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Extra Points: Potential Pagano return is welcome news

By John McMullen, NFL Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Most of the top sports stories in 2011 weren't exactly uplifting.

Topping most year-end lists was Jerry Sandusky and the child abuse scandal at Penn State, with the Lance Armstrong steroid issue also garnering plenty of attention across the country.

The NFL wasn't immune from bad news either, stunned by Javon Belcher's murder- suicide spree in Kansas City, along with Josh Brent's alcohol-fueled car accident that killed teammate Jerry Brown.

The Saints' bounty scandal, concussions, Congress' investigation into HGH, and the replacement officials debacle also took precedence over exciting on-field stories like the New York Giants' Super Bowl run and the impressive comebacks of Adrian Peterson and Peyton Manning.

Finally, however, we now have a feel-good story to grab onto at a perfect time: the Holiday Season.

Three months after being diagnosed with leukemia Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano will more than likely lead his team onto the field when the Colts host the Houston Texans in Week 17.

Pagano has been medically cleared by his oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, to return to his coaching duties with no restrictions.

"Medically, I see no reason he cannot come back when he's ready to try and come back," Cripe told The Associated Press. "Coach has done a great job with this, and I trust him."

Pagano is expected to return to work on Christmas Eve to prepare for the team's regular-season finale with the mighty Texans.

"I love that guy and I would love to see him in person on the sideline," Cripe said. "To me, the bottom line is that he's done what he needed to do, and he's done it with the clear goal that he wants to be coaching as soon as he can."

The first-year head coach was originally diagnosed with the insidious disease in late September and took an indefinite leave of absence from the Colts during the team's Week 4 bye.

Pagano stayed in contract with his players throughout his treatment, however, and occasionally offered up some of the most moving and thoughtful motivational speeches of modern times.

Back in early November, Dr. Cripe announced that Pagano's acute promyelocytic leukemia was in remission, but the 52-year-old first-year coach still had to undergo two rounds of chemotherapy. In fact, he will remain on a maintenance program for around two more years until he is declared cured.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has been serving as head coach in the interim and doing one heck of a job, one he hopes to finish on Sunday in Kansas City.

The 9-5 Colts have won eight of 11 under Arians and can clinch a postseason spot with a win against the Chiefs.

"Hopefully we can get this victory and secure our playoff spot and turn it back over to Chuck," Arians said.

Pagano's players are also anticipating Monday morning like kids running down the stairs at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning.

"It will be great," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "I'm sure it will be emotional for a lot of people."

"It's going to be a great moment, just having him back on an everyday basis with the team, knowing that's what he really wants, back with us coaching and back on the sideline," safety Antoine Bethea added. "Obviously we know it's going to be emotional. It's going to be a great time."

Almost a medical miracle turning into a Christmas miracle.

After all, what else would you call a 2-14 team set to become just the fourth in NFL history to go from those kinds of depths to post 10 or more wins in the following season?

"They found a reason to play and when a team finds a reason to play, they'll overcome some things," Arians said. "Chuck's illness took everybody, even strangers that we would bring off the street on Wednesday and we'd play on Sunday, and they'd fight their tails off.

"When you have guys playing hard for 60 minutes, you're going to win some games."

12/21 12:15:58 ET