Chuck Pagano stepped to the podium Monday, hugged his team owner, thanked his family for its support and wiped a tear from his eye.
Nearly three months to the day after being diagnosed with leukemia, the Colts' first-year coach returned to a team eager to reunite with a boss healthy enough to go back to work.
"I told you my best day of my life was July 1, 1989," Pagano said, referring to his wedding date. "Today was No. 2. Getting to pull up, drive in, get out of my car, the key fob still worked. I was beginning to question whether it would or not. When I asked for Bruce (Arians) to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games? Tough act to follow. Tough act to follow. Best in the history of the NFL. That's what I have to come back to."
The comment turned tears into the laughter everyone expected on such a festive occasion.
For Pagano and the Colts, Monday morning was as precious as anyone could have imagined when Pagano took an indefinite leave to face the biggest opponent of his life, cancer.
In his absence, all the Colts did was win nine of 12 games, make a historic turnaround and clinch a playoff spot all before Sunday's regular-season finale against Houston, which they pegged as the day they hoped to have Pagano back. If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the first time since a Week 3 loss to Jacksonville.
Pagano endured three rounds of chemotherapy to put his cancer in remission.
That Pagano's return came less than 24 hours after Indy (10-5) locked up the No. 5 seed in the AFC and the day before Christmas seemed fitting, too.
"I know Chuck is ready for this challenge. In speaking to his doctor multiple times, I know that the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey," owner Jim Irsay said. "It's been a miraculous story. It really is a book. It's a fairytale."
BEARS: Chicago agreed to a one-year contract extension with veteran long snapper Patrick Mannelly through 2013. Mannelly holds the franchise record for games played (230) and seasons (15). He is the only player from the 1998 draft still with the team that picked him.
BILLS: Buffalo placed tight end Scott Chandler, tied for the team lead with six touchdown catches, on injured reserve a day after he hurt his left knee in a loss to the Dolphins.
DOLPHINS: Cornerback Sean Smith escaped serious injury when he hurt his left knee in Sunday's victory over Buffalo. A fourth-year pro and Miami's best corner, Smith can become a free agent this offseason.
EAGLES: Rookie quarterback Nick Foles has a broken right hand, and coach Andy Reid said Michael Vick likely will start against the Giants in the season finale. Foles broke his throwing hand in the second quarter of Sunday's 27-20 loss to the Redskins, but returned to the game after X-rays at the stadium were negative. Vick hasn't played since suffering a concussion during a loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 11.
JAGUARS: Jacksonville placed receiver Cecil Shorts III (55 receptions for a team-leading 979 yards and seven touchdowns) on injured reserve following his second concussion of the month.
RAIDERS: Quarterback Carson Palmer suffered cracked ribs and a bruised lung Sunday after a hard hit by the Panthers' Greg Hardy and will not play in Oakland's season finale.
STEELERS: Tight end Heath Miller sustained multiple torn ligaments in his right knee during Sunday's loss to the Bengals. A prime candidate for the Pro Bowl, he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, and has a possible tear in his posterior cruciate ligament. Typical recovery time would extend into next season's training camp.