Of all the twists and turns that the Chuck Pagano story has taken during this remarkable season, this might be the most unexpected.
He has made the Colts — those late-night escapees from Baltimore three decades ago — admired, if not downright respected, in the city now owned by the Ravens.
Oh sure, Baltimore fans still will be slinging barbs at Indy and its players as the two square off in an AFC wild-card game Sunday.
But a chapter has been turned in this rivalry, and Pagano is largely the reason.
“He’s like a dad to me,” free safety Ed Reed told the Baltimore Sun about Pagano, his former position coach with the Ravens and at the University of Miami (Fla.). “That’s family, which is first before football.”
Indeed, Pagano has a big family, one that includes not just those in the Colts’ locker room but many more around the NFL.
The coach’s tale is one of winning a very public cancer battle with courage and grace. Pagano has turned his personal struggle into a living testimony of his faith.
In the postgame celebration after beating the Texans last Sunday, a fitting character win in Pagano’s return, the coach used the opportunity to talk about hope.
But it was not just hope for his personal battle or even for his team’s fate; it is the hope that his team offers to those with battles of their own.
“There are people out there struggling. They’ve got circumstances,” he told 45 players huddled close. “They’re sitting there now with big smiles on their face because of what you’ve given them. It’s unbelievable.
“You give them hope. They’ve got something to live for and something to fight for. And that’s what you’ve given me.”
For the Ravens, where Pagano was defensive coordinator for six years, it is tough to look at these Colts with the same passion bordering on hatred that marked previous matchups.
“The whole Chuck side of it is a great story,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s a great friend, and I have tremendous respect for him personally, and I love his family. Obviously, all of us got real close here.”
After 30 years, the Mayflower has moved on. Or at least around the corner.
Oh, that does not mean that Sunday’s contest will be a letdown for either team.
“What he’s been through and the whole thing is just phenomenal,” Harbaugh said of Pagano. “But that gets set aside. We’re all competitors, and they’re coming into our place with every intention of winning the football game.
“We’re going to have to play our best football to beat them.”
Both teams come in with something to prove. The Ravens backed into the playoffs, losing four of their final five games.
Indy has the dubious distinction of making the postseason despite being outscored in the regular season. Its defense, a Sun columnist opined, is “downright lousy.”
Defensive tackle Halati Ngata, who has exchanged text messages with Pagano throughout the year, told the Sun: “I don’t think it’s going to be any different, because we’re going to play the way we want to play and try to win.
“But just seeing him there would be different, emotionally. Just to see him fight through the cancer and be out there on the sideline would be an amazing sight.”
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to letters@daily journal.net.