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Ben Smith

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    Twenty-two years ago there was a littered desk and a shelf of game tapes and a VCR (remember those?) wedged into one corner, and a kid who was groomed for this but not, you know, groomed for this.

‘It’s been an amazing ride’

– Maybe that sign up there. Maybe that’s where you begin this.

Maybe you begin with the True Blue mob rising to its feet and making its noise, sending down a warming flood of love and I-got-your-back. And here was the wan man with the gray skullcap of re-emerging hair letting it wash over him. And here he was waving in acknowledgment. And here, finally, was the sign – the theme for this day, and perhaps the anti-theme, too – popping up on the Lucas Oil Stadium video board.

“Charles In Charge,” it read.

Well. Yes and no.

Yes, in the sense that this day was all about Chuck Pagano kicking cancer to the curb and coming back home and coaching his football team again, and coaching it right off its feet. Colts 28, Texans 16, and there’s no way to explain that, except that Charles was In Charge again. There’s no way to explain seven victories in eight home games this season, and seven game-winning drives, and 11 W’s overall, except that Pagano led it all by example, even when he only could lead by example.

On the other hand, something larger than just him and his fight seems to be going on here, like a Lifetime movie that’s gotten into the PEDs. Even Pagano seems to sense it.

“There’s some things that transpired out there today … ” he said Sunday.

And then trailed off, bewildered.

And then trailed off, because a coach can only lead so much by example, can only set so much of the agenda and establish so much of the culture before it grows arms and legs and a mind of its own and becomes something whole and self-sustaining.

“I think the big thing about this is just it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are,” linebacker Dwight Freeney said. “We’re going out there and trying to execute a game plan and keep that winning streak and that good feeling in the building.

“It’s been an amazing ride, a lot of emotion. We’ve had some amazing wins. But I’ll be honest with you: This is just a stepping stone. It’s just started for us. Inside we’re still looking at bigger and greater things.”

And so here was a Colts team that had nothing to gain, beating the dog out of a Houston Texans team with everything to gain. Here was Andrew Luck taking the Colts in for six right off the hop, and then doing it again. Here he was luring the fearsome Texans offside again and again with hard counts, and hitting T.Y. Hilton with a 70-yard laser straight out of fable. And then there was 9:46 to play, and Luck and the Colts were taking possession on their 20 – and the Texans never saw the football again.

Charles In Charles explains some of that. But what about the rest?

“They refused,” is how Pagano put it Sunday, the emotion of the day written in neon on his exhausted face. “They refused to let anybody write their story for what they could and could not to. They refused to live in circumstance.

“They live in vision. They believe, they have faith, they have trust, they love one another, and what they’ve done over the course of the last 12 ballgames … to watch them go out there today and do what they did, with nothing to gain … ”

Well, it’s beyond him, surely. He showed up Sunday (“It was like a rock star coming out of the tunnel with all the cameras flashing,” Luck said), and the signs waved, and the True Blue mob made its sound. And when it was finished – when Luck took a knee, and the crowd began to chant “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck” – they all came to him, even the beaten Texans: Andre Johnson and Danieal Manning and Jonathan Joseph and T.J. Yates, seeking him out at midfield to wrap him in hugs.

And then on to the postgame, to ponder the mystery of it all.

“What a day,” he said. “What a day.”

And then: “This meant the world to me. This team … The best medicine I received was just watching them play week in and week out. This team never lost two games in a row. They’d have a bad moment and come right back and win three in a row, four in a row.

“A long time ago, we asked the guys what your legacy is gonna be. We’re still writin’ it. We’re still writin’ this story. Because the journey continues.”

This wondrous, improbable, heart-bursting journey.

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; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.