Chuckstrong was in the house, and his players gave him the best present possible.
His valiant fight against leukemia an enduring source of motivation to Indianapolis Colts players and coaches alike, head coach Chuck Pagano provided an additional lift when he visited an emotional locker room moments after the team’s 23-20 victory against Miami on Sunday.
Indianapolis reaches the midpoint of its 16-game regular-season schedule having secured a 5-3 record. The Colts have little time to celebrate, however, as they return to action Thursday night for a prime-time game at AFC South rival Jacksonville.
The Colts’ five victories have come by a total of 19 points, a number that points both to their collective youth and a willingness to keep fists curled until the final gun sounds. The latter reflects the mindset of Pagano, whose fighting spirit the Colts seem to embody.
“It was huge. Obviously, his presence is felt every day, at the Colts Complex and in the city,” said Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck following the finest performance of his young career, which included an NFL rookie record 433 passing yards that included two touchdown strikes and no interceptions. “To see him in the flesh, to hear him speak, gave the guys a huge lift.”
“To see him that quick, we just love having him around. It just feels right,” safety Tom Zbikowski said. “Just to give him a hug and see him standing as strong as he is. It’s a big moment for everyone.”
Pagano, 52, addressed the Colts prior to Sunday’s game, then briefly celebrated with them afterward. There were tears, said Zbikowski. Goosebumps, too. The franchise deemed too young to accomplish anything of significance this season now finds itself in the thick of a playoff race.
“It was a very joyous locker room. Chuck was at the game, and we just had a great locker room moment with him,” Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. “On the ballgame, we have a resilient group of guys. That was a big win for us.”
Luck wound up completing 30 of 48 pass attempts, his primary targets being rookie T.Y. Hilton (six catches, 102 yards) and fellow speedster Donnie Avery (five for 108). Rookie running back Vick Ballard rushed for a game-high 60 yards, the final 19 the biggest as he twisted, turned and backed his way downfield on a third-and-seven that allowed the Colts to run out the clock.
Miami had a 17-13 advantage late into the third quarter when Hilton made a leaping catch between two defenders for a 36-yard touchdown that put Indianapolis back on top, 20-17. A Dolphins field goal tied it early in the fourth, but Adam Vinatieri’s 43-yard field goal with 7:14 remaining in the fourth proved the deciding points.
Pagano won’t be with the team in Jacksonville later this week. But he will be watching. Whether present or absent, he’s always there cheering, critiquing, encouraging, being a coach.
“He’s about to undertake a very, very serious week of his treatment, but he’ll bounce back. We know he will,” Arians said. “For me, the goal is to make sure we make the playoffs, because he’s got a great chance to be back at the end of December. We need to make sure we extend this season so he can be back on the sidelines with us, healthy.
“That’s our goal.”