One of the greatest legends and fighters of my time was memorialized this week. People remember, grieve, celebrate and memorialize the lives of their lost ones in different ways. Every tragedy can be celebrated and every loss comes with a victory.
It was the 1996 Olympics and I was sitting there as an audience participant waiting for the torch to be lit and the games to begin. My whole life, I have been a competitor and fought as the “underdog” to leave my mark and difference in the sport loved, football. Being at the games was an honor as an athlete. Sitting behind me was Magic Johnson and we exchanged pleasantries and then focused for the big moment. It was Muhammad Ali carrying the torch to light opening ceremonies. He had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was suffering from tremors that were visible to anyone watching that night. I was seated watching this legend, that kicked more tail and trained harder than anyone else talked about; holding an Olympic torch with two hands shaking uncontrollably. As he lifted up the torch with two hands, to help control the tremors, I could see the motivation, fire and classic Ali. Reading his lips and attacking the monster trying to control his mind and body (little did I know the power it took for him to achieve the victory he showed in lighting the flame) with that, the flames lit magnificently and the Olympic Games began. That moment, with his two hands, a fighter’s attitude and his strong statement stayed with me my whole life and I NEVER knew why I had such a deep emotional connection to it until January 2016. I was an athlete my whole life, played football fiercely, and became aware that it was my only path to find what would later serve me and free me of burdens I never knew. I trained hard and played hard and never gave up. I could feel my body changing and losing its battle, but I just felt I had to push harder for what I couldn’t do as well. Failure was never an option; I knew I had to find a way to get all I could…honestly never knew why until many years later. I gave myself to the game and the field every second and the game gave itself to me, it paid me well, it showed me the results of hard work and why a champion should be respected. It taught me true fear and more importantly, the true meaning of respect. It allowed me to defy odds, look at death and connect with my faith.
Other than my daughter, it’s my most respected and appreciated relationship.
It had already been a challenging year, tragic and what would be life ending for many people. The phone rings, January 2016, and what comes out next is my DAT SCAN test was positive, indicating the fight I had thought I won, was actually just the end of a long round and I had Early Parkinson’s. It’s the very beginning stages of symptoms and after three years of extensive, emotional testing, mostly alone, finally I was given a confirmed diagnosis. Bittersweet emotions, I remember that day like no other and it was more than a diagnosis. I cried more than I had in some time. As I realized my life was over and the new life of trying to defend my peers and right to be a father with a disease was now a permanent daily task. You can’t always see my Parkinson’s, but it’s there. I look good and I’m strong but it’s still a battle. I often hide during my “off periods” never wanting to show weakness, as threats had become clear and confident with each request for rest or help. Every step I take is planned and every movement can be painful and challenging. Sometimes, symptoms come and I find ways to hide them with an expression or stance. Giving up is not in my blood. I survived and fought real dark demons to get to where I am today and still am fighting those demons. I’ve had my faith challenged; family attacked and witnessed attempts to eliminate me from this world as I know it.
Like you see with Michael J Fox and the late great Muhammad Ali, Parkinson’s is not who you are or what defines you. We define it. What is needed are schedules, consistency and support to have something to fight for every day. Muhammad Ali influenced me in such a sincere and emotional way, that hearing that he passed moved me to tears. Any of my peers losing their battle is what tears me apart inside. When my peers are hurting, struggling, depressed, alone and feeling like a burden to the disease. My peers are what keep me motivated to speak my voice, to find answers and to rise above the stereotypes of the disease. Nothing defines you unless you give it the power too.
My peers need me and I need them and there is no greater cause to dedicate oneself too. Life is not just a battle inside the ring or on the field. Life is a battle and Parkinson’s already has shown me the heart of a champion and the power it enables from within. Muhammad Ali saved and enabled my new life.
I thank Muhammad Ali, Michael J Fox, Robin Williams, my mentor Brack Rowe and all my peers for their daily fight to not be defined by the perimeters of a disease. There are answers and there are resources.
Rest in peace to the legend and the fighter.