Chances are, Chuck Pagano is one degree of separation, maybe two, from every other big-time football coach in America. They know the same people, chase the same jobs, all living a nomad’s life. The dotted-line map of Pagano’s career begins in Colorado. Goes to Wyoming, California and Florida. Then Idaho, North Carolina and Nevada. Crosses back to North Carolina and Florida, north to Ohio, back to California, doubling back to North Carolina (again). It stops in Maryland. Yes, it stops for four years -- until one day in January of 2012, when they wanted Chuck Pagano in Indiana, for his first head-coaching job.
So Pagano went to his boss.
“Holy cow,” Pagano said, “what do I do now?”
He’d always been the man in the back of the room. He was 51 years old, a football lifer who is the son of a football lifer. Here’s how a lifer rolls: During his year in Idaho, Chuck Pagano fell in love but had moved on to the next job before he called back from North Carolina asking if the girl would marry him. (Tina Heffner said yes, this only six months after doubting the trustworthiness of a man who claimed he worked on Sundays. That’s how Tina learned about coaches, videotape and the day after a game.)
He knew the NFL. He had coached in Cleveland and Oakland. In his fourth season with the Baltimore Ravens, after 26 years in the business, he had become John Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator. Still, the call from the Indianapolis Colts surprised him. He had never been a head coach. He didn’t need center stage. Football alone was enough. As a kid he sat with his dad, a high school coaching legend in Colorado, watching film at home on a bed sheet. He worked in the shadows of Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis, Rex Ryan and then Harbaugh, himself a lifer and the son of a lifer. Chuck Pagano was just happy to be in the room.
The call from Indianapolis surprised only him. The game was in Pagano’s genes, and he taught it well. Players trusted him. They saw a gunslinger’s swagger and heard defiance in his voice. They saw a devilish look, the mustache and goatee, eyes on fire. He was old, a player said, but with “a young man’s soul.” When Harbaugh gave him the coordinator’s job, Pagano promised that his guys -- Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs -- would no longer read and react. They would “wreak havoc.” NFL Films preserved a Pagano locker room speech: “What’s our objective? Why are we doing this? To win. Beat your man, period. What is going to be our legacy, your legacy? Go home and write a script. Do you want to be an also-ran, just another guy, a guy who had a cup of coffee? Or do you want to be the best who ever played the position? The objective is to win.”
Late in the Ravens’ run to the AFC Championship Game last season, Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Van Valkenburg raised the possibility of Pagano leaving for a head coaching job. The reporter asked linebacker Terrell Suggs about that. Pagano had given Suggs license to hit anything that moved, do it any time he wanted, any way he wanted. Suggs said, “If anybody is trying to hire a head coach, if they ask, I’m going to say Pagano sucks. He’s terrible. He’s a terrible coach. His players don’t love him, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he’s calling a game.”
Terrell Suggs nailed it. The Colts hired Pagano.
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Chuck Pagano makes you smile, the things he says.
His daughter, Tara, was about to go on her first date. “We’re walking out and Dad comes walking around from the back of the house with a shovel,” she said. The coach shook hands with the boy. “Then he says, ‘Just so you know, I’ve got a shovel here. If you don’t have her home by 10 o’clock, I’ll bury you in my backyard and nobody will miss you.’”
Pagano called Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew a “rolling ball of butcher knives.” The football “looks like a Twinkie” when the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski has it. After receiver LaVon Brazil fumbled in the Colts’ season opener, the new coach didn’t chew out the kid. Pagano said, “I told him it was better to die a young man than to fumble.” (Lifers know that John Heisman told his Georgia Tech team, “Gentlemen, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football.”) Pagano spoke of his hard time in Oakland as “a two-year sentence,” which ended only when he escaped to Baltimore.
You smile, hearing the things people say about Pagano.
