INDIANAPOLIS - Chuck Pagano was so eager to get back to work Monday, he was the first one to show up at team headquarters.
Long before meeting with his players, the Colts' first-year coach drove quietly into the complex, walked into the office where the lights have remained on for nearly three months, and began preparing for Sunday's game against AFC South champion Houston as if it were another day at the office.
Hardly. It was the biggest milestone yet in an incredibly emotional season in which Pagano has beaten leukemia and the Colts have been a most pleasant surprise in reaching the playoffs under interim coach Bruce Arians.
"I asked him if he would . . . take over the reins and what a masterful, masterful job you did, Bruce," Pagano said with Arians nearby at the news conference. "You carried the torch and all you went out and did was win ball games; you got our 10th win yesterday and you got us into the playoffs, and you did it with dignity and you did it with class. I can't thank you enough."
Players, coaches, and staff members had been anticipating this day from the moment they learned Pagano was taking an indefinite leave to fight cancer on Oct. 1.
So when the 52-year-old first-time head coach returned, the 24-hour rule was cast aside - giving the Colts (10-5) another 24 hours to celebrate something far more important than reaching the playoffs.
"I know Chuck is ready for this challenge," Colts owner Jim Irsay said. "I know the time is right for him to grab the reins and get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey.
"The great thing about the National Football League is that so much attention gets paid to it, so many other things happen besides wins and losses, and the inspiration Chuck has shown to others and the time Chuck has spent connecting with others, it really is miraculous. It's a fairy-tale story, it's a Hollywood script, it's all of those things."
When Pagano arrived, he drove past an inflatable Colts figure with the words "Welcome Back Chuck" printed on its chest. Normally, that spot is reserved for a message for the Colts to beat their next opponent.
When he spoke at a private team meeting, cheering could be heard in the media room.
If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be back on the sideline for the first time since Jacksonville scored a last-minute touchdown on an 80-yard pass in Week 3, handing Indy its only home loss this season.
Pagano began the first of three rounds of chemotherapy Sept. 26, after the team completed its final practice during a bye week.
Arians, a prostate-cancer survivor, immediately established the goal: Play long enough so Pagano could return to the sideline this season.
Indianapolis did better than anyone could have expected under Arians, who had spent two decades as an NFL assistant but had never been in charge of an NFL team. The Colts went 9-4 under Arians, who tied the league record for wins after a midseason coaching change, joined the 2008 Miami Dolphins as the only teams in league history to lose 14 or more games one season and win 10 or more the next, and became the fourth team in league history to win only two games one season and 10 or more the next.