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~

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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.

A Duke Fan Forever

Team Sweeney

Team Sweeney

We currently reside in the south and in a triangular area of a state that has deep dividing “what team do you pull for?” lines. We’ve been associated with teams for all of our lives. Beginning from the ones we are born in to.  My first team was a family of 12.   We could actually field our own football team, with a substitution for injury to boot!  An Irish Catholic group whose heart and soul could stand close to any Notre Dame team. My father had a friend actually suit our family up. This gear was pre Adidas or Nike contracts. Our small frames and entire backs  were incased with the letters SWEENEY.  Now and then when we went on family excursions to Kings Island or Disney, we would proudly don our jerseys, making it easy for my parents to assess if a child had strayed from the flock.  My mother, who has in uncanny sense of preserving our childhood memories, recently “presented” me with my  jersey.  I was Lucky number 12.  Memories flood back now when I see my youngest wear it to sleep at night.  I am thankful to recollect my first official group.

Don - Indian Hill Jersey

Don – Indian Hill Jersey

Don has been a life long team member.  The first jersey number he can recall – 21.  His favorite number – 70.  He literally has played a role at every capacity a team member can be.  Father, player, coach, recruiter, husband, speaker, rookie team trainer, brother, statistician, water boy.  You name it.  He has been it as some point in his lifetime, from little league, Indian Hill, Wittenberg, Ohio University, UVA, Capital, Ohio State, Southern Illinois, New Mexico State, Boston College to NC State.  His hope is that whatever lives he touched during this process, they were positively influenced and changed.  At our wedding rehearsal dinner one of his  close friends and fellow team mate, Scott presented him with his basketball jersey.  It was from their alma matter Indian Hill, where they proudly took the Eastern Hills League by storm in basketball. They fondly reminisced about their playing time and the roles they played on and off the field in each others lives. Being a part of a team is special and those relationships formed generally last forever.  We hope our kids remember more of the process of being on a team than their stats.   As parents, we would rather our kids receive a good teammate or sportsmanship award than a MVP any day.

We all like to be on the winning team, or working feverishly to achieve that status.  In this profession many ethical and great leaders have been “cut loose” because their wins didn’t necessarily translate to victories that were seen on a score board.  When Don had made his mind up to go ahead with the deep brain stimulation surgery, we both felt the immediate need to evaluate our team.  Don had been seeing a neurologist at Duke that was recommended when we relocated to North Carolina.  He was fine.  I’m sure inundated with patient overload had caused our appointments to be short and for several phone calls and emails to be unreturned for days.  After asking a few questions about his surgical experience and knowledge with DBS, we decided, together, that our team needed new players.  Research ensued, phone calls placed and meetings / appointment set.  We decided that we needn’t search far. We had found the right facility.  We just needed 5 star rated players.  We came together for the first appointment, armed with a defense of questions that would take hours.  Don stated our intentions of assessing his candidacy for DBS and we were looking for the right person to lead this effort.  One of the keys would be,  if you were going to cut into his brain and body, we would need a little better response than what we had been receiving from the previous doctor.  It felt right from the moment we shook hands. Our defenses put at ease.  We confirmed what the best game plan and forms of communication would be and to date his attention has been amazing.  So great, that a veteran recovery nurse remarked out of surgery that she rarely sees surgeons examine their patients in recovery, but there was Dr. Turner – just checking in.  He has been the beacon of light we needed to make such a large decision and I’m glad were weren’t afraid to make an adjustment.

Having worked in athletics now for 30 years, we completely understand the word loyalty and dedication to a team and now a cause.  So, when someone has any question of what team we root for……. we will proudly claim Duke.  So, go Coach K!  Carry on Coach Cutcliffe and most importantly, thank you Dr. Turner and Duke Hospital for the first class care that we have received.  We couldn’t ask for a better team in a battle that isn’t just a season at a time but everyday of our lives.

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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.

don oline bc