The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Pagano told Indianapolis Colts fans they can fight through their obstacles the same way he and his team did.
Stick to the process and never waver.
The Colts coach took a brief respite from his predraft studies Thursday to thank the Indianapolis community for its support while he battled leukemia and then gave away the secret to how he recovered so quickly.
"They refused to live in circumstances, they lived in vision," Pagano said, referring to his players. "What got me out of this hospital besides all the love and support from this community and this team and this owner was watching them (the Colts) fight. It's amazing what you can do when you have the proper state of mind. We can, we will, we must, no matter what the odds, no matter what the circumstances, we will get the job done."
Pagano then told the roughly 450 people inside a local ballroom at the Brady Sports Achievement Awards that the philosophy would work in their toughest battles, too.
Last season, Pagano's inspiring comeback story captivated the football world. The Colts used it as a rallying point for their remarkable turnaround and it inspired a nation of football fans to root for a coach that most barely knew until last fall.
But in this room and on this night, Pagano's story fit right in with those of the other four award winners.
—Purdue basketball star Drey Mingo received her award after partially losing her hearing in a life-threatening battle with acute bacterial meningitis in the fall of 2010.
—Noah James, a boys swimmer at Boonville High School in Indiana who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome as a child, was honored after battling back from a rare, life-threatening disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, before the 2012 season. He needed a double lung transplant before he could return to the pool.
—There was Shanna Kelly, a volleyball and girls basketball player at Alexandria Monroe High School in Indiana, who was diagnosed with melanoma in her scalp after her junior season but continued to compete.
—The fourth recipient was Derek Drouin, an Indiana track star who fought through a career-threatening right foot injury to give Canada a bronze medal in the high jump at last summer's Olympics.
After Pagano finished, he was awarded a special comeback award, too.
While each story had its own touching moments, there was one common thread: They never doubted they could win.
"I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Mingo said. "I grew very close to my family and teammates because of it. My message is to enjoy the little moments because they make the big moments special, and to tell people you love them."
Pagano couldn't have said it better himself.
While he sprinkled in comical cracks about his wife and an old friend who once played for the Colts, and drew laughter when he explained the nurses asked if he wanted to be called "The Rock" while using a fake identity that his wife came up with, Pagano's story still rivets fans and non-fans alike in this state.
Even Mingo, an Atlanta native, acknowledged how deep Pagano's story hits.
"I know Coltstrong," she said with a smile, recognizing the motto that morphed into "Chuckstrong" after the diagnosis.
But Pagano's recovery only exemplifies how much has changed in his life over the past 15 months.
When team owner Jim Irsay and general manager Ryan Grigson hired the Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator in January 2012, the first-time head coach walked into one of the most challenging situations in NFL history. He was working with a first-time GM, taking over an aging team that was coming off its worst season in a decade. And before he ever coached a game, the Colts cut ties with a handful of fan favorites: Peyton Manning, Jeff Saturday, Gary Brackett and Dallas Clark.
Pagano, however, kept his message to the team simple and consistent. They responded by winning nine more games than the previous season, reaching the playoffs, and doing most of that with their head coach battling leukemia.
"We're all faced with circumstances, we all have conditions, we can focus on those or we can live in vision. I talked about mindset up there," he said, referring to the introductory video. "When I took this job, this organization was completely blown up. Now you realize there are only 32 of these jobs, and it's completely blown up and you're certainly not going to say no if they offer you the position. ... They gave us zero chance to do anything. "
Without Pagano's passionate message, the Colts might not have achieved anything.
But when things looked bleak in late September, Pagano thought back to what he told his own players, and used those lessons himself.
It's something he wants others to know, too.
"Vision, process, comeback, it doesn't matter," Pagano said. "Your vision, your mindset, everything you've done at this point to do the great things you've done, just stay with it. Don't deviate."