“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” – Lou Gehrig
Lou Gehrig’s Disease
Just after Christmas 2017 I was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare neurological disease that damages nerves and degenerates muscles. I soon discovered that ALS is a progressive motor-neuron disease whose rate of progression varies from case to case. Currently, there is no cure for ALS and no effective treatment to halt or reverse the progression of what is widely known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
My early symptoms were the random firing of peripheral nerves and generalized muscle twitching all over my body. I was also losing strength in my left hand and forearm and having trouble with simple everyday tasks like aiming laser pointers in class, turning keys, twisting beer caps, buttoning my Levis, and tying my shoes. I assumed the muscle twitching was coming from a correctable vitamin/mineral deficiency, and the lower arm weakness was the cumulative result of old nerve damage (neuropathy) from my left forearm having been broken twice at the beginning and end of my high school and college football careers.
As a football player, I had more than my share of concussions and recurring blows to my head and neck but this was way back in the day before anyone kept track of cumulative brain damage through current symptom-treating concussion protocols. (Insert dumb-jock joke here). Although the average life expectancy is only 3 years after ALS diagnosis, twenty percent of people with ALS live five or more years, and 10 percent survive at least ten years. ALS strikes two in 100,000 people (.002%), and it is slightly more common among white Anglo males who were former athletes or who have served in the military. There is still no known cause or unique diagnosis for Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
My ALS diagnosis came by default after a seemingly endless series of blood tests, nerve tests and body scans ordered by my primary physician after he noticed muscle loss in my hands. Ironically each successive test that passed excluded one by one all of the possible and treatable alternative causes for what the neurosurgeons and neurologists had labelled ideopathic peripheral neuropathy. At first, a possible cause was thought to be treatable stenosis of cervical vertebrae in my neck also aggravated by football injuries, but in the end the underlying cause was ALS, a devastating degenerative disease that has no cure.
I am currently on medical leave from teaching my sports economics classes for Spring 2018 and it is not certain whether I will teach them again. This would end a run that extends two decades at Vandy. I apologize to my students who were left hanging in the process.
My first response to the Vandy neurologists after their serious ALS diagnosis was to jokingly quip that this meant that I was basically toast. Deep inside I just wanted to hide out and be left alone until I could clear the reality zone. My current and rapidly growing realization after interaction with my tough-love support circle of Machi, Krissi, Harris and Driskill is that ALS does not define me now and it never will. ALS may systematically attack and hammer my body, but it cannot diminish my mind or my spirit unless I let it. This relentless disease may have no cure, but it has no chance to defeat me. It will only make me stronger.
This web-page will be continually updated with relevant media reports about sports-related traumatic neurological injuries. I have declined consulting engagements in the past about NFL legal settlements of traumatic concussion and CTE related issues endemic to the NFL, but will reconsider them now from the players’ side. I have given a few media interviews about the uncertain future of the mercenary NFL and the epidemic brain injuries of its players, but I would like to invite more of them now. We have long since passed the point where our beloved childhood games are disabling and killing our players—ultimately for the money. We may not always control what happens to us, but we can at least control how we respond.