Front & Center: Pagano's Horse Power

After a profitable start, what’s next for Chuckstrong?

A year ago, no one had heard of Chuckstrong. The term hadn’t been invented yet, or become omnipresent in Indy, or drawn attention nationwide. Its namesake, Chuck Pagano, was starting his first season as the Colts head coach, hoping to turn around a team that had gone 2-14 the previous year.

And then, three games into the season: leukemia.

When punter Pat McAfee learned about Pagano’s diagnosis, he tweeted that one word: “#ChuckStrong.” A play on the team’s slogan for the season, Coltstrong, the hashtag was soon trending on Twitter.

Within days, the Colts organization began a season-long Chuckstrong blitz. Fans responded immediately, buying 18,600 “I am Chuckstrong” shirts and 22,000 orange wristbands. Donors followed, giving tens of thousands of dollars. The NFL tossed in $40,000. Great Clips shaved heads for free and donated $10 for each cueball. The Colts mascot even challenged a team cheerleader to go bald if he raised at least $10,000. After he raised almost $25,000, two cheerleaders lost their locks.

Then in April, the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala—which included auctions and, if you ponied up $1,000, the chance to catch a pass from Andrew Luck—netted $660,000.

That brought Chuckstrong’s impressive tally to more than $1.1 million, all of which has funded leukemia and cancer research at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, where Pagano was treated. And the movement’s full impact was even larger. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Indiana Chapter received about $100,000 from Chuckstrong-inspired gifts alone last year.

Pagano was overwhelmed by the support, which he says speaks to the character of Indianapolis residents and Hoosiers as a whole. “I know they’d do it for anybody,” he says. “I just feel really fortunate to be where I was when this happened.”

Pagano, left, and Jim Irsay at the coach's December 2012 return.His leukemia in remission, Pagano returned to the sidelines at the end of the 2012 regular season (the occasion was a nominee for “best moment” in the 2013 ESPY Awards). He’s glad to be back to the game he loves. Back to the Colts, who made an unexpected playoff run last season, inspired by the man who missed 12 games but couldn’t stop coaching.

“[Interim head coach Bruce Arians] would show text messages up on the screen in our team meetings that Chuck sent him, and we’re all like, ‘Man, you’re fighting for your life. Why are you watching film?’” says McAfee. “But the guy couldn’t get away from it.”

As for Chuckstrong’s future, the Colts are following Pagano’s lead—and his priority is to restore normalcy. That might explain why the only fundraising event on the calendar is the next Tailgate Gala, on May 2, 2014 (donations are always accepted online). The coach will still do what he can to help people affected by
cancer—he recorded a PSA for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, for example—but perhaps he’d rather do it as Chuck than through Chuckstrong.

“We need to get back to Coltstrong,” Pagano says. “That’s where the focus should be.”

Lead photo by Getty Images; Pagano photo courtesy the Indianapolis Colts

This article appeared in the September 2013 issue.