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Associated Press
Fans hold up a sign in support of Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who is battling leukemia.

Coach, players help each other

– So, you think this is a one-way deal, right? The Chuckstrong bracelets and shaved heads (even the cheerleaders!) and most of all the W’s, coming from the heart and the gut even though every week another piece seems to fall off the Family Truckster?

All for you, Chuck Pagano. All for the greater good of Coach, and to kick the stuffing out of the cancer that wants to take him.

“Unbelievable medicine,” interim coach Bruce Arians said last week, with the Colts at 7-4 and headed for Detroit a step ahead in the playoff chase.

“Being around football, I think, is one of the things that’s getting him well. The more he can be in the building and be around the guys when it’s not detrimental to his health … You have to have a reason to want to get well, and when you have one as strong as this, it’s great medicine.”

Stone gospel, all of that. But you know what you didn’t hear there?

What you didn’t hear is what kind of medicine he’s been for them.

“Coach built a great foundation before he had to take this leave,” Andrew Luck, the rookie quarterback at the heart of so much of this, said last week. “I think a big focus of ours is making sure we stay on that same path. I think every week, win or loss, forging character, if you will, in trying to be that team he wants us to be.”

And so, yes, the Colts may indeed be healing Chuck Pagano. But in truth, they’re healing each other.

The best way to wring every drop from a young team, after all, is to give it something to play for, and heaven knows this team has something to play for. No one with a thimbleful of soul would wish such an awful thing as leukemia on anyone, of course, but this particular awful thing has given this particular football team a common cause, and common causes are powerful things.

“Unfortunately, circumstances caused this,” is how Dwight Freeney puts it. “The good thing about it is, it causes everybody to get together, and that’s very important. Guys, we’re real close this year, even though historically we’ve had a close-knit team.”

And so they inspire each other, coach and team. How else to explain how a bunch of kids have a better record right now than the Pittsburgh Steelers? Or how a defense that keeps losing parts of itself manages to give up an average of 14 points in its last four wins?

“We’ve just done a good job of having guys pick up the baton,” Freeney says. “This is what your job is, don’t try to do anymore.

“It’s really banding together and relying on each other. Just pass the baton, next guy up, and be ready for a big game. Whoever it is, just be ready to perform.”

Sure. Next Guy Up, after all, has long been a part of the essential catechism in Indianapolis, but never more so than now, with the ultimate Man down. And so Pagano texts his guys and shows up at games when he’s able and breaks down film from home, and finds strength in it. And the Colts go out and play the game off its feet for him, and find a strength no one would have ever guessed they’d have.

“They love Chuck and what he means and what he stands for,” Arians said this week. “As long as we stay within the moment, we’ll be playing when he comes back, and that has always been our goal since he got sick, to extend the season.

“His footprints and handprints are all over this team. It’s his team.”

And their shared triumph.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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