Modern-day sports fans have heard it all before. "It's a business," we're told at least once a year. Whether it's our favorite player leaving town for a rich new contract, a team holding a city hostage for a new stadium deal or a league's games being canceled due to an impasse in labor negotiations, 21st century sports fans have learned to hold allegiances lightly and to take any professions of loyalty from our favorite players and teams with more than one grain of salt.
That's what makes the 2012 Indianapolis Colts' story and the events surrounding head coach Chuck Pagano's battle with leukemia that much more amazing. The Colts have rallied around their stricken coach in a way that belies the normal cynicism that surrounds pro sports.
From the time we're kids playing Little League, we all try to capture that spirit of unity that can only be experienced on a team, that "Three Musketeers" mentality where it truly is "one for all and all for one." Few of us, however, ever get to experience that. For most of us, disillusionment sets in after seeing the coach's kid get preferential treatment or our high school team break apart because of jealousy or spats over playing time.
Then, when most of us are finished playing, we continue that search vicariously through our favorite college and pro teams and players. This search too can be a dead end when we find that the "student-athletes" are taking money under the table or leaving school early for lucrative pro careers. Our heroes in the pros are often little more than mercenaries, plying their talents for the highest bidder.
All this leaves the sports fan, who devotes a good chunk of time and money supporting these prima donnas of the playing fields, wondering what it's all for. In this day and age, I've found myself asking more than once, "Does anyone play for the name on the front of the jersey any more?"
Enter the 2012 Indianapolis Colts. Oh, to be sure, there are plenty of multi-millionaires in the Colts' locker room. It's still the NFL and Jim Irsay's outfit is well-compensated for their representing the Circle City on a weekly basis. Check out the players' parking lot some time. You won't find any "beater" vehicles bought off a used car lot.
But inside the Colts' locker room this season has been something unique. Inside the Colts' locker room you discover a camaraderie, an esprit de corps that usually is nothing more than a marketing image for the NFL. Somehow these 2012 Colts have captured something that is the essence of why we love sports.
Chuck Pagano's illness might have been the catalyst that brought all this to the surface, but it can hardly be defined as the cause. Pagano is brand new to the organization as are most of his players. No, there's something about Pagano himself that was already priming the pump for this kind of team unity well before he was diagnosed. Professional athletes, and people in general, don't show the loyalty to their boss that the Colts have shown to Pagano unless that person is a genuine leader.
Take Reggie Wayne, for instance. Wayne has played second fiddle in Indianapolis for most of his career. He was under Marvin Harrison's shadow when he started, and even when 88 retired, he was still walking in the vastness of Peyton Manning's public image. Reggie was a free agent, and for all appearances, it looked like the Colts were gearing up for a total rebuild, leaving him struggling to win much of anything for the rest of his career. Nobody in Indy would have blamed Reggie for signing one last mega-deal with a Super Bowl contender at this stage of his career.
But Reggie stayed. He stayed, not because the Colts backed up the Brink's truck to Reggie's house. Reggie got a nice deal from the team, but nothing he couldn't have gotten in any number of locales looking to upgrade their receiving corps. Reggie stayed because of Chuck Pagano, who Reggie knew from his days back at the University of Miami where Pagano was an assistant. Reggie stayed with the Colts because he knew what kind of leader Chuck Pagano is.
Reggie admitted to having shed more than a few tears over his head coach over the past few months, so much that he didn't have many left to cry for joy as his coach returned to work:
“No, I’ve cried so much already it’s like I don’t know if I have any more tears in there. I’m just glad to see him back. He’s a great man as well as a great coach."
There are many more stories of men impacted by Pagano. Tom Zbikowski followed Pagano here from Baltimore along with Cory Redding. Zbikowski isn't at all surprised that his teammates have bonded so quickly with Pagano. He too knows the man as well as the coach.
"I think it just shows that even the guys’ first time meeting him, show how much respect they have for what he brings to the table and just the type of the person he is and the camaraderie of this team. We were all waiting for him."
The NFL prides itself on its image. Over the past three decades, no sport has successfully polished theirs the way the NFL has. With the abundance of coverage, however, along with social media and everything else, we've also seen the seamier side of the league, the side that naturally comes with professionalism. That's what makes us all at least a bit cynical has fans.
Then comes along a man like Chuck Pagano, an authentic leader of men, and we see in truth what we've all been hoping to find: brotherhood, fellowship, an atmosphere where every man knows that every other man there has his back.
Welcome back, Coach Pagano. We're glad to have you back on the sideline. We're already glad that you came to Indianapolis and gave us what we were looking for.
It's not about wins, or big contracts, or fancy new stadiums. It's about something bigger than all that. In Indianapolis, that's called being ChuckStrong.
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