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Ben Smith

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Fill-in has been Colts’ true leader

– Some day soon, the Man will walk back through that door again, and the light they’ve kept burning for him all these weeks will go back to being just a light again. And that will be good. That will be fine. That will be a great day among great days.

“It’s going to be crazy,” Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea says. And, yes, he means that in a good way.

That’s because Chuck Pagano has been gone but never gone, really, like the light in his office they’ve kept burning 24/7 since he went off to arm-wrestle leukemia. It’s been his roadmap these Colts have followed, his example. A man goes nose-to-nose with cancer, what’s his football got to fear from, say, the Green Bay Packers? Why can’t they reel off nine wins in 14 games and sit on the doorstep of the playoffs?

“The atmosphere is alive and well, just knowing that we want to be playing in January,” says outside linebacker Robert Mathis, summing it up. “We want our coach, Chuck, to lead us out, so that’s a little extra added motivation.”

And the rest of the motivation?

That’s come from this guy over here, Bruce Arians.

You’ll never get him to acknowledge it, but without his example, too, none of this is happening for these Colts. They’re not going to Kansas City today with a chance to lock up a playoff berth. They’re not getting a chance to lead Coach P out for a playoff game. They’re not using his illness and his absence as motivation because by now there’d be nothing for which to be motivated.

That’s why Arians should be the NFL’s Coach of the Year. By a mile. By 20 miles.

“Nothing short of amazing what he’s done,” Mathis says.

“He’s done a great job just keeping the team intact, keeping the team focused. I can’t express how much he’s done,” Bethea says.

Chiefly what he’s done is take a young team’s natural passion and channel it, something that’s harder than it sounds. It can go two ways when a situation like Pagano’s arises, especially with a young team. Either the emotion of Winnin’ It For Chuck burns them out, or it gets harnessed and honed into simple week-by-week effort.

And so here was Arians, talking endlessly about respecting the process. And insisting this was Pagano’s team, and that all he was doing was maintenance work. And even as he said that, injecting his own tendency to attack, attack, attack.

“I’m not a dink-and-dunk guy, I never will be,” he said this week.

Fine with his young quarterback, Andrew Luck.

“That’s his mentality, and we are behind him 100 percent,” he says. “If we can execute what we do, if Colts aren’t beating Colts, then we have a chance.”

They have that and more now, of course, going to Kansas City. It’s a tough place to play, Arrowhead Stadium, and the Chiefs aren’t hauling out the golf clubs yet, and a misstep here means they have to beat Houston next week to clinch a playoff spot. So this is yet another reason to play for a team that’s got a warehouse full.

“When a team finds a reason to play, they’ll overcome some things,” Arians said this week. “Even guys we would bring off the street on Wednesday and we’d play on Sunday, they’d fight their tails off. When you have guys playing hard for 60 minutes, you’re going to win some games because most teams in this league don’t play hard for 60 minutes.”

The Colts do. And that, of course, is Chuck Pagano’s legacy.

And Bruce Arians’ doing.

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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