for a time about other things.

Suddenly Pagano's voice changed.

"I have leukemia," he said.

Then he added: "Mr. Irsay wants you to coach the team."

***

In 2001, Butch Davis was hired from the University of Miami to coach the Cleveland Browns. Along with him, he brought his longtime defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator—Pagano. The two had worked together since 1995, and Pagano was charged with shaping up a secondary that had contributed toward one of the NFL's worst defenses the year before.

He had some help.

The defensive coordinator on that squad was longtime collegiate and NFL coach Foge Fazio. His position coaches included now-Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, as well as current Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler.

On the offensive side of the ball, Davis tapped a quarterbacks coach by the name of Arians to be his offensive coordinator. Though just 49 years old at the time, Arians had garnered a lot of respect around the NFL due to his work with Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

Looking back, it's easy to assume that this stacked coaching staff had some success.

That assumption would be incorrect. By 2004, all of them were looking for jobs elsewhere. Pagano went to the Raiders, where he helped groom a young Nnamdi Asomugha. Arians went to Pittsburgh, where he coached receivers and was later promoted to offensive coordinator.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Once accompanying branches on the same coaching tree, the two men found themselves grafted onto completely different plants. After Pagano eventually worked his way over to the Baltimore Ravens, where he would coach the secondary and then coordinate the defense, the two men found themselves as AFC North rivals.

In 2012, though, Arians retired as offensive coordinator of the Steelers.

There's more to the story, though, as his retirement was not at all voluntary. He was allowed to leave gracefully, but he would have been fired had it not been for the loyalty of head coach Mike Tomlin and the willingness of the Rooney family to handle matters with respect.

That said, league sources informed me that the Rooneys had wanted Arians out for a few years by that point. His offense was not—in their eyes at least—fitting for "Steelers football." Their mandate was to run the football—a mandate Arians nether cared for nor heeded.

Arians was retired for all of two days when he received a phone call from his longtime friend. Tom James of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star relays Pagano's memory of the call:

When I called him, he was on his way from his retirement home, on the lake there with a bunch of golf courses. I said, "Hey, you retired?" He goes, "Not if you’re offering me a job." So he was officially retired for two days.

***

Arians himself is a cancer survivor.

In 2009, Arians made the choice to accept the promotion to coordinate the Steelers offense rather than follow former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to—ironically, of all places—Arizona, where Whisenhunt had just been named head coach.

Since he was staying in Pittsburgh and wasn't doing things like packing up his house or moving thousands of miles away, Arians had time to take his yearly physical. It was there that he learned he had prostate cancer.

Coaching isn't easy. It's a stressful job, no matter where one does it, but in the NFL, it can lead to a lot of sleepless nights and broken spirits. Add in health problems to that mix, and coaches can break down easily. They're taught to take care of their teams more rigorously than their bodies. For many, the amount of money they receive will never begin to pay for the years shaved off the end of their lives.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

For numerous reasons, Arians never thought he would be accepting the 2012 AP Coach of the Year Award.

If one word can sum up 2012 for Pagano, Arians and the Colts—even the entire NFL—it may be "Chuckstrong," the moniker originated by the Colts as a callback to Lance Armstrong's "Livestrong" bracelets.

The phrase, along with the sentiment behind it, drove the Colts and their fanbase. Many of the players—and even a few of the cheerleaders—shaved their heads in honor of Pagano. Even rivals paid respects. The movement was more than just football; it was a city and a people banding together around a common goal.

With Arians at the helm in an interim role and their beloved coach receiving treatment, the Colts strove toward an eventual 11-5 record. While Arians took home some hardware, he wasn't the only one receiving credit. General manager Ryan Grigson was named Executive of the Year, and quarterback Andrew Luck went to the Pro Bowl as an alternate.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Arians didn't ask to be interim coach of the Colts, nor was it something he was altogether happy about doing. He did it for a friend and for a team that needed him. Just weeks earlier, he had been playing golf and enjoying much-needed time with his wife, Christine. Now, he was being asked to captain a ship that had been sinking dramatically just the year before.

The successful season in Indianapolis made Arians one of the hottest coaching candidates following the season. The Cardinals hired him after they fired his former boss—Whisenhunt—and Arians was accepting the Coach of the Year honor as he worked to get his new affairs in order.

Following the award ceremony, Arians told Darren Urban of ArizonaCardinals.com

It’s hard to put into words. It was such an unbelievable year...[the award is] whipped cream and a cherry on top, all that stuff. It’s the final chapter of an unbelievable story but now I can’t wait to get on to the next one.

Understand, for an NFL coach, there are countless sources of joy around, but one clearly exceeds the others. Coaches live to coach and are thankful for each day that they get to do it. It's a feeling Pagano knows all too well, as he told Monday Morning Quarterback's Peter King:

Basically, the message is what a privilege it is to play and coach in the NFL. Right when you start thinking that it is your right, you probably are gone. Because there’s somebody working extremely hard to try to get your locker, get your jersey number. You know how we’re judged as coaches. By one thing and one thing only—wins and losses. 

Later on this past offseason, Arians would find out that cancer had invaded his body again—this time in his skin. The procedure to remove the cancerous cells may not have been overly invasive, but it was a reminder to cherish that privilege. Because of that, he can be seen wearing plenty of sunscreen and zinc oxide on sunny Arizona days, and he can be heard preaching the benefits of these practices to his players.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Yet the previous year has changed Arians in more ways than just his adherence to skin protection. A source close to the Cardinals told me that in the past year, "Arians has gained a lot of respect as a leader of men," noting, "He's done a good job realizing what the strengths and weaknesses are. ... He's not going to put the team in jeopardy to look like an offensive genius."

A former NFL coach who has coached against Arians in the past spoke on the condition of anonymity and said that he had never pictured Arians as a head coach throughout the years, describing him as someone who didn't command respect. However, those long-held beliefs were quickly reversed in 2012.

"I wouldn't have hired Arians in 2002," the coach said, adding, "Now I feel the Cardinals are lucky to have him."

***

Over a year later, Pagano is (still) in remission. He reminisced about the worst (and best) 12 months of his life with the Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz:

I was talking to my wife and we were saying, it almost seems surreal that it’s been a year. Just the way things are going, how good I feel, I feel like it almost never happened. It’s crazy. It went so fast. Now, those first couple of months, it didn’t go fast when we were going through it, but now it’s like it happened to somebody else.

Like Arians, Pagano is a man changed by the events of 2012. Multiple people who knew Pagano prior to Indianapolis used biting terms to describe how they felt about him: "[Butch] Davis' lackey," "selfish" and plenty of other things I was asked not to print.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It's a stark contrast to the warm and almost fatherly figure who now patrols the Colts' sidelines. It seems that perspective—not only of life after cancer, but life finally on top of the ladder he spent his career so desperately trying to climb—has made him appreciative of everything around him.

More from Pagano, via Kravitz:

Nobody should have to battle this disease alone. Whatever I can do to give back the support I got, that the city gave me, now I have a platform and an opportunity to give back.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Let's not pretend, for a minute, that the success of either the Cardinals or the Colts was some foregone conclusion that these men stepped into. These are, in many ways, both ridiculously flawed rosters closer to rebuilding than a look at their records would have one believe. Yet, the Colts enter this weekend at 7-3 and are atop the AFC south and the Cardinals enter at 6-4 and still very much alive in the NFC playoff race. This Sunday matches both coaches against each other in a game with tremendous playoff implications for both parties. 

I looked at the phenomenon in regards to the Colts just a week ago, reminding fans to have patience as Grigson, Pagano and Luck clean up the messes left by the previous regime and try to get the team back on track. The success the Colts are having (7-3 with wins already against the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos) is a testament to the talent of Pagano and his staff, but also to the love his players have for him.

MMQB's King quoted safety Antoine Bethea as saying:

Most roller coasters, you get off and you say, "Let’s go again! Let’s do it again!" That was us last year. Right away this year, Chuck gave us our motivation.

It's a team playing "for" its coach in a totally new way. 

An NFL executive, who wished to remain anonymous, summed up the feelings that I received from a lot of people in this way:

When you look at all of the head coaches hired in the last few years, Bruce and Chuck are two of the most respected and well-liked new coaches in this league. As far as I've heard, coaches and executives unanimously have praised the work they've both done to turn their teams around.

I think a lot of people in the league are happy to see Bruce get this opportunity and make the most of it after the great job he did filling in for Chuck last year, and everybody I know thinks that it's pretty neat to see Chuck back at work, healthy, happy, and having success. Arizona vs. Indy is going to be a really interesting game this weekend.

It's a game, a situation and a matchup made possible by the resiliency of two men who had every logical reason to pack it up and let their respective situations get the best of them. Yet from being fired, to being to sick, to being overwhelmed, Bruce Arians and Chuck Pagano have risen above and made the best of what they've been given.

It's as bright of a silver lining as the NFL has ever seen.

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route and follow him on Twitter.

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