INDIANAPOLIS -- It took Chuck Pagano less than nine months to instil his fighter's mentality and hopeful spirit in the Indianapolis Colts.
He will need both to survive the biggest battle of his life -- leukemia.
In a sombre news conference Monday, the Colts announced that their new coach had been hospitalized for cancer treatment and probably would not return to full coaching duties this season. He will be replaced on an interim basis by offensive co-ordinator Bruce Arians.
"He will do fine," Arians said, his voice cracking as he recalled his own fight with prostate cancer in 2007. "I know him. He's a fighter. He's survived tough times already in his life. As a cancer survivor myself, I know that these first few days are really hard on you but as he and I talked yesterday, it's just a matter of time."
The news hit hard in all corners of the team complex.
Team owner Jim Irsay, who began his career as a Colts ball boy in the early 1970s, said the only comparison he could come up with was Vince Lombardi's cancer diagnosis during the summer of 1970.
New general manager Ryan Grigson read stoically from his prepared notes, and Arians struggled to hold back tears.
After practice, players signed a get-well card that read in part, "We are in your corner 100 per cent. Get rest, but we can't wait to get our leader back." The usually jovial comments were replaced by concerned looks and serious discussion about life -- not football.
"When I first heard about it, my heart dropped," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "You think about your family members or someone that's actually been affected by it. But Chuck will fight this thing and he will beat this thing, there's no doubt in my mind."
It didn't take long for the Colts to figure out how to honour the first-time head coach who rekindled excitement in the locker-room and around town after the Colts' awful 2-14 season a year ago.
"I asked Mr. Irsay if we would leave the light on in his office permanently till he comes back and we are going to do that," Arians said.
The news trickled out publicly just as players and assistant coaches were returning to the team complex after the Colts' bye week and one day before Pagano's 52nd birthday.
He was admitted to an Indianapolis hospital last Wednesday to begin treatments for acute promyelocytic leukemia, an illness in which the bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells that interfere with healthy blood cells.
Pagano's physician, Dr. Larry Cripe, said the coach will be treated with chemotherapy and drugs -- a process that usually requires patients to spend four to five weeks in the hospital. Irsay said he expected Pagano to stay a bit longer, six to eight weeks.
Chargers coach Norv Turner, who has known Pagano since 1984 when they were both on the Southern California staff, echoed Griffin's sentiments and acknowledged that Pagano's younger brother, John, the Chargers defensive co-ordinator, struggled with his emotions last week.
"You get all caught up in losing a game to Atlanta and then on Wednesday morning you get a call that your brother has leukemia," Turner said. "It puts things in perspective. John did a great job this week, unbelievable job, handling what he had to handle and then getting ready."
-- The Associated Press