Almost silenced by ALS, an ex-NFL pro tells his story


Tim Green’s days are full.

The retired Atlanta Falcons linebacker and defensive end, who worked as a lawyer, commentator at NPR, hosted television shows, and wrote more than 20 books, spends his mornings working on his email. After that, Green, 57, works off a series of conference calls and law firms in the middle of the day, then writes all afternoon until it’s time for the often large family dinners.

Green watches his grandchildren play until they go to sleep, then watches TV with his wife Ilyssa and youngest son Ty, 15, before reading himself to sleep.

And Green does all of this while suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the degenerative disorder of the nervous system that causes loss of muscle control and receives a lot of help at every turn.

A ventilator keeps him breathing. He eats with a feeding tube. He can’t speak. He communicates and writes with a device that tracks his gaze as he selects letters on a screen to compose messages that the device outputs for conversation or as chapters in his next book. His latest “Final Season” about a family grappling with whether a child should keep playing soccer after their coach father, yes, it’s based on real events, was diagnosed with ALS recently debuted # 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for middle-class hardcover kids.

“Even now that I’ve been writing several hours a day, six days a week for three years, it takes immense patience,” said Green in a video interview last week about the tedious process. The roar of its fan hummed through the airwaves every few seconds. “This machine is beautiful, but spirited. If I had used my fingers, it would have taken me less than a year to write this book. “

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To see Green in this state, to hear that powerful tenor voice that once sounded melodious over public radio waves, turned into halting, computer-generated sentences, to look at a former wrecking ball on the soccer field that was embedded practically motionless in the high-tech chair allowing it to function, reminiscent of the cruelty of disease – and of the nimble mind that still tries to make the most of a body that can no longer survive without constant help.

Green has led a rewarding life, carefully treating the disease with the help and intervention of the latest medical technology. He can still write and practice as a lawyer and be the husband and father of his five children, a grandfather and a soccer fan, though he believes his ALS was caused by the game he played for so many years.

Brain injury experts and neurologists have conducted extensive research into whether repeated blows to the head from contact sports significantly increase the risk of ALS, accelerate its onset, or even increase it lead to another disease with very similar symptoms. As the research continues, Green has no further questions on the matter.

“My ALS doctor is Merit Cudkowicz, one of the world’s most respected authorities on ALS,” he said. “If she says repeated blows to the head caused my ALS, that’s what caused it.”

One of Green’s sons, Troy, said his father’s life can be divided into two distinct phases.

The first was built around physicality. Green was a star in Syracuse and a 1986 NFL first-round draft pick who played eight seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. His chiseled bone structure and deep-set eyes didn’t hurt his efforts as he embarked on his television career. At home he stood on all fours and his children rode around the house on his back as if he were a packhorse.

In his second phase, after retiring from the NFL in 1993, Green pursued a legal career and worked as a writer. Green began struggling with his hands and fingers around 2011, but he wasn’t diagnosed with his slowly progressive form of ALS until 2016. ALS is not a subtle state. It didn’t take long for him to cope with slurred speech, difficulty walking, and even breathing.

Green despaired of what lay ahead – brutal decisions about whether to plug him into ventilators and feeding machines – but Troy convinced him that what Tim’s family needed had little to do with his body worked.

“His soul and his brain,” said Troy, who is 27 years old. “That’s what we love and call papa.”

Today, Green’s disease doesn’t cause too much pain in Green, other than the bronchial suction that his lungs can’t remove and the necrosis (the death of body tissue) in his right foot and shin that lead to it can make you feel like you are on fire. Unlike on rainy days, when the falling air pressure can take its toll, old football pains in the knees, shoulders and neck no longer hurt like they used to because he no longer uses them.

His mental health is a different matter. Green forces himself to focus on what he has left and on his memories of what he used to do.

He said that when he wakes up in the morning, the first thing he does is try to be thankful for another day with his family, friends and people around him. He thanks for the connectedness of his family life in which some of his adult children live in houses a few steps away from him and for the nearby lake, “the hills, the trees, the birds, the blue sky, the clouds , the wind”. , Rain and snow. And the sun, moon, planets and stars. “

At the dining table he watches his family eat and conjures up memories of tasting fresh tomatoes and bacon and red sauce over pasta and sausage, “and a fat glass of Caymus Cabernet”.

Sometimes the power of those memories becomes overwhelming and the tears flow. But most of the time there is solace in the routines that dominate his life, although these too can have challenges.

The family real estate company that Troy primarily runs has worked hard this year handling maintenance and security complaints about the management of several of its low-income New York upstate residential properties.

And of course there was the tension that formed “Final Season”. When his ALS deteriorated dramatically three years ago, the family argued over whether Ty should continue to play football on his local youth team. Tim and some of his sons felt that Ty, who was 12 at the time, could continue to play safely as training routines and attacking techniques have changed over the past 20 years. Ilyssa wanted to get football out of Ty’s life. Today he focuses most of his athletic energy on lacrosse.

Tim Green said he has no regrets about his own football career. He remains an ardent fan who watches games all season, especially the Falcons, and misses almost everything about his game days.

“The television cameras, the uniforms, the colors, the pomp, the smell of fresh air spoiled by hissing dogs, spilled beer, fresh duct tape and cut grass, the crowd, their cheers and their boos, ”he said, ticking details of a life that was still fresh in his mind. “The paychecks, fast cars, the bursting joy on a kid’s face, and all you did was scribble your name on his hat. The joys are endless. “

Likewise the consequences. It all makes a good story.

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