From his home near Charlotte, N.C., Marty Schottenheimer gazes out a window at Lake Norman on a gorgeous 70-degree Thursday.
“It’s a magnificent setting,” he said. “Life is good.”
Nearby, as ever, is his wife, Pat, who keeps him laughing even as he’s on the phone.
He still can’t believe his fortune to have met her in Daytona Beach, Fla., way back in ... 1965, she gently reminds him as he pauses.
“I can’t effectively tell you, maybe you know … I love this woman so much,” he said.
On Feb. 4, they’ll have been married 50 years.
So much has been so wonderful since and through their lives in football, highlighted by Schottenheimer guiding the Chiefs to the only two home playoff wins in franchise history entering their AFC divisional game against Pittsburgh on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Twenty-five seasons ago, Schottenheimer delivered the Chiefs’ first postseason victory since winning Super Bowl IV on Jan. 11, 1970. In fact, he still holds three of the meager four playoff victories they’ve tallied since winning it all.
Now, the Schottenheimers cherish their time with their children, Kristen and Brian, an Indianapolis Colts assistant coach, and grandchildren, whom they see as often as possible. They attend all of Brian’s home games and visit nearby Kristen and her family frequently.
Then there’s what Schottenheimer calls “the joy of my life” — Phoebe, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel who sits on his lap every morning as he reads three newspapers.
He still can’t play enough golf, which has long been a sanctuary for him and offers a telling snapshot of life at 73 for Schottenheimer.
“On the course, you’d never know there’s a single thing wrong with him,” Pat said. “His score is down; he’s got it figured out. There’s something about golf, or maybe it’s just his competitive instinct that pops out.
“On the golf course, they say he’s amazing.”
He often hits the ball so far off the tee, in fact, that it can be hard for him to find.
But that’s not always just because he hits it so long.
“Sometimes, he’ll kind of not remember where he hit it,” said Brian Schottenheimer, a Blue Valley High graduate.
Sometimes, he can’t remember his score — a point Brian playfully calls a positive since it means he’s not likely to dwell on playing poorly.
Sometimes, though, he’ll forget how to get home and call Pat for directions.
Schottenheimer has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the sinister, irreversible and progressive brain disorder that erodes memory and thinking capacity.
According to the National Institute on Aging, it afflicts about 5 million Americans and is the nation’s sixth-leading cause of death.
“The unfortunate thing is there’s nothing that they can do right now; they don’t have any cures,” said Pat Schottenheimer, whose husband began showing signs of the illness several years ago. “The only thing they have is medication that slows it down, and I encourage anybody who’s having any problems to go in and get checked out.
“Because if you get on the medication sooner rather than later, you’ve got an opportunity to be better for a longer time, if that makes sense.”
What is just as true as all these grim realities is that the Schottenheimers have determined that they will deal with the disease on their own terms.