Human Factor with Sanjay Gupta – Don’s Words

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.

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Don Horton – Father, Coach, Son, Brother, Friend and Parkinson’s Fighter

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.

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Different Vantage Point

Girls Watching Their Dad Do His Thing

Girls Watching Their Dad Do His Thing

All their young lives they have stood tall, sat patiently, cheered loudly, and proudly watched their dad and countless players run thru a tunnel and take the field to the game / job he loved.  I’ve always delighted in our ability to be voyeurs in their father’s career.  Many men go into an office and disappear.  Their kids not fully understanding what it is their dads do to make sacrifices for their futures.  However, mine have been on a college football roller coaster. They feel and have joyful pride with each win and on the contrary they hear, from their peers, personalize and worry after each loss. Their vantage point of NCAA sports has been different.  They aren’t “real” fans. They have yet to choose the school they will be forever loyal to, but they are “real” fans of the players they’ve come to know and their dad.  They are aware it’s not just a Saturday ritual but a lifetime commitment of good people and hard work.

As of late, the roles have been reversed.  This has been Don’s new vantage point.

Reversed Roles

Reversed Roles

Libby decided she wanted to learn and compete in soccer.  Our Saturday’s had been occupied with pigskin, but this year we decided to make a change and let the girls build their own Saturday rituals.  The competition level, slightly diminished (thank goodness!) Field a bit smaller but the heart is equal.

Libby Hamilton Award

Libby Hamilton Award

It occurred to me this weekend as Libby received from CASL, The Hamilton Sportsmanship Award, that the outcome is the same.  Don has spent a lifetime committed to helping build a better person / student athlete and he’s still doing just that, only from a different vantage point. It is much closer to home now. Parkinson’s may have sidelined him temporarily but never will he give up on making a difference in human beings.

Building Walls – The Offensive Line

Don Horton's True Love- the Game

Don Horton’s True Love- the Game of Football

Don has known he wanted to be in athletics his entire life.  At the earliest age of remembrance, he was geared up with some sort of ball, ready for action at anytime, blessed to live in an area and an era when pick-up games happened everyday, rain or shine, sleet or snow.  Those days in the open fields are some of his best memories.  His mother often tells the story that he could have followed in his father’s footsteps and became a surgeon.  She recalls a phone call that she received from a guidance counselor at his school.  “Don seems fascinated with this whole football thing. His test scores are very high and it is our recommendation that we steer him in another direction.”  She didn’t miss a beat.  Where some parents would concur and assist help in the matter, she declared that it was Don’s decision.  She has always empowered her children (and now grandchildren) with that same voice of choice – often asking them, “What would you like to do?”  And so, his love of the game persisted to grow and to flourish.  By the time I met Don, he was so fully entrenched that I had only one choice.  If I wanted our relationship to survive I too had to jump in.  It was an easy transition for me; a sister to 5 brothers (sandwiched right in between) who had me outside for countless hours as well, playing basketball, kickball or hotbox.  Somehow, I was always in the middle – never picked first among the boys, but I could hang and my competitive genes grew as well.  I’m actually not sure my parents can recall a basketball game that I didn’t foul out of.

Don and I met after a football game, one of his friends was dating one of mine.  He was coaching at the time at a division three school in Ohio; his alma matter- Wittenberg.  We commuted to see each other, and I, like his parents, never missed a game. Home or away- it was just what we did.  Many games were far and in small but beautiful rural towns.  Upon arriving, I would watch with pure amazement.  His ability to make split second decisions, encourage his players when they were down and to give everything he had everyday.  He rarely ever raised his voice.  He always said that if they didn’t know it by game time – screaming wouldn’t jog their memories.  I have always admired his strengths.  His quiet nature is humbling – he is never boastful.  He could always take any discussion down to the simplest of terms and navigate it gracefully.  His strengths just illuminate from within.  I was marrying the best man on this planet, but I was also sharing him with many others; a group of men called the offensive line.

He wanted to win – who doesn’t want to be successful – but he always chose to leave his imprint as his mentors, Dave Maurer, Ron Murphy and Tom O’Brien did with him.  The position he coached was always the most fascinating to me …. The Offensive Line.  This great massive group of men – 5 who stand to defend and protect on every play.  They rarely handle the ball, unless it’s fumbled.  They receive no accolades – silent warriors protecting a quarterback.  They act as a unit to be perfect – every snap so that the team has a chance for success.  They are big but have feet like ballet dancers. They are often the most feared and respected guys on the team.  And, within each of them, I see an amazing large heart that matches their physical appearance.

Bricks and Mortar

Bricks and Mortar- Jeremy Trueblood, Gosder Cherilus, Pat Ross, Josh Beekman, Ty Hall, Kevin Sheridan, James Marten, Tom Anevski

Brick and Mortar Of Our Team

Don has been surrounded by some of the best offensive lineman out there at every level.  I’ll brag a bit.  He was voted the second best offensive line coach in division one athletics ALL while he was coaching with Parkinson’s.  Around him a wall has been built – a wall of men that stand together, impermeable.  The courage these men demonstrate now to be associated with Don – in sickness or in health – is almost as strong as the vow I took some 19 years ago.  These men call him just to pick his brain, to say hi, to check on our children and share good and sad stories about their families that we’ve come to know.  These men are why I truly love football, and when these players became aware that Don is living with Parkinson’s, I have been brought to tears by how strong and supportive they have been.  Even when Don accepted a change in position, taking him off of the field, he still felt privileged to be surrounded by such fine athletes.    These athletes are, and always have been, the brick and mortar of our lives.

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