Happy Birthday!

When Don and I were dating, some 24 years ago, I would often sit in an office at his alma mater, Wittenberg, waiting for him to “finish one last thing” or make “just one more recruiting call”.  He valued his job but more than anything, he was honored to be called a Wittenberg Tiger. I knew then that I was second fiddle to his career and many young men.  As I sat there and tried to pass time, there was one 8 by 10 picture front and center on his desk that I stared at.  Three men he would pridefully call warriors with tremendous work ethic and mental toughness. Three men that battled day in and day out on the offensive line and in the academic classroom.  Three men in the trenches that helped secure an OAC Championship. Three leaders that showed incredible respect for each other and their teammates. Three people he never could forget.  Eric Horstman, Scott Bowen, Ken Bonner.

Wittenberg Tigers

Eric Horstman, Scott Bowen, Ken Bonner.

As Don move on to new challenges, offices and environments, this picture always remained on his desk.  Even as our life grew, it became surrounded by pictures of our girls and it continued to provide an instant reminder of his roots. When we relocated to Raleigh, Don brought the picture home.  I never asked why but I recall the day he shared the story of these three men he was honored to coach with our girls.  It immediately brought me back to the moment he spoke so highly of them to me.  Explaining that these men played football in the purest sense.  Just for the love of the game. You could feel his sincere admiration.

Then our home was destroyed by fire… a long story for another post…and all of our pictures were scorched.  Years were spent replacing and restoring us whole again but sorting through the charred memories was one of the most difficult things I had to do.  You have the memories stored in your mind but a picture silently recaptures your emotions and transcends you back to that moment in time.   Somethings, we had to accept, would never be replaced.

Don has never been someone who wanted to accumulate “things”.  He is not one that wants the latest toys or technology.  His birthday was coming up and when you love someone who has a progressive disease, the only gift you want to bestow on them is restored health.  Last I searched, I couldn’t find the gift of health.  Once you come to terms with the fact that you are not able to grant or find a cure,  you hope you can give the gift of a feeling.  The pleasurable sensation of what it feels like to not have the disease. A moment in time, a reprieve, a transcended cure of sorts.

Don had reconnected with Scott and Eric this fall.  They were kind enough to take time way from their families, travel and pay us a visit. Don was completely honored to share with them at this point in their lives and reminisce about the days of the past.  I mentioned the picture – not sure if they would even recall it.  Scott relayed that his dad had actually taken it and yes, he was still in possession of it.

So for Don’s birthday this week, with the help of Scott, the picture now proudly is displayed in our home again. A true homecoming of sorts. A momentary cure. A restored reminder of strength, courage and loyalty.  A piece of the past providing fortitude for the future.  Stories of three men that our girls will be able to hear, visualize and learn from.

With the pictures Scott sent, he enclosed a card with birthday wishes.  He signed it “Tiger Up”.

I explained to the girls that this is unwritten “man code”, and really means ~love~

Parkinson’s doesn’t stop former NCSU Pack assistant coach Horton, from teaching life and football

We have been married for 20 years.  United in our goals of raising a compassionate family who is making a difference, not only on a football field.  We just happen to believe, people with disabilities can do amazing things!
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Don Horton has coached 15 offensive linemen who have played in the NFL. He was once named by ESPN.com as one of the two best offensive line coaches in the United States. He gained national prominence as a longtime assistant to former N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien.

Now he is an assistant coach at Ravenscroft School.

And he loves it.

“I got into coaching because I wanted to have an impact on young men,” Horton said recently, before going out into the rain for a Ravens practice. “I hope these guys that I’m coaching now will be better men because we worked together.”

Horton has Parkinson’s disease. He has had the chronic and progressive movement disorder for about seven years. Boxer Muhammad Ali and actor Michael J. Fox have Parkinson’s, which can cause trembling hands, uncontrollable tics, stiffness, unsteadiness in walking among other things. Symptoms can worsen over time. There is no cure, and the cause of the disorder is unknown.

The disease has affected Horton’s speech and his movement. Former N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson once needed to help him button his shirt after a game.

But Parkinson’s has not affected his desire to help young people.

Mike Fagan, a 6-foot-2, 320-pound tackle at Ravenscroft, said he is a better person because of Horton.

“First thing, he is a remarkable coach,” Fagan said. “He has so much knowledge. Learning from him has been immensely profitable.

“And to know what he is going through and how he is handling it is inspiring. No matter what obstacles you come up against, you shouldn’t ever give up.”

Horton, who has coached for 34 years, can still motivate players.

Don Horton - Ravenscroft

“Oh yeah, when he wants you to hear something in practice he gets his point across,” Fagan said. “He can get pretty emotional.”

“It’s tougher in high school to have an impact because you don’t have the time,” said Horton, 55. “You don’t meet and watch film together like you do in college. But you’re still trying to do the same thing – teach them the basics, the techniques – and trying to have an impact on their life.”

Coaching at Ravenscroft has given him the opportunity to continue doing what he has wanted to do essentially his entire life. He resigned from coaching in 2012 but continued working in football operations at State until this spring when he said he was fired less than a month after brain surgery.

“Don always has wanted to be coaching kids,” said Maura Horton, his wife of 20 years. “I admire that. He found what he wanted to do and pursued that. He hasn’t changed.”

He moves more slowly now. Some physical changes seem to happen overnight. Other changes have been so gradual that he didn’t realize they were happening until he noticed a major change.

The incident with the shirt button inspired Maura Horton to develop clothing that can fasten using magnets, an example of how the family has worked to adapt to Horton’s condition.

“I take umbrage at the term resilience,” Maura Horton said. “The lives of our children (daughters who are 10 and 6) have been changed forever because of Parkinson’s. The lives of our children have changed for the better because they have seen how their father has faced this.”

Toughness

Horton wants to keep coaching football, a sport he considers the last bastion of toughness.

“You get knocked down, you get up,” he said. “You lose, but you don’t quit trying. You push yourself farther than you want to go, but you keep going. Football teaches toughness, physically and mentally.”

Horton was excited when Ravenscroft coach Ned Gonet offered him a job because he believes he still has things to offer young men.

“I hope he’ll have me back next year,” Horton said.

No worries there, Gonet said.

“We are honored to have such a man be associated with our program,” Gonet said. “Not only does he do a tremendous job with the kids, he has been great for our coaching staff.”

Horton started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at New Mexico State, Ohio State and Virginia before he got his first head coaching job in 1977 at Norfolk (Va.) Catholic. He led a program that had scored 18 points the previous season to a 4-6 record. He is still in touch with some of the players there.

Joe Sparksman, a Department of Corrections probation parole officer in Raleigh who was a runner and linebacker at Norfolk Catholic, said Horton inspired him years ago and inspires him today.

“He has been tough,” Sparksman said. “Just watching him handle everything thrown at him has been an inspiration. He was tough as a coach, but he was a coach who stressed that I was a student as well as an athlete. There was never any question that he wanted what was best for me.”

Wittenberg University, Horton’s alma mater, offered him a job as an assistant in 1978 and he remained in college coaching until arriving at Ravenscroft.

Horton said there has been little adjustment to teaching high school players after working for years with much bigger and stronger college players.

“It’s relative,” he said. “In college, those 6-5, 280 guys play against other 6-5, 280 guys. High school players, 6-3, 230, play against high school players about the same size. Most of the college players know they aren’t going to play beyond their senior year and so do the high school players. It’s about the same.”

And the lessons taught through athletics are the same, too.

Horton and his wife were talking about that just the other day.

Life is not always fair, but you have to keep getting up.