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Chuck Pagano tries to be the “Next Man There” for cancer patients

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SAN FRANCISCO – The would have made no sense to anyone in the Nunez family about a year ago.

After all the family of six was sitting inside of Candlestick Park amongst a sea of red getting ready to watch their beloved 49ers take on the Indianapolis Colts.

That was the scene September 22nd and the way it would have been had the family showed up at a San Francisco NFL game in years past. But this year Aldo Nunez looked a bit different.

“I’m a big 49er fan and I’ve got an Indianapolis Colts shirt,” said Nunez, who owns La Prima Pizza in St. Helena, California.

At the same time he was wearing a Colts hat while also standing next to the area where the team was about to come out. He was waiting for someone to emerge who like him was dressed in blue. It’s quite a change from a year ago from Nunez, but then again, life has done the same.

“It’s tough to go through this because I did,” said Nunez of Leukemia, which starting fighting in November of 2012. “It’s nice to see him doing very, very well and looking good the way he did.”

He speaks of Chuck Pagano, who 30 minutes before the game heads down the long stretch of grass from the Colts’ tunnel towards the field. As he gets closer, he changes his direction to his right. He’s got the blue shirt in the sea of red in his sights.

The story has been told locally and nationally by the time Pagano stood at the podium on September 27th for a typical Friday news conference at the Colts’ West 56th Street practice facility in Indianapolis.

Yet when the final question of his news conference deals with his reaching out to cancer survivors, the coach’s perked up.

“I didn’t have to go through it alone,” said Pagano passionately. “I don’t think anybody should have to go through fighting cancer alone.”

This spirit is nothing new to anyone who has paid attention to the coach’s statements since he began treatment for Leukemia in late September of 2012. From the first time he was seen speaking since his treatment started on November 4th with his “Circumstances” locker room speech after the Colts’ win over the Dolphins to this news conference on Friday, Pagano spoke with passion and enthusiasm that many coaches reserve for a game.

“It’s a bully that eventually, one day, we’re fighting to stamp out and find a cure for everything, all types of cancer,” said Pagano-and the coach has a simple way to contribute.

Even before he returned to the public eye with a news conference on Christmas Eve after his treatments were complete, Pagano has gone out of his way to make sure that no cancer patient will be alone in their fight.

“It’s an opportunity for us to give back to all the people that supported myself and my family,” said Pagano of meeting people fighting or have overcome cancer. “It’s a privilege and an honor to be able to spend time with people like that.”

If he had seen Pagano’s “Circumstances” speech on November 4th, Nunez might not have thought too much about it.

That wouldn’t be the case five days later.

“I found out November 9th,” said Nunez after he was diagnosed. “Only about two or three weeks after coach.”

Like Pagano, Nunez began to have bruises across his body over the previous few months. A trip to a clinic in the San Francisco area confirmed the worst.

“They told me I had Leukemia,” said Nunez-and immediately he began to notice the well-known battle of Pagano.

Soon he made an attempt to contact Pagano by giving the Colts complex, doing so with a simple call. Little did he know how far it would go.

About a month following the call, Nunez got an envelope from the Colts and inside he had a gift from a supporter of his fight nearly 3,000 miles away.

“I have a picture that he sent me and it says ‘Aldo, Stay AldoStrong”and that’s an autographed picture that I got from him back in January and it means a lot to me,” said Nunez.

That gesture was on his mind as the coach walked towards him on that September afternoon. But his story wasn’t unusual.

While not as expansive as the arena down the hallway, the Purdue basketball practice facility posts a rather sizable gym.

But it’s not hard to find Terry Kix on any given day.

“Good job ladies,” echoes out every couple of minutes during this March 2013 Boilermakers Women’s Basketball practice. Sometimes it’s more of a personal encouragement from the team’s Director of Basketball Operations during the team’s pre-NCAA Tournament workouts.

“Kinda the good cop,” said Kix of her role with Purdue-but that became more difficult in late 2012.

That’s when she was diagnosed with stomach cancer just as the Boilermakers’ season was getting underway. She would undergo treatment that taxed her strength at times yet she continued to work with the team whenever possible, including their Big Ten Tournament Championship in Hoffman Estates, IL.

During the process, her story touched many in the Boilermakers’ nation along with those around the country who heard here story. Kix would post them on her wall in the basement of her West Lafayette home, one in particular boasting a horseshoe.

“A received a very special note from Coach Pagano,” said Kix on reflecting on the support she received during 2012 and 2013. “It warmed my heart. Very classy man and he just shared his heartfelt emotion of what he went through with his experience.”

That encouragement along with others helped Kix respond to the treatments and she begins this season with the Boilermakers having beaten the cancer she faced around the same time Pagano did-a fact that Pagano didn’t lose sight of in 2013.

Long before he became the head coach of the Colts, “Riley Kids” were welcomed with open arms to this day.

Traditionally held the first week of training camp either in Terre Haute or more recently Anderson, kids from the Riley Hospital for Children

Pagano met with many of the same patients the year before his first in Indianapolis, showing the same compassion for them as he had others before in his stop as defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens.

But there was something different on this training camp Monday when the Riley Patients joined the team for their post-practiced huddle and were greeted with all the spoils of a VIP guest. Pagano made sure to take a moment to sign and autograph or carry on a conversation with someone dealing with what he had just a few months earlier.

“It’s an opportunity for our family, for our organization, for our team to give back and to serve,” said Pagano. “We talk about serving, we talk about self and we talk about team. It’s an honor to have those kids from Riley coming out here.”

For one girl in particular-who spoke to Pagano from here wheelchair for a few minutes-the coach served as an example of what could be for her.

“He got diagnosed with his cancer and he had the right to go back to work with the Colts,” said the young lady. “I had the right to go back to what I love.”

Finally the time had come after months in the building. The coach in the blue shirt getting closer and closer as he out of the underground tunnel at Candlestick Park.

As Pagano approached Nunez, the smiles grew.

“Hi,” said Aldo as he first went in for the handshake extended by Pagano. It quickly became a hug.

As his family watched, Pagano and Nunez talked for a bit before the game, tears flowing out of both of their eyes as they met for the first time in person after correspondence through calls and email over the past year.

“It’s been a great, great dream for me,” said Nunez of meeting Pagano-as he snapped pictures with the coach. “It’s very, very emotional.”

A moment that Pagano envisioned creating even as he fought his own battle.

“It was an honor and a priviledge to be able to spend some time with that family,” said Pagano. “It was a pretty special moment.”

“No one should have to go through this alone.”

Nunez will attest the coach is making his best efforts to keeping that promies.