When former Browns coach Butch Davis lost his hair from chemotherapy in 2007 and handed his son the razor, Chuck Pagano showed up for work the next day at the University of North Carolina with his head shaved, too.
Davis spent six months undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, diagnosed at the Cleveland Clinic, when he was the Tar Heels’ coach and Pagano their defensive coordinator.
Now from afar, Davis is trying to help the man he has known for 26 years fight a similar fight.
“We’re kind of spirited souls in that respect,” Davis said, a tiny laugh at the irony splicing his sentence.
Davis meant kindred spirits, but he couldn’t have been more sincere. More than once as he talked about his friendship with Pagano on Wednesday in a 15-minute telephone conversation from Tampa, Fla., where he works as a consultant for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Davis sounded as if he were about to cry.
Pagano, 52, the Indianapolis Colts coach who spent four seasons as the Browns’ secondary coach, learned Sept. 26 that he had acute promyelocytic leukemia. He immediately turned over the reins to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who held that same title with the Browns from 2001-03 under Davis, and began the first of three rounds of chemotherapy.
His cancer in remission, Pagano was released from the hospital Oct. 21, and he attended the Colts’ 23-20 home victory over the Miami Dolphins a week ago, addressing the team before and after.
Davis watched Pagano’s postgame speech on television.
“It was probably the most touching, most powerful moment I have seen in sports,” Davis said.
Pagano told the Colts they were “living a vision,” not “living in circumstances.” After finishing 2-14 in 2011, he said they refused to believe dire media predictions.
“I’ve got circumstances,” Pagano said. “You guys understand it. I understand it. It’s already beat. It’s already beat.”
As applause broke out, Pagano continued: “My vision, I’m living to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then hoist that Lombardi [Trophy] several times. I’m dancing at two more weddings and we’ll hoist that trophy together.”
Davis said he almost broke down.
“I about lost it when he said, ‘I’m going to see my other two daughters get married,’ ” Davis said. “Chuck’s always been a very passionate, very family-oriented guy. He loves his children.
“It was enormously touching and it made you cry, especially because you know him and his family so well.”
They met when Pagano arrived at the University of Miami as a graduate assistant and Davis was the defensive line coach under coach Jimmy Johnson. During their first season together, Davis said Pagano was a practical joker with a great sense of humor who always tried to make the players laugh.
“It was back in the day when the Cabbage Patch dance was popular. It was in middle of flex and stretch and Jimmy and Dave Wannstedt and Tony Wise and everybody was there,” Davis remembered, laughing. “Chuck would be back in the back going through the Cabbage Patch moves. He’d have Bennie Blades and those defensive backs rolling with laughter.”
In 1995 when Davis became Miami’s coach, he hired Pagano to direct the secondary and special teams. In 2001 when Davis got the Browns’ job, he brought Pagano to coach the secondary. When Davis went to North Carolina in 2007, Pagano spent one year as his defensive coordinator.
All told, they worked together four times in three cities over 12 years. Davis said his son Drew, a freshman quarterback at North Carolina, grew up with Pagano’s daughters Tara, Taylor and Tori.
“Every place he’s ever coached people have loved him,” Davis said of Pagano. “Players have always respected him. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the Indianapolis Colts players have found such an affection for him.”
They showed that affection Tuesday, when more than two-dozen players shaved their heads in support. “Chuckstrong” has become the Colts’ motto. They break their huddles with “1-2-3 Chuck.”
Led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts have put themselves in playoff position with a 6-3 record, winning five out of six since their coach left them.
Arians said the goal is for Pagano to rejoin them for their final home game against the Houston Texans on Dec. 30. But as they try to win for their coach, Arians seeks balance from his team and himself.
“When I’m in the office, it’s all football,” Arians said during an Oct. 17 conference call. “When I’m down at the hospital, it’s all friendship and the fight to beat it.
“That’s kind of the only way you can deal with it, and that’s how I’ve asked the team to deal with it. When we’re here, this is our safe haven, it’s all business, we can’t allow the outside distractions. As soon as we’re off the field, ‘What kind of day are you having? Are you feeling all right? You guys need anything?’ And just try and be a good friend.”
That’s what Davis is trying to do, even though he hasn’t seen Pagano. Davis said he texts him frequently and stays in close touch with his wife, Tina. Two Colts assistants, Charlie Williams and James Bettcher, worked for Davis at North Carolina, the latter also at Miami, and Davis gets weekly updates from them.
Davis also passes along advice through Tina Pagano.
“Things that helped me get through it,” Davis said. “Things that when you’re finished with it, things that I did, things I wished I would have done that I learned after the fact.”
It didn’t surprise Davis that Pagano ignored his doctors’ recommendation to stay away from people because of his weakened immune system and went into the locker room. His hair was all but gone, his skin pale. He sounded short of breath.
“I was thrilled that he got a chance to go see the players,” Davis said. “I just don’t want him to work too hard. Let his body fight the fight.”
According to the Indianapolis Star, from 80 to 90 percent of those diagnosed with Pagano’s form of leukemia are cured, aided by a relatively new medication. Davis has no doubt Pagano will be part of that 80 to 90 percent.
“He’s always got a great positive attitude, he’s got great faith and he’s got great people around him who love him,” Davis said. “That’s a great deal of the battle.”
Asked if he could share any of their texts, Davis said: “I told him how much I loved him, pulling for him, praying for him and here to help any way I can. Typical response back from Chuck.”
Then Davis sighed, either remembering what Pagano wrote or recalling the enormity of the battle.
“He’s going to be fine, that’s the important thing,” Davis said. “He’s going to get through this.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.