Getty Images

Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s ‘magic’ impact on fighting cancer

Leave a comment

A different column today, taking a breath entering the post-draft lull in the NFL calendar. 

On Thursday, the Chicago Bears will hold an off-season practice in Lake Forest, Ill. Then, around 1:30 p.m., team chairman George McCaskey, coach Matt Nagy and other Bears coaches and officials will board a van for a 3.5-hour ride south. On the van will be the guest of honor for a fundraiser Thursday night that’s unlike any charity event connected to the NFL these days.

It’s a cancer fundraiser, with Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano the man of the evening. It’s the seventh annual Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala. The first six have raised more than $5.5 million for cancer research. But this year’s is different.

Pagano, whose very public conquest of leukemia in 2012 was one of the great feel-good stories of recent NFL seasons, was fired by the Colts 16 months ago. Coaches who get fired go away quietly and stay away. They don’t say what they really feel most often—that they were wronged, that they weren’t the problem. The firing team moves on, and rarely mentions the vanquished coach.

The Colts are different. Pagano is different. Indianapolis is different. And now the Chicago Bears are in the Pagano web.

“I’m not bitter,” Pagano said from Illinois the other day. “I’m better. [Colts owner] Jim Irsay and I have a relationship for life. I love Jim Irsay. I love the organization. At some point coaches have to say goodbye to teams, and teams have to say goodbye to coaches. If you win, you keep your job, and if not, they move in a different direction. I never took it personal. And now I get to coach with one of the great franchises in sports, the Chicago Bears. I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Those who fight cancer in Indiana, and football fans in Chicagoland, are glad that’s just a figure of speech. The Bears will have a table at the Tailgate Gala inside the Colts’ practice facility northwest of the city. The Bears and Colts might be rivals for the NFL fan in northern Indiana, but on this night, the Chicago head coach and chairman will attend this gala on the Colts practice field. The organization will write a check to support their defensive coordinator’s cause, and that coordinator will mingle with the people who fired him, and rub shoulders with those in Indiana who can make great things happen by writing checks of their own.

“Chuck brings magic to so many people,” Irsay told me. “I believe it. I’ve seen it. The impact he continues to have on fighting cancer, it’s just magic.”

Read more from Football Morning in America here

The question I had for Pagano was a tough one. Cruel, really. But in many ways, he’s George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the banker who found out how much he meant to people in his town when it was almost too late to save the town.

Imagine, I asked Pagano, if you never got leukemia in 2012. Imagine if you hadn’t been cured, then gone on to raise almost $6 million for the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center. Imagine if the funds you raised to recruit to the Simon Cancer Center specialists in leukemia, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, cancer genetics, and, most recently, funding to endow a Chuck and Tina (his wife) Pagano Scholar hire each year, guaranteeing an annual hire for cancer research in one specialty area. Imagine, as Simon Cancer Center director of development Amber Kleopfer Senseny said, “Two hundred years from now, we’ll hire another Chuck and Tina Pagano Scholar, to research another form of cancer.” That’s George Bailey stuff.

“Do you sometimes wonder about all the lives that never would have been helped if you didn’t get leukemia, and you didn’t start this cause?”

Pagano paused. “That is a story that will never be told,” he said. “The Lord had a plan for me, I know that. Coming to the Simon Cancer Center saved my life. Really, research saved my life. Because somebody donated money for research into my form of leukemia 30 years ago, they came up with a cure for it. Thirty years ago, I’d have had a 50-percent chance to make it. When I was diagnosed, it was over 90 percent. That’s why I’m so passionate about research. All the money we’ve been raised through this Chuckstrong thing, it’s really the kindness of thousands.”

Now it extends to the Bears, who named Pagano defensive coordinator after Vic Fangio got the Denver head-coaching job in January. “When we hired Chuck,” coach Matt Nagy said over the weekend, “he said to me, ‘Hey, I want to get out front on this. I’ve got this event in Indianapolis, and the date was set prior to me taking the job. It’s for this cause I really believe in.’ I said this is great stuff. We wanted to figure out how to get involved. We got some coaches, we got Mr. McCaskey, we got some other people, and we figured a way to back Chuck and be a part of this event. We really feel fortunate to be involved. You talk about turning adversity into a positive. This is on a whole other level. It’s neat. It’s just a good thing.”

Pagano is in complete remission, and his prognosis to live a long life is good. There’s much of Indianapolis in Chicago with him—Pagano has pictures in his office of the cancer patients he got to know and help (and who helped him) over the past few years. “Not to get too trippy,” Irsay said, “but I have seen Chuck give his time, lots of it, to total strangers. He inspires them. Inspiration is rocket fuel, and he has given that over and over to the frightening world of people whose lives are on the edge. That’s not going to change because he works somewhere else.”

More information about the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala.

Why Texans need to trade for Redskins’ Trent Williams now

Leave a comment

Three Things I Think

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:

1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.

2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.

3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”

Why Antonio Brown is crazy to fight NFL over helmet issue

Leave a comment

Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.

“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”

For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)

There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.

A few other thoughts on this nutty story:

• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!

• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.

Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.

• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.

• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.

• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.

I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.


One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”

Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.