“I mentioned before the game that you guys are living in the vision.”
This is Chuck Pagano. He is the coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He has been coaching football for almost 30 years. He coached in colleges across the country — Southern California, East Carolina, Boise State, UNLV. Miami. He was 41 when he first made it to the NFL, following Miami coach Butch Davis up to Cleveland.
This clip is one minute, forty seconds and it is everything that matters in sports. That’s all. We love these games for as many reasons as there are fans. We hate these games for even more reasons. We are inspired by the brilliant players and sickened by the cheaters, emboldened by the comebacks and disgusted by officials’ blunders, made alive by the spectacular plays and numbed by the missed chances.
The clip is 1:40. And it is everything.
He bounced around for more than a decade after making the NFL. Cleveland. Oakland. Back to college (North Carolina with Butch Davis again). Up to Baltimore. And then finally this year, somewhat out of nowhere, he was offered his first head coaching job at any level with the Indianapolis Colts.
In September, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“You weren’t living in circumstances,” he continued as he spoke to the Indianapolis players on Sunday. Circumstances to Chuck Pagano mean the factors and turn of events and expectations and criticisms and conditions that are inflicted upon you in life. They are the things that get between you and the vision.
“You know where they had us in the beginning,” he said, meaning that everyone expected the Colts to be big losers this year. “Every last one of them. But you refused to live in circumstances. And you decided consciously as a team, and as a family to live in a vision. And that’s why you bring things home like you brought home today.”
The Colts had won the game. The Colts are 5-3 after winning just twice a year ago.
“That’s why you’re already champions,” he said. “And well on your way.”
And up to this point, it was just a coach’s talk. All that stuff about circumstances and visions, it’s good stuff, but when coach’s say it they are usually referring to winning on the road or continuing on when the quarterback has been hurt or overcoming the negativity of doubting sportswriters and booing fans.
But, then Chuck Pagano grew serious. His hair was lost to the chemotherapy. His face was thin, and his voice quivered a touch.
“I’ve got circumstances,” he said. “You guys understand it. I understand it. It’s hard to beat.” This is when the cheering in the locker room started. It was a beautiful kind of cheering, very different from the joyful cheering you hear after a touchdown or a sack or a great catch This was a cheer to hold a person up. You hear it in places of prayer when the speaker voice starts to rattle and shake. You hear it in auditoriums and banquet halls and locker rooms, when the person talking begins to choke up and has to stop to regain voice. It’s the cheering that says, “We are here.” It’s the cheering that radiates friendship.
“It’s hard to beat,” Chuck Pagano said again, amidst the cheers, though you could hardly hear it.
And then … Pagano spoke a poem. I’m sure he did not intend to speak a poem. But it just came out of him, as big and bold and hopeful and lovely as any words ever spoken in a football locker room.
And my vision
That I’m living
Is to see two more daughters
Dance at their wedding
hoist that Lombardi
What else is there in sports, really? These games we play and watch, in the end, may be pointless. A terrible storm like Sandy should remind us of what matters. But the hope that comes with the games, the strength that can be extracted from them, the optimism of sports that might push people to fight just little harder against the end, well, maybe that can matter.
At this point Pagano started to break up. And he did what coaches do when they start to break up … he swore. Well, that’s football. He talked about hoisting the trophy several times. That’s football too. He soaked in the encouragement. Then the clip ended with Pagano saying with full affirmation: “I’m dancing at two more weddings and we’re hoisting that trophy together, men.” And that’s not football. That’s hope. That’s faith. That’s right from the depth of the human spirit. May Chuck Pagano hears those cheers if his hope ever starts to fade. May we all hear those cheers in our darkest moments.