A Coach's Victory

Family, football and faith were my life. My cancer diagnosis tested them all.

By Chuck Pagano , Indianapolis

As appeared in

I talked to the team doctor more to ease my wife’s mind than my own. Yes, I was tired, but exhaustion is part of the job description for any NFL coach, and I was in my first year as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Exhaustion didn’t explain the bruises on my arms and torso, though. I didn’t remember bumping into anything or anyone, but the bruises had cropped up during training camp and worsened as we started the regular season.

One night, Tina noticed the dark purple splotches on my side. I told her I’d probably gotten them playing with our grandkids, but she said, “You’d better get those checked out.”

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I knew she’d keep after me if I didn’t, so I asked the team doctor to take a quick look one day at the Colts complex. He had a nurse draw some blood and sent it out for tests, and I got right back to work.

That night the team doctor called me. “Some of your counts were low,” he said. “I made an appointment for you to see a specialist, Dr. Larry Cripe, tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? We have practice and things to clean up heading into the bye week.”

“This is not optional, Chuck. You need to be at Indiana University’s Simon Cancer Center tomorrow for the appointment. Make sure your wife goes with you.”

That’s when I knew something serious was up.

Still, it didn’t seem real the next day when Dr. Cripe told me, “You have acute promyelocytic leukemia. It’s a cancer of the white blood cells.”

No way, I thought. This isn’t happening. Tina’s hand tightened on mine.

“It’s treatable,” Dr. Cripe said. “But you will need to begin chemotherapy immediately.”

Tina and I looked at each other, tears in our eyes. Why would I finally get my dream job–the opportunity that I’d been working toward all these years, that Tina and our girls had sacrificed so much for, moving every time my career took me to another team–only to be slammed with this?

Then my coaching instinct broke in. There are no pity parties in football. I asked Dr. Cripe, “What are my chances? Give me some numbers.”

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He said that APL is highly curable, with long-term survival rates as high as 90 percent. Better than decent odds. Better than the odds on any given Sunday in the NFL, for sure. “What do we need to do to beat this?” I asked.

Dr. Cripe laid everything out for me. APL is treated with an oral drug, all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), in combination with intravenous chemotherapy.

“The treatment is intensive,” he warned, “but it’s the only way to kill the cancer cells. The next six weeks are going to be rough on your body. You’ll likely be hospitalized the entire time, because your blood counts will be extremely low and we don’t want to risk infection.”

“I can handle it,” I said. It’s all your mindset and your attitude. I chose to focus on my position, not my condition. My position would be that I would beat cancer and stick around for a long time for my family.

I was admitted to the hospital right away to start treatment. I only had time to call our general manager, Ryan Grigson. Tina had to make the hardest calls, the ones to our daughters and to my parents.

Half an hour after the diagnosis, a nurse inserted a PICC line, a type of central catheter, in my upper arm, and the chemo drugs began flowing into my bloodstream. Dr. Cripe put a whiteboard up on the bathroom door to track my progress.

There was a calendar on the board, and each day nurses would write my blood counts, white cells, hemoglobin, platelets. I liked numbers. They were tangible measures, something I could hold on to.