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Harvey's rookie season special

Jan. 11, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Any player's NFL rookie season is special.

Former Marshall University linebacker Mario Harvey's first NFL season was maybe more special because of what happened on and off the field.

Harvey, an Indianapolis Colts linebacker, was part of one of the season's top storylines as the Colts overcame numerous bouts with adversity to make the postseason. The biggest battle with adversity was when head coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with treatable leukemia on Sept. 26.

Pagano's illness rocked the young Colts to the core because, Harvey said, the team had taken on his persona early in training camp when everyone was doubting any success for Indianapolis with a rookie quarterback and several young parts.

"Coach Pagano didn't sugarcoat anything," Harvey said. "He came right at us. They've got us winning two games and they say it's rebuilding and that's not what we're here for. He came out to make a statement to all the critics, media and those who thought we wouldn't do anything. We fed off that going into the year."

At the time of Pagano's diagnosis, the Colts were 1-2 and headed into a bye week.

When the team returned on Oct. 1, Pagano wasn't among them.

"We didn't really get a chance to talk to him. He was already in therapy," Harvey recalled. "After the Green Bay game, we went home for bye week. We came back to a meeting that Monday morning and found out that he was sick.

"Everybody was down and in shock because we didn't know what was going on."

The Colts decided to honor Pagano the best way they knew how -- by winning football games for him.

The term "Chuckstrong" became a national symbol of Pagano's fight, but for the Colts, being "Chuckstrong" was about much more.

"There's a lot of meaning behind it," Harvey said. "Don't take life for granted or sports for granted. Just live in the moment. You never know when that is going to be taken from you. Through adversity, you have to push forward.

"Even though we were sad about coach, we wanted to make sure we had success so he'd come back to victories in the second part of the season. We didn't sit around and mope and cry. We knew that he'd be alright and we had to take care of business."

From that point of the season the Colts took off behind quarterback Andrew Luck and a strong all-around game that included an increased role for Harvey on special teams.

Harvey said that, personally, Pagano's battle with adversity helped focus him on his battle -- being a rookie free agent and trying to outwork the man in front of him to get his opportunities on the field.

"It's not easy being a free agent and being a rookie," Harvey said. "Every day, you have to prove yourself and show that you deserve to be there. I just thought, if coach can do it, so can I. I kept that mentality and kept trying to make plays."

By the time Pagano returned for the final week of the regular season, Harvey had become a special teams fixture while also logging some snaps at linebacker.

Harvey said he'll remember the Lucas Oil Field atmosphere Dec 16 for Pagano's return in a playoff game against the Houston Texans.

In that Dec. 30 contest, the Colts defeated the Texans, 28-16, to lock up the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs.

After the game, Pagano was joined in the locker room by Colts owner Jim Irsay, and they laughed and danced in celebration of something much bigger than a football game.

Harvey was front and center beside the two, cheering and dancing the entire time.

"We were just grateful to pull out that win for him," Harvey said. "I didn't expect them to start dancing so when they did, I amped up and it was live.

"It felt like he was never gone because he came back the same way he left. Everything he did was the exact same. It was great to see his face. He was healthy, strong, energetic."

It was fitting that the Colts went to Baltimore for the AFC Wild-Card game, considering Pagano was the defensive coordinator there before being named as the Colts' head coach in January 2012.

But it wasn't just special for Pagano. The game reunited Harvey with former Marshall teammates Albert McClellan and Omar Brown of the Ravens.

"I was very excited to get a chance to see them on that other side," Harvey said. "We were out there talking a little trash while we did work a little bit. Us Marshall guys, we've made a name for ourselves in the league as hard workers and you can see that with those guys and C.J. and even some of the older guys like Randy (Moss) and Byron (Leftwich)."

Harvey, who participated in 12 total tackles in 13 game appearances, said the 2012 season will be one he never forgets because of watching Pagano's battle and also the battles for the Colts and himself as he tried to win playing time.

He guaranteed that he will come back after the offseason a little bit bigger, a little faster and a little stronger.

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