Chuck Pagano's story is about life and death, and the worries that cancer patients face when confronted with their own mortality.

It also is a story about laughter in the face of fear.

Like the time a few days ago, when the Indianapolis Colts' coach said he was going against the advice of his oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, by pushing himself too hard after making his emotional and triumphant return to work before the team's final regular-season game. Asked if his assistant coaches had to kick him out of team meetings to make sure he got his proper rest, Pagano said he was just trying to have some fun.

"I was just cracking on my doctor . . . see if I can get a text or some sort of response from Dr. Cripe," he explained.

Typical Pagano.

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"He's a lighthearted guy, loves to keep guys laughing, enjoys life and knows it's precious," veteran defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "Just thank God for every moment you're here, but he can still crack a joke."

He also can show the people around him how to confront a potentially fatal disease, fight it with courage and purpose and serve as an inspiration to millions in the process.

"The guy has been amazing," Freeney said. "A true inspiration."

After experiencing extreme fatigue for several weeks but thinking it was simply the grind of the NFL regimen, Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in late September. He immediately took a leave of absence to undergo chemotherapy treatments, leaving the team after three games.

Offensive coordinator and interim head coach Bruce Arians did a masterful job in Pagano's absence, winning nine of 12 games and delivering a playoff berth upon Pagano's emotional return. On Christmas Eve, no less.

On Pagano's first day back, Colts owner Jim Irsay said, "The main thing we're ecstatic about is that Chuck is here and he's healthy.''

Pagano won his first game after returning, as the Colts defeated the Texans at home last Sunday.

"The best day for me was the Monday he got back, just seeing him doing the thing he loved, just getting back to his dream being fulfilled," Freeney said. "On this team, when one hurts, we all hurt. And when one feels great, we all feel great. We felt great that day."

It was an admittedly fragile transition for Pagano, who fought back tears upon his return when talking about his wife's support during his illness -- "She's a soldier, a warrior, my soulmate."

Pagano underwent three rounds of chemotherapy and will continue to take medication orally for the next two years but is "99 percent recovered" from his cancer, according to Cripe.

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"It was good, kind of get your legs back under you," Pagano said of having the final week of the regular season to become reacclimated to the demanding routine of the NFL. "Get used to being back on the practice field, going back into meetings. All those different things that came so natural and you've been doing for so long. You get pulled away for three months and then you're thrown back into the fire."

Pagano now will take the next step in his dramatic comeback when he brings the Colts to face his former team. Pagano was the Ravens' defensive coordinator before being hired by the Colts.

He replaced Jim Caldwell, who now is the Ravens' offensive coordinator, and will face a Ravens team that found out this past week that future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis will retire after the playoffs. Lewis is returning to the lineup Sunday after missing the previous 10 games with a torn triceps.

"They'll probably introduce the defense and he'll be the last one out and we all know how that one goes and he'll ignite and incite a riot, so to speak," Pagano said of Lewis.

But the Colts believe their own inspiration will serve them well.

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Rookie quarterback Andrew Luc believes the emotion of Pagano's return last week will continue into the postseason.

"Yeah, I think we'll still play emotional and still be fired up," he said. "It's the playoffs. I don't think there will be any letdown in terms of fire and energy.''

Pagano's comeback no doubt will provide added motivation, just as the coach did when he was away from the Colts. As Pagano recovered, Arians had the team keep the light on in Pagano's office, and the head coach made an emotional appearance at a Nov. 4 home game against the Dolphins.

"I've got circumstances," Pagano told the players after a 23-20 win. "It's already beat. My vision is to see two more daughters get married and to hoist the Lombardi Trophy."

That vision helped carry the Colts this far, and now Pagano will take the next step on his inspirational journey to raise the NFL's holy grail. For those who continue to feed off his energy, they're not counting themselves out.

"If you don't think you're going to go out and win the Super Bowl, it's a problem,'' Freeney said. "One week at a time. Biggest game of the season right here. I don't care what the outside world says. As a player, you believe you can do it."

The Colts believe. No reason not to. Just ask the coach.