Sports View: David: A great athlete, but now not so great at Alzheimer's
With the recent revelations about concussions that players get in football and its relationship with memory loss later in life, and with the NFL finally admitting there is a problem, one has to look even further concerning the situations that involve concussions in sports.
Maybe we should look at college players and even high school football participants.
My experience with this is not personal, in that my days in high school football were very few. As a sophomore I realized I could get really hurt playing that game so I got out. But it is personal in the fact that I have an old friend, who is today without his memory, and who was a great athlete.
I met David when I was 21 and he was 29. He and I worked together, while both of us were going to college at the University of Utah. We spent a lot of nights working away next to each other and talking about sports.
In his high school years David had been an all-region quarter back in Montana. He was a runner who while small could scamper between the defensive line and he was good at breaking tackles. Passing was not his game, but he did it adequately enough to get those region honors anyway.
Despite his high schools great record and his abilities, he never got an athletic scholarship offer and ended up walking onto a team at a small mid-western school where he got a first year ride for academics instead. His freshman year he did well. In those days freshmen did not play on the varsity, but had their own squad. The next year, after an injury to the junior starting quarterback, he became the starter. That lasted for three quarters of a game until his knee got blown out when a big lineman put the hurt on him.
That was the end of his football career. As with every athlete he had had dreams of playing in the NFL or the AFL (in the time before they merged). That was, of course over with the injury.
He quit college and went on an LDS Mission for his church. When he came home his family had moved to Utah and he moved where they were. He later found a girl and got married and started attending Utah.
In all those years, during and since football he has had bad headaches. When I asked years ago about them he said they started in high school one night when he had his bell rung in a collision with a full back on his own team. For weeks after he said he didn't feel right and of course he continued to play. It was the tough keep going kind of mentality that many athletes at the time had. You were a hero if you played hurt.
Then came college and even though he only played freshman ball, the hitting was harder and more often than in high school. The headaches continued and got worse. When he graduated from the U he had became a science teacher in Idaho and a very good one.
But the pain drove him into retiring early in 2002 at 58 years old. He wanted to continue teaching, something he loved, but there were just too many painful days.
Then in June of 2010 he started losing his memory as well. Sometimes things were fine and he could remember his wife's as well as his two sons and his daughters names. Other days he started to act like he didn't even know who they were.
Then his wife passed away. At the funeral he was oblivious as to what was happening at times. Then he would ask where she was and his kids would tell him what was going on.
In the last couple of years he had been living with his children. No longer able to keep control of his life, he needed someone around him constantly.
Finally, in July the kids had to put him in a nursing home. They just couldn't handle him anymore. It wasn't long after that that I talked with his son Jim.
"Dad isn't the person you knew," he told me over the phone when I said I wanted to come visit. "He was always so soft spoken and classy. Now he is loud and things come out of his mouth that I would never have guessed my father would know how to say. At times he is vile. He won't know you or remember anything about you. He may even threaten you."
He revealed to me other details of a complete personality change in his father.
"I know it was that damn football that did it," said Jim as we talked. "He would never let me nor Ted (the other son) play because he told us that he knew his headaches came from it and he didn't want us to have them. I played baseball and my brother played basketball in high school. Football was out of the question."
And then he added one more thing.
"He is dying. I don't know that he wouldn't have died close to this time had he not had head trauma when he was young, but I think he may have still had his memory." Then he added, "In a way he has been dead as the dad we knew for two years anyway."
I have not gone to see David, and I probably won't now. It wasn't like we were ever close since those years working together in the 1970s (my first wife and I did stuff with he and his wife a number of times) but I thought it might be nice at one point. We had traded phone calls and emails a few times over the years though.
I remember once he brought his senior year high school yearbook to work because we were all bringing goofy photos of ourselves so we could have a good laugh. From looking at that it was obvious he was a star athlete at one time. envied by everyone and voted by his senior high school class as the guy most likely to succeed. An A student he could have done anything he wanted. He loved teaching and his family, but still that athletic drive was still there.
It seems that diseases of the memory have grown amongst all generations in the last few years. Some say it is what we eat, others say it is caused by the air we breathe. But for David it seems that somehow, somewhere, those head hits when he was 16 to 20 may have done the long term damage that he finds himself with today. I know one day in the not too far in the future, I will get a call or see his obit in the one of the upstate papers.
And as much as I like watching college football, I now wonder which of those kids on the field playing in any game I see will end up like David.