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The 12th Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala on April 12 included former #12 Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and raised $1.5 million for research at the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center.

12 years strong, Chuckstrong raises $1.5 million for IU cancer research

Chuck Pagano, Kelvin Lee and Andrew Luck

Chuck Pagano, Kelvin Lee and Andrew Luck.

INDIANAPOLIS — On the twelfth night of April, the 12th Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala included former #12 Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and raised $1.5 million 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 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, the 2024 Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala brought total giving to $15.5 million for cancer research.

The Chuckstrong initiative has enabled the cancer center to accelerate center research by recruiting top-level researchers to Indiana University from around the country and purchasing sophisticated laboratory instruments used by researchers to make advances against the disease.

The sold-out event of more than 400 guests included cancer research supporters, Colts fans, cancer survivors, researchers and philanthropists. Notable guests included former and current Colts players Adam Vinatieri, Jack Doyle, Kenny Moore, DeForest Buckner and David Thornton.

During the dinner program, Pagano was joined on stage by former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. During their time together in Indianapolis, the two developed a friendship, and Pagano often expressed his gratitude for Luck’s support during his battle with leukemia.

"All too often, members of our Colts family need the services of the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center," said Pete Ward, chief operating officer of the Indianapolis Colts and chair of the cancer center's development board. "We appreciate that the center's research focus means that Hoosiers have access to cutting-edge care. We are honored to help raise funds for research that leads to better outcomes for patients in Indiana and around the world."

Always a night of surprises, Chuckstrong ended with Colts mascot Blue running onto the stage as Ward announced a football toss challenge. Colts owner Jim Irsay would donate $1 million for cancer research if Pagano and Luck could throw footballs to knock down oversized photos of Pagano positioned in a large grid in 60 seconds or less. The pair rose to the challenge as attendees jumped to their feet cheering them to the million-dollar finish with only seconds to spare. 

The night celebrated the "12th man," the collective term for football fans in the 11-players-per-team game. Attendees learned about a special kid Pagano considered part of his 12th-man support during his cancer treatments. A then-9-year-old Ryan Darby reached out to Pagano to offer advice for chemotherapy. Based on his own experience with cancer, Darby encouraged Pagano to reach for strawberry popsicles instead of ice when soothing the mouth sores that often accompany the treatment. That moment of compassion stuck with Pagano, and he and Darby (now a college student) have stayed in touch.

"Our many generous supporters truly serve as the 12th man for the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center by joining us in the belief that research cures cancer," said Kelvin Lee, MD, director of the cancer center and H.H. Gregg Professor of Oncology and associate dean for cancer research at the IU School of Medicine. "I'm thankful to the Colts for their generosity and the broad community support at Chuckstrong that will make an immediate impact to advance cancer research."

Top-level "touchdown" sponsors for the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala were the Indianapolis Colts; Huntington Bank; Republic Airways; Lori Efroymson Aguilera and Sergio Aguilera in memory of Dan and Rachel Efroymson; Nichols Colver – BJ and Lori Nichols and Bob and Lisa Colver; JLA Fresh Solutions; Sol and Kay Raso; and Schwarz Partners.

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 D. Cripe, MD, a hematologist, cancer center researcher and professor of medicine at the IU School of Medicine. Pagano returned to his head coaching duties on Dec. 24, 2012 — a day that inspired and captivated all who have been touched by cancer. More than a decade later, Pagano remains cancer free.

About the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center is the state's only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center and one of only 56 in the nation. The prestigious comprehensive designation recognizes the center's excellence in basic, clinical, and population research, outstanding educational activities, and effective community outreach program across the state. It is also one of only 33 members of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. As a member, the center's physicians have a role in determining the recognized standard of clinical care for cancer patients. The center is the central hub for cancer research and education across Indiana University.