Lew Merletti, for 25 years a Secret Service agent who walked alongside Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, met Pagano while working security for the Cleveland Browns: “In the service, we’re trained to assess people quickly. Immediately, I saw Chuck as a leader. He had all ‘the right stuff.’” Indianapolis columnist Bob Kravitz: “Personable, salt of the earth, a family guy, a man of faith. We had lunch and he asked me more questions than I asked him.” Van Valkenburg said it’s amazing that during all those nomadic years, one of thousands of men in competition for recruits and jobs, “Chuck made no enemies.” “Praising him for being kind to everyone, no matter who they are, is like praising him for breathing -- it’s just who he is,” Indianapolis Star reporter Phillip B. Wilson said. “I mean, he gave me his cell number. How many NFL coaches do that?”
Ed Reed loves Pagano. The Ravens’ star doesn’t love many people. He’s ornery, prickly, contentious. He’s also one of the greatest safeties ever. Now 34 years old, he was 17 when Pagano, recruiting for the University of Miami, came to his high school near New Orleans. Playing in Pagano’s secondary at Miami, Reed became a first-round draft pick by the Ravens. Pagano soon moved into the NFL, first in Cleveland, then Oakland, and, in 2008, with the Ravens. There the coach and the recruit were reunited.
“He is like a dad, friend, brother,” Reed said a year ago. “When I shed tears, he sheds tears.”
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Famously tireless, Pagano was tired.
There were bruises on his body.
The season was only three weeks old when Pagano’s wife asked about the bruises. He said maybe they happened at work, or maybe playing with the grandchildren. He had been the Colts’ head coach for 10 months, every day a workday, the draft, minicamps, training camp, exhibition games. The regular season was three weeks old when the Colts lost at home to Jacksonville on an 80-yard touchdown pass in the last minute.
On Monday, asked by a reporter how many times he’d watched that play on tape, Pagano said, “All night long. … It’s like a nightmare.”
On Tuesday, Tina Pagano told the lifer he had to stop for a day and see a doctor.
On Wednesday, he learned why he was tired, why he was bruised.
He had cancer. Acute promyelocytic leukemia. It’s cancer of the bone marrow tissue. Untreated, it kills quickly. The hopeful news for Pagano is that APL, as it’s called, often responds favorably to treatment; cure rates of 80 to 90 percent are reported. The treatment is hellish. Chemotherapy and radiation ravage the body in hopes of saving life. Pagano was admitted to a hospital where he will stay at least six weeks.
His physician, Dr. Larry Cripe, is confident that Pagano will survive. At a press conference on Oct. 1, the doctor said, “The goal of this is to cure the disease. A definition of a cure is really that the remission has lasted for three to five years. So there’s a period of time of where there will be some uncertainty.” After discharge, Pagano will undergo several more months of chemotherapy and “will be able to engage in his normal life to a limited degree.”
That does not include coaching in the NFL. The Colts’ owner, Jim Irsay, has said that Pagano will not be back to work before next season. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was named interim head coach. Irsay also said that until Pagano returns, the Colts will leave a light on in his office.
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When the Colts announced the diagnosis of Pagano’s cancer, Kevin Byrne, a Ravens’ vice president, went to John Harbaugh’s office.
Harbaugh asked, “Does Ed know?”
Byrne said, “I don’t know.”
Harbaugh: “Can you get Ed for me?”
Byrne told Reed what had happened, then walked with him to Harbaugh’s office.
Harbaugh told Reed that they ought to tell the team. He thought they should say a prayer for Chuck.
There were tears in Reed’s eyes.
He had come of age in Miami, in Chuck Pagano’s home, in Pagano’s meeting rooms. In the coach’s home, he washed his clothes. In the meeting rooms, he learned to think a step ahead of the offense.
“He was like my dad, man,” Reed said. “For us to be together again …” Here, the ornery man was a half-step ahead of his emotions.
He had called Pagano in the Indianapolis hospital.
“He’ll fight this,” Reed said, “with all his heart.”