Colts’ Rigoberto Sanchez back after cancer surgery

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts punter Rigoberto Sanchez (8) warms up on the field before the NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – The battery of MRIs and ultrasounds had been done and analyzed, a numbing diagnosis delivered and the surgery scheduled.

But there was something Rigoberto Sanchez insisted on taking care of before having a cancerous tumor removed Dec 1. There was a game to play – Nov. 29 against the Tennessee Titans – and a job to do.

Not punting never was an option.

“I wasn’t going to do that to my team,’’ Sanchez said Wednesday on a Zoom conference call. “It’s all about the team, you know?’’

Even with cancer surgery looming. Even with the thoughts that invariably flood the mind when a cancer diagnosis is given.

“You never really know,’’ Sanchez said. “Your mind starts playing games and starts thinking the worse.

“But at the same time, I tried to tell myself, ‘You’re going to be OK. Everybody’s got your back.’ It’s always God’s plan. His plan’s always bigger than mine. I’m just going to keep fighting and keep going.’’

So three days before surgery that proved to be successful, Sanchez insisted on doing his job.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think they would have been able to get a punter in on time,’’ he said. “(The tumor) wasn’t going to be any worse. It was already a worst-case scenario, and I was going to fight through the pain, whatever it was.

“No need to make a bigger deal than it is.’’

Sanchez asked his doctor whether exerting himself in an NFL game might worsen the situation.

“He said no so I said, ‘OK, I’m going to play. I’m going to do it for my brothers. They need me,’’’ he said.

The pain associated with the tumor was especially acute when Sanchez kicked off, so he relinquished those duties to rookie placekicker Rodrigo Blankenship. But he averaged 50.8 yards on five punts. Most of his teammates were unaware of the weight their punter carried into the game.

“Everybody really didn’t know,’’ he said. “I wasn’t going to be the one to tell them. I wasn’t looking for any sort of pity.’’

It was an emotional game considering surgery loomed.

“Getting out of the hotel, going through my routine, I just had that sick feeling to my stomach the fact that was happening to me,’’ Sanchez said. “Pre-game I had a couple of moments to myself when I couldn’t hold it in, but I’m just passionate . . . just not knowing when my next day was going to be to be back or just be able to move around.’’

The next day, coach Frank Reich spoke of Sanchez’s commitment to the team while facing a personal crisis.

“You just have to know Rigo to know there was no way he was going to let the team down . . . just a true competitor,’’ he said.

There was no timetable placed on Sanchez’s return, but he was back in the building last week, attending meetings and once again being back with “his brothers.’’

The next step came Wednesday when Sanchez returned to practice.

“I laced up my cleats today, but I’m taking it slow, one day at a time, and we’ll see what happens throughout the days,’’ he said.

Sanchez was evasive when asked a couple of times whether he is punting once again and might return Sunday when the Colts meet the Houston Texans in Lucas Oil Stadium. But he was listed as a full participant on Wednesday’s injury report.

Moreover, Wednesday and Thursday practices involve punting and kicking drills, so it stands to reason Sanchez indeed was back at work.

“I’m just focused on being able to do my part, going out there enjoying every single moment I can,’’ he said.

That’s in stark contrast to when his life – and that of his wife, Cynthia – was rocked with the cancer diagnosis.

“It’s one of those things that you just never think they’re going to happen to you,’’ Sanchez said. “I never thought it was going to happen to me either because I’m young, and when you’re young, you think you can do anything and you’re going to be fine for a long time.’’

That veil of invincibility was shattered when Sanchez went out for a Nov. 25 practice. It was a Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and a day that required him to kick off and punt.

There was no issue with punting, but Sanchez felt “weird’’ when he went through a couple of “dry swings’’ before kicking off. Even though he’s loathe to mention when something’s bothering him, he informed Frankie Ross, the team’s assistant special teams coach, something didn’t feel right.

Shortly thereafter, the team’s medical staff got involved.

“They thought it was a good idea to get MRIs and ultrasounds,’’ Sanchez said.

Then came the diagnosis: a cancerous tumor. Sanchez declined to elaborate on the nature of the cancer.

“I’m going to keep that personal,’’ he said.

The tumor was caught in its early stages, before it had a chance to spread.

“I’m just grateful for the doctors here in the Colts’ locker room and in Indiana as well,’’ Sanchez said. “Indiana is where it’s at for medicine.’’

Sanchez wasn’t certain whether he could be described as “cancer free,’’ but added “as of now it’s looking pretty good. The numbers are definitely lower.’’

He also is hopeful chemotherapy or radiation treatment won’t be required.

Through it all, Sanchez has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from family, friends, teammates, the entire Colts’ organization, peers across the NFL.

“It was crazy because my Instagram, Twitter and everything, my phone was blowing up,’’ he said.

The support also came from Chuck Pagano, the Colts’ coach in 2017 when the team kept an undrafted rookie punter out of Hawaii. Pagano’s long battle with leukemia is well-documented.

“Love Chuck Pagano,’’ Sanchez said. “He’s the one that was here my rookie year, gave me the opportunity, believed in me. He sent me a video encouraging me. It’s crazy because he went through his own situation.

“I definitely received a lot of love around the league. It’s amazing to be back.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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