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Tim Green faces ALS disease with courage and gratitude

scottteaser-215x160I was blown away the first time I interviewed Tim Green in the summer of 1982. I was covering Syracuse University football at the time, and Green had just arrived on campus from nearby Liverpool as the “savior” recruit who was going to help Coach Dick MacPherson resurrect the moribund Orange football program.

I remember Green talking that day about how much he loved the challenge of beating blockers, sacking quarterbacks and helping Syracuse “rise like the mythical bird Phoenix from the ashes.” But I also remember him speaking just as passionately about being a voracious reader since a young age, and how he was in the process of devouring works from Hemingway, Browning, Shakespeare and Chaucer. The then-18-year-old was engaging and inquisitive, at one point even asking me about what it was like to write for newspapers and magazines. I walked away, as the Brits like to say, gobsmacked. This clearly was a football player who went much deeper than third-and-long. You didn’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to know Tim Green was going places.

And so he would. Many places, in fact, while wearing enough hats to fill a haberdasher’s warehouse. For starters, Green would fulfill the football savior role at SU, twice earning All-American honors as a pass-rusher and cementing the foundation that saw the Orangemen play 13 bowl games in 17 years. He also would excel in the classroom, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English literature, and narrowly missing out on a post-graduate scholarship to Oxford. A true scholar-athlete was he.

From there, Renaissance Tim would go on to have a successful eight-year National Football League career with the Atlanta Falcons; author nearly 40 books, including several New York Times’ best-sellers; earn a law degree with honors from Syracuse and become a practicing attorney; deliver critically acclaimed analysis on Fox Sports football telecasts; contribute numerous stories and commentaries to National Public Radio and ABC News; and start a “Reading Is Weightlifting for the Brain” program that’s encouraged tens of thousands of elementary and middle-school students to put down their electronics  and pick up books.

“One is fortunate to be blessed with either brains or brawn,’’ famed broadcaster Bob Costas once told me. “Tim Green has been blessed with both.”

Two Sundays ago, I would be blown away by another Tim Green interview, this time in a painful, haunting way. There, on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” I watched in shock with millions of others as he told us in a raspy, barely audible voice that he had been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a debilitating, fatal neurological disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no cure. Most patients diagnosed with it, die within two to five years.

At one point during the gut-wrenching interview with Steve Kroft, Green began to cry, but said they were tears of joy.

“Some people would say, you know, ‘Tim, God bless you,’’’Green told Kroft. “And I’d say, ‘He already has.’’’

Green’s courageous expression of gratitude harkened memories of the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech Gehrig delivered at Yankee Stadium in 1939. The famed baseball slugger also faced ALS, the disease that has long borne his name. “I don’t know of anyone more fortunate and blessed than me—even with this,’’ Green said, echoing Gehrig’s comments that despite being given a bad break, he had an awful lot to live for.

Gehrig didn’t expect or want sympathy, and neither does Green.

What he would like is greater funding to research a cure for this hideous disease. That is why he decided to go public with his diagnosis, and why he established #TackleALS, which already has raised more than a million dollars and has seen NFL players such as Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Von Miller, Matt Ryan and Deion Sanders appear in a video launching awareness for the campaign. Donations have come from a wide of array of people Green has impacted through the years, including scores of former high school, college and NFL teammates and opponents, and a group of teachers holding up copies of some of Green’s children’s books.

Interestingly, he wrote about the inherent risks of playing football in his 1996 memoir, “The Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL.” In an interview Kroft conducted with Green two decades ago—which was replayed during this latest 60 Minutes feature—the former NFL defensive lineman talked about how he believed “guys would be willing to take 10 to 20 years off the end of their lives in order to get out there on a Sunday and play. I don’t think that consideration of your physical well-being in the future is in the forefront of any NFL player’s mind.”

In the recent television interview, Green said he lost track of the number of concussions he suffered after incurring No. 10. His wife, Illysa, remembers him having to slather Vaseline on his swollen head in order to slide his helmet on. Though medical experts are still trying to determine possible links between head trauma and ALS, Green has no doubts his current condition was caused by all those years of “throwing myself head first into a concrete wall” during practices and games. The 54-year-old also believes he would not be facing what he is had he played under current-day rules, which have made the game safer by prohibiting leading-with-the-head hits and severely restricting contact during practices.

Remarkably, despite the damage he suffered, he said has no regrets, and wants his youngest of five children to continue playing football, just not on the defensive side of the ball.

“It was as magical and as wonderful as I dreamed it would be,’’ Green said of his years on the gridiron.

Even more remarkable was his comment to Kroft that this is the best time of his life.

“I have everything,’’ he said, referring to his close-knit family. The Greens live in the same Skaneateles Finger Lakes neighborhood and eat dinner together five nights a week.

Green also still has his writing, which provides an escape. He’s written four of his 38 books since his diagnosis two years ago. And he’s halfway through book No. 39. ALS has robbed him of the dexterity required to type, so he uses a special pair of sensor glasses that connects to a keyboard on his screen, enabling him to create words, letters and sentences. It’s a tedious process, but it still allows him to do something he loves.

Green has always been one of those rare individuals who pursues everything with passion. He knows no other way. So, it’s not surprising that he has decided to rage against the dying of the light, and take on the most daunting opponent he’s ever faced; one that, sadly, is undefeated. He realizes the cure he seeks probably won’t be found fast enough to save him, but he fervently believes it will come eventually.

In the meantime, he will do what he’s always done: Try to live life to the fullest.

“As always, I will spend the coming days and years, counting the blessings I have instead of pining for things I don’t,’’ Green wrote on his Facebook page when he broke the news he had ALS. “Today I will take a walk. I will work and write and kiss each of my kids, as well as my beautiful wife. That’s a great day. As good as it gets.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. He will be doing a book-signing from 1-3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 1 at the Webster Barnes & Noble.


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