According to the Alzheimer’s Association, every 65 seconds someone in America is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That awful pass of the sweep second hand has claimed Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen among its more than five and a half million victims in America. Bowlen built more than just a Super Bowl team in Denver. He built an institution that helps define a region. He built a culture, and by all accounts he did it with class. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease could care less. The disease isn’t a respecter of accomplishments, of ambition, of effort. The disease doesn’t discriminate between those with and those without Super Bowl rings. And like the greatest running backs on Bowlen’s teams, it continues to elude its pursuers, doctors, researchers, administrators, healers, all struggling to give loved ones of victims more than a shrug when it comes to explanations and hopes for a cure.
The NFL has drawn a great deal of attention in recent seasons as it tries to eliminate helmet to helmet contact and reduce concussions. Suspicions point to a link between head injuries and Alzheimer’s. But Bowlen didn’t play football in the NFL. He owned a team. He had a background in law and oil not blocking and tackling.
It underscores the exponentially complicated nature of Alzheimer’s, a disease that continues to side step simple links between cause and effect.
I wrote about my personal experience of watching my father struggle with Alzheimer’s for the last five years of his life in my book Forgotten Sundays. My hope for that book is similar to my hope for Pat Bowlen: that its visibility helps expand the conversation.
Here’s the first step. Stop whispering the phrase Alzheimer’s disease. I saw several people do that today at Ravens training camp after news of Pat Bowlen’s resignation surfaced. The Bowlen family, my family, your family, all families who have to face this seemingly unconquerable disease deserve the chance to deal with it stripped bare of stigma, of embarrassment, of whispering.
All professionals in football know that the first step to beating an opponent is taking an honest measure of that opponent. The second step is to strip the opponent of any aura of invincibility. You do that by saying the opponent’s name without flinching, without whispering. Then you dare to win.
Good luck, Pat Bowlen. You showed an entire region how to become champions. Now show them how to take on another challenge, a challenge many think unbeatable. And it is. But only for now.