INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Chuck Pagano is back in charge of the playoff-bound Colts.
Three months after he took leave to battle leukemia - with no return date set - the Colts' head coach walked back in to a long round of applause as he addressed the media for the first time in months. He was emotional as he took the lead again, relieving offensive coordinator Bruce Arians of his interim coaching duties.
"There's no place that I'd rather be, than right here, as a Colt," Pagano said Monday at the Colts complex.
He spent several minutes profusely thanking everyone - from his family, to the team, to the coaching staff, to the management, to his doctors and the fans.
"I'll be forever in debt to each and every one of you," he said.
The thing that scared him most about his first media appearance in months, he said, was forgetting to thank someone.
His message to fans was one of gratitude.
"To the fans, the people of this great city, this great state and all over the country: Thank you. The prayers, the love, the support, the outpouring, I can't imagine being anywhere else and having a city and a community embrace somebody they hardly know. I can't tell you how thankful my family and I are. It's been unbelievable. We are so blessed."
When news of Pagano's return came out, Arians said the team couldn't get a better Christmas present. He also expressed gratitude for the show of support from the community, saying he believed the prayers and hope spread through the ChuckStrong campaign contributed to Pagano's recovery.
A news conference is set for 12:15 p.m. Monday. It will stream live here .
Pagano, in turn, said Arians and the teams' performance in has absence would be a "tough act to follow."
He also said Colts owner Jim Irsay had become like family to him.
"There's not a better man in the entire National Football League," Pagano said.
Irsay called it a "joyous occasion" to have Pagano back and healthy.
"I know Chuck is ready for this challenge," Irsay said, noting that he had talked with the coach's doctor to make sure the time was right for his return.
He also noted Pagano has inspired so many people with his fight, and Pagano said the ChuckStrong campaign that had been started to support him was overwhelming and humbling.
"My job is now to give back everything I can possibly give back to everyone out there who's fighting some type of cancer."
But more immediately, he said, he and the whole organization was looking toward next weekend's game with division leader the Houston Texans. The coach said his weight and energy levels had returned and he was ready to be back in the game.
"My time and energy has got to go into moving forward," Pagano said.
Colts players reacted to the return of their coach.
“The last time he talked to us in that room and gave us his situation, it was like the air was taken out of the room. Today it was vice versa, so it was great," said Reggie Wayne. "We know how hard he worked to get back. There was never any doubt in my mind that he would be back. I know what type of fighter he is, the type of person he is, just to have him back here, it was great.
“He’s back," said Jerrell Freeman. "As soon as he walked in, we gave him a standing ovation. Love having a guy like that back, his passion, his message, never taking anything for granted. Just play each and every play every week because you’re not promised anything. It’s definitely a privilege to play this game, privilege just to wake up in the morning. You still get that lump in your throat everytime he speaks.”
“His message from the beginning, once we broke from mini-camp and just getting ready for camp, the two things he’d give us to think about is how to be a champion and how to serve one another. His fight, just to be the centerpiece for belief for ourselves and what we’re trying to accomplish. With those t-shirts that we were wearing earlier in the year, that had us finishing dead last in the NFL, so to be seeded and in the playoffs is a testament to the character of this team and what he wanted this team to be about,” said Tom Zbikowski.