Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano knows that his return to Indianapolis for Saturday night’s preseason game against the Colts will be an emotional one.
During six seasons as Colts head coach from 2012-17, Pagano developed strong bonds with not only players, coaches and other members of the organization but the team’s fans and the city of Indianapolis as well.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t going to be any [emotions],” Pagano said, “I’m sure once we get down there, step out on the field and go through all the pre-game stuff, see a lot of old faces, shake a lot of hands, high fives and all that. I had six great years there and have a lot of fond memories, so it’ll be pretty cool.”
Pagano compiled a 56-46 record as Colts coach, leading them to three straight playoff berths from 2012-14, including AFC South titles in 2013 and 2014, and an appearance in the 2014 AFC Championship Game.
While Pagano is eager to reconnect with old friends, he understands the primary purpose for this weekend’s trek to Indianapolis is to help the Bears prepare for the 2019 season.
“It’s a business trip,” Pagano said. “We got a game to play and all that stuff and there’s a lot on the line for a lot of these players. So our focus and our energy and everything has been in our preparation for the game.”
To Pagano, the people of Indianapolis are what make the community so special.
“You always hear about ‘Hoosier Hospitality,’ but until you live it like I had an opportunity to live it, you can’t appreciate it like I appreciate it,” Pagano said. “Just really, really good people.”
The locals have supported Pagano like he’s one of their own since Day 1. He was in his first season as Colts coach in 2012 when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Pagano took a leave of absence after the first four games to undergo treatment and returned for the regular-season finale three months later with his cancer in remission.
“I was only there a short time before I was diagnosed,” Pagano said. “For that city and that community, the organization, to embrace me and support me and my whole family through that journey, it just speaks to that Hoosier Hospitality, and living it like we lived it was truly amazing because they didn’t have to do that. There’s a lot more good in this world than bad—really, really good people—and I was fortunate to be where I was at the time.”
Pagano’s battle with leukemia led to the creation of the Chuckstrong movement to both support him and raise money for cancer research at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center, where the veteran coach was treated.
Since 2013, Pagano has hosted an annual Tailgate Gala that has raised a total of $7.3 million, enough for the Cancer Center to hire 12 doctors who specialize in researching leukemia, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer and cancer genetics.
This year’s Gala was hosted by the Colts in May. The Bears sent a contingent to the event that included chairman George H. McCaskey, general manager Ryan Pace, coach Matt Nagy and a handful of assistant coaches. Pagano said he was blown away by how the two teams partnered to support him and his charity.
“It was really unprecedented how in the National Football League, where everything is so secretive—nobody wants to share anything—for two organizations to come together,” Pagano said. “And the generosity of the McCaskey family purchasing a table and supporting that cause and making the trek down there, it was unbelievable and just speaks to the people that own these two organizations and the fan base and everybody in these two football buildings, to their character.
“It was a night where both organizations put football to the side and we all came together for a great cause, and that was to raise money for cancer research.”