We are honored to be a part of Sanjay Gupta‘s Human Factor series today. I have blogged many times. They asked to hear the story through Don’s perspective. Below are his words.
When I was 48, I was working at Boston College, O-line University, in the pinnacle of my career and raising the family we had waited for so long to start, the last thing I was ready for was being told I had Parkinson’s. There we were, being warned, that our lives were changing forever. Maura didn’t blink an eye. We were both fairly sure that the progression would preclude us. When we spoke of the disease, we were always positive and stayed strong. In hindsight, I realize how scared both of us silently were.
My daily activities didn’t change. I worked, as all coaches do, extremely long days, but looming in the back of my mind was the disease and its’ progression. To thwart the development I was to stay active, something I had always been; however, I started to notice small changes, and the inability on days to complete the simple tasks I had always done. That would come and go. It wasn’t consistent. One day being able to change a light bulb and the next time I would try, my hands would fail me. Afraid to admit the decline was beginning, I never mentioned it to Maura, but I know she was watching waiting to step in.
Maura started to notice my good days and bad days, and I would see her instinctively change our plans and schedule. She and the kids would jump in and help me the same way that my players had each others’ backs on the field. I fondly remember the loving moments of my two girls helping me in the morning button my shirt, though those moments were bittersweet. Isn’t it me that is supposed to help them? My newfound clumsiness was beginning to literally be the elephant in the room, and ironically, the locker room was where it decided to expose itself. We had just lost a well fought game and had to catch the team plane. I had spent all of my energy on the field, and there was nothing left my body would give me. With my hands unable to steady themselves, I couldn’t button my shirt. A task so simple, mastered at age 5, was now gone. My weaknesses were completely exposed, and there I was unable to get dressed on my own. Russell noticed. He came over and helped me in silence, like Maura or the girls would do. I didn’t really realize that players had watched this painful process for me. Players were always a part of our family, but here I realized that now I was a part of theirs. This moment was the turning point in my life and changed how I was going to address my very existing condition.
My pride was out the window. The people that I was hoping to make a difference in their lives, were watching it unfold. Would my players still respect me? Would I still have a job? All those fears that I had pushed to the back came flooding to the surface. I was afraid to tell Maura, afraid that she would think less of me as her husband, less of me as a parent. Instead they dug in and helped secure my dignity in their own ways. All the years of preaching perseverance was paying off.
My disease continues to progress despite the fight we rally. I cannot count the things I’ve lost. That list is extensive but I prefer to take the lead from another legendary coach, Tom Landry – I’ve learned that something constructive comes from every defeat – and now, I am blessed with the things that I have gained. My path may have changed course from where I started, but I am grateful that it has not hit a dead-end.