When Chuck Pagano showed up for work Monday, he drove by a giant inflatable Indianapolis Colts player at the team's entrance. The player had a sign on his chest saying "Welcome Back Chuck."
It was a moment to celebrate.
Pagano, the Colts head coach, missed nearly three months battling leukemia. He was cleared to return to work last week. Monday was his first day back at the Colts team facility.
"It's really great to be back," Pagano said Monday at a press conference. "Like a kid in a candy store, get to come and be around the guys again, be doing what I love to do, what I've done my whole life."
Pagano hasn't been on the sideline since September 23 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. This week, if all goes as planned, Pagano will return to the Colts sideline for the team's final regular season game, a home game against the Houston Texans.
Players, coaches, and staff welcome Pagano's return, including Colts owner Jim Irsay.
"I'm very confident that he is ready, that it is the right decision, the right time for him to grab the reigns and put the head coaching cap back on and take over," Irsay said.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians stepped in as interim coach while Pagano went through treatment. Arians led the Colts -- the NFL's worst team last season -- on an improbable run, winning nine of their next 12 games.
On Sunday, the Colts defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 20-13 to improve to 10-5, clinching a playoff berth.
"What a masterful, masterful job you did, Bruce," Pagano said. "You carried the torch, and all you went out and did was win nine ballgames, and got us our 10th win yesterday, and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity and you did it with class, and you're everything that I always knew you were -- and more."
Pagano also thanked his family, particularly his wife, Tina, for their support through his treatment. He said that Tina never left his side at the IU Simon Cancer Center, where he spent 25 days.
"She's a soldier, a warrior, my soul mate," Pagano said.
Although Pagano could not be at the team facility and at games while going through chemotherapy, the team and staff showed their support for him. The Colts began a campaign dubbed "CHUCKSTRONG." The purpose was to raise funds for leukemia research while also giving Pagano and his family support and well wishes.
About 30 Colts players and coaches, including star rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, shaved their heads while Pagano underwent treatment. On November 25 in a game against the Buffalo Bills, two Colts cheerleaders had their heads shaved in response to the Colts organization raising money for cancer research.
On Monday, Pagano said it was a "privilege" and a "blessing" to be back.
"I'll go about my business as a football coach and those type of things in the same manner," Pagano said. "But what I asked the guys to do was to every day they walk in this door, the same way our coaches do, and the same way I'm going to do, is I'm going to work as hard as I can and take advantage of this great opportunity that was given to all of us and live every day to its fullest."