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

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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.”

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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.

Former Chargers center Nick Hardwick taking proactive approach to post-NFL brain health

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Nick Hardwick, former Chargers center and current San Diego radio analyst.

This has been anything but a typical NFL offseason for me. If you follow me on either Instagram or Twitter, you know I recently undertook an intensive, six-week brain treatment protocol at the Brain Treatment Center where I live in San Diego. It’s an affiliate of the USC Center for Neurorestoration, a progressive brain health clinic focusing on the intersection of physics and neuroscience.

Upon retiring in February 2015 after 11 seasons as an NFL center, all of them spent with the Chargers, I did my best to follow the counsel I received from coaches, the players union, and former teammates who had smoothly transitioned into the next phase of their post-playing lives.

For starters, I almost immediately lost a good chunk of my playing weight. It wasn’t necessary to carry 295 pounds on my 6-4 frame, because I no longer was tasked with routinely fighting some of the baddest humans on the planet for three hours-plus. I dropped the weight fast and got down as low as 208 pounds at one point, but my wife, Jayme, didn’t really favor that version. So I regained some muscle and currently weigh a very comfortable 230 pounds or so.

To keep busy and stay close to the game, I went to work almost immediately on the radio in San Diego, including at iHeart Radio, where I’ve hosted my own show since 2016. As part of the gig, I got to serve as the Chargers radio sideline reporter in 2015, and I spent the following two seasons in the booth as the team’s radio color analyst.

Those roles kept me engaged, and helped me challenge myself mentally. I felt as healthy as I had ever been since my freshman year of college, the year before I walked on and made the football team at Purdue. But I still felt I had more cognitive ability left untapped, because my brain wasn’t necessarily firing on all cylinders.

Fortunately I was able to function because over the years I had hard-wired my mentality to continue to persevere through pain, discomfort, less than ideal situations and, to be honest, some states of depression I now recognize. I knew a certain amount of mental endurance was required after playing the game so long.

But I also realized toughness alone wasn’t the answer. I came to realize and accept my fate that as a former football player, I had accumulated somewhere around 25,000-plus head hits over the course of my playing career, all at least equivalent to boxing jabs, with the occasional straight punch and uppercut thrown in for good measure.

How did I get to that 25,000-plus estimate? I played 11 NFL seasons, for about 1,000 game snaps per year. Add in another 1,000 snaps during training camps, not counting our offseason practices. And don’t forget the three years of college football I played, with similar snap totals, but rougher practices.

It’s easy to see the hits accumulate quickly at the position I played. I was diagnosed with six verified concussions in the NFL, but I still never missed a game due to one of them, a gut-it-out approach I would not recommend to kids or anyone else. During the 2008 season in Kansas City, I was knocked out cold on the field for about 12 minutes, waking up on the X-ray table at Arrowhead Stadium with the technician asking me to turn on my right side for reasons I didn’t understand.

“What?!’’ I thought for a moment I had broke my neck, but it turned out I had caught a hip to the head, delivered courtesy of Chiefs linebacker Rocky Boiman, whom I was blocking on a screen pass to Chargers fullback Jacob Hester.

While I accepted the damage that came with playing football for a living as part of the price paid, something hit home and came to a head for me at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta this past winter. I was there covering the weeklong event for my radio station, XTRA 1360, and despite being at the NFL’s glamor event, surrounded by the league’s football community, I found myself in one of those emotional troughs that occasionally came.

I knew then that I had a decision to make and some sort of action to take. While there was no erasing the time I had spent banging heads and colliding with defenders—and I wouldn’t take it back if I could any how, because it was the time of my life with so many lessons learned—it wasn’t enough just to plow through the low ebbs in life.

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Sunday Night Football’s executive producer reveals how show is created each week

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Peter King is on vacation until July 15, and he lined up some guest writers to fill his Monday spot on Football Morning in America. Today, it’s Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast.

By Fred Gaudelli

One thing I appreciate about being the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football team is that we’re a lot like a football team. The very good NFL teams enter the next season thinking, What can we do to get better? This isn’t corny, and I don’t want it to seem chest-puffing. We’ve been the highest-rated and most-watched prime-time show for eight straight years—a network TV record—but we’ve got that same feeling about improving this offseason that we have every year.

One of the things we’ve been discussing: expanding the use of the Skycam in live play-by-play situations during games. We might add a second Skycam to give viewers a totally different look this year. When NBC did the Notre Dame Blue and Gold Spring Game this year, the Skycam was moved from down the middle of the field to the sideline view, which is the view almost every play is now covered from. We wanted to see the impact of having the play-by-play camera on the line of scrimmage, from the sideline, via Skycam for every snap. We’ve studied the tape at length and hope to try this on our second preseason game in August, Pittsburgh at Tennessee. We’ll actually have two Skycams: the normal one that shoots from behind the offense in the middle of the field, and this new one, positioned on the line of scrimmage, on the sideline.

My initial reaction is this will make all fourth-and-one attempts better viewing experiences for the fans. But we’ll see how it works in Nashville in August for that game. If we like it, we’ll probably use it on live plays on fourth-and-short (and maybe others) in the first game of the NFL’s 100th season, Green Bay at Chicago, on NBC on Sept. 5. It’s new and fun—and it could make the viewing experience much more interesting.

That’s the techie in me, trying to get better. But in 30 years of producing games at the network level, one of the most important things I’ve learned—from John Madden—is so incredibly basic, as old as the game itself.

Watch pre-game warmups.

We have a team of 175 in front of and mostly behind the cameras that puts on the Sunday games, and we have every technical and modern convenience any TV crew could ask. But you’d be surprised how often we use something we learned just watching pregame warmups, the same way the fans in the stands do. Either Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth might use something on the telecast, or maybe director Drew Esocoff or I will see something and have a graphic built for use during the game. Maybe we’ll use it, maybe not. John taught Drew and me that intently watching warmups is really the final piece of game preparation. So much information is gleaned by rituals and warmups. Madden was the first to do this and the best ever at it. I love this part of the process.

Perfect example: Three years ago, before a Chiefs-Broncos game in Denver, linebacker Justin Houston came out before the game wearing an altitude training mask; he had a coach with him, with what looked like two extra-large catcher’s mitts. The coach set up some pylons and wore the two big mitts. Houston then began working his hands in all kinds of different pass rush moves much like a boxer would work before a title bout. Houston systematically went through his entire repertoire of moves. So, halfway through the second quarter, Houston was wrecking the game. He had three sacks and Denver tackle Ty Sambrailo had no answer for the quickness of his hands. We ran a package of the three sacks and ended it with video from the pre-game ritual, showing the hand movements in pregame that were used on the sacks. The Chiefs won the game, and Houston’s impact on the game was a huge reason.

So the modern technology like the sideline Skycam is great, and I mean that. I think it’ll make us better this year. But there is something crucial about the simple human element too—in this case watching pre-game warmups for an hour. If you watch our games and see really cool images and really great story-telling, I think we’ve done our job.

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