It was an emotional day from the beginning as fans stood and applauded Pagano the instant he walked through the tunnel onto the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. After the coin flip, the Colts showed a video montage that ended with the words "Welcome back Coach Pagano." He turned and waved to acknowledge the thunderous noise falling from the stands.
The Colts trailed for all of 12 seconds in the 28-16 upset victory over the Houston Texans as the franchise remains winless in Indianapolis. Pagano took his sweet time leaving the field, shaking hands with Houston coaches and players before turning to the stands. He raised a fist as he looked up, shook hands with some in the front row and signed at least one autograph.
Colts owner Jim Irsay presented Pagano with the game ball in the locker room amongst a raucous scene that could be heard through cinderblock walls. Individual players danced in a circle before Pagano and Irsay locked arms and took a couple spins themselves.
"We know one thing," Irsay said, "this man is one hell of a fighter."
"We said what's your legacy going to be? We're still writing it," Pagano said. "My inspiration came week in and week out by just watching you fight. ... That was better than any medicine than the doctors could give me."
Pagano began his postgame news conference by thanking everyone in the Colts' organization, fans, the Indianapolis community and even those in the room.
"What a day, what a day," Pagano said. "This meant the world to me. ... When I came back, I told them there was never a doubt when I was faced with what I was faced with. Because I had no choice. I got family to take care of. I've got a wife and daughters and grandchildren and other people counting on me to be there. So really, I had no choice in the matter.
"They didn't have anything to gain today. You guys reminded me of that on several occasions. But that's not how this group rolls. That's not their mindset. ... The job that Bruce (Arians) did, I can never repay him. I can never repay any of this staff for what they've done over the last 12 weeks."
Pagano called those first moments overwhelming and humbling. He gave dictionary definitions of mojo and the Midas touch and uncanny.
"It's like a dream come true again," Pagano said. "When I first walked out of the tunnel and then to see everybody in the stands again. And to have the opportunity to see my family standing there again as they did the first couple games we were home. ... That was pretty special. ... Just to be able to spend a few moments and have that time.
"Before the kickoff, what the fans did, that moment, I'll remember that for the rest of my life."
It was that kind of day for Pagano, the Colts, thousands in the city of Indianapolis and the NFL community. He had one last message for those still fighting at the IU Simon Cancer Center.
"You are strong enough."
Follow Kareem Copeland on Twitter @kareemcopeland.