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Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala raises more than $2 million, marking a decade of dedication to IU cancer research

By: Indiana University Northwest Last Updated: August 5, 2022

During a celebratory night marking a decade of the Chuckstrong initiative, more than $2 million was raised for research at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Hosted by the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Irsay and former head coach Chuck Pagano on Aug. 4 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, the 2022 Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala celebrated 10 years of Pagano's survivorship and more than $12 million raised for cancer research.

As the evening was about to wrap up, Pete Ward, chief operating officer of the Indianapolis Colts and chair of the cancer center’s development board, took the stage with one last surprise. After last year’s free throw challenge for Pagano, Irsay, who was not in attendance, asked Ward to put Pagano on the spot again. For a $1 million gift to cancer research from Irsay, Ward asked Pagano a series of Colts trivia questions. With three chances and 10 seconds to answer, Pagano got the last question right as guests counted down. That $1 million was in addition to $500,000 Irsay had kicked in to start the Chuckstrong challenge earlier in the evening.

The Chuckstrong initiative has enabled the cancer center to accelerate center research by recruiting top-level researchers from around the country and purchasing sophisticated laboratory instruments used by researchers to make advances against the disease. (Read more about the impact.)

The 2022 Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala brought together cancer research supporters, Colts fans, cancer survivors, researchers and philanthropists. Among the attendees were former Colts players Adam Viniateri, Robert Mathis and Jack Doyle. Current Colts players Jonathan Taylor, Michael Pittman Jr. and Nyheim Hines surprised VIP guests with an appearance at the pre-event locker room reception.

The event also brought back Bruce Arians who joined Pagano on stage for a conversation between the two NFL coaching greats and cancer survivors. Arians’s first stint as an NFL head coach came when he stepped into the role for the Indianapolis Colts while Pagano was treated for leukemia in 2012. The two friends recalled the many ways their careers have intertwined and the challenges and triumphs of that 2012 Colts season.

“We are proud that our partnership with the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center makes such an incredible impact funding cancer research right here in Indiana,” Ward said. “Many of us in the Colts organization have benefitted from the incredible work that IU cancer researchers have done, so we see firsthand how important the work is.”

The guests learned about the impact of IU cancer research and the hope it provides to people like John Corbin. In a touching video, the Indianapolis resident shared his cancer journey that began in 2016. Corbin was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which in his case is radiation resistant.

Corbin, who was in attendance, received a standing ovation. Pagano addressed him directly from the stage: “The way you handle this, the way you’re fighting with dignity and grace and class, it’s an inspiration to us all, John.”

“Philanthropy accelerates research, and that philanthropy directly impacts patients because it leads to research studies that look at those hard-to-treat cancers that resist all kinds of therapies,” Kelvin Lee, MD, director of the cancer center, said. “Research is really focused on solving those problems and philanthropy accelerates that. It directly impacts the patients because it's going straight to the research.”

Top-level “touchdown” sponsors for the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala were the Indianapolis Colts; Nichols Colver – BJ and Lori Nichols and Bob and Lisa Colver; Republic Airways; Sol and Kay Rasso; Huntington Bank; and Lori Efroymson Aguilera and Sergio Aguilera – In memory of Dan and Rachel Efroymson.

Pagano’s story

When Chuck Pagano shared his diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia in September 2012, the Chuckstrong movement quickly began and provided an opportunity for Indianapolis to visibly support Pagano as his team rallied and marched toward the playoffs. Pagano underwent treatments at IU under the guidance of Larry Cripe, MD, a hematologist and cancer center researcher. Pagano returned to his head coaching duties on Dec. 24, 2012 – a day that inspired and captivated all who have been touched by cancer. Today, Pagano remains cancer free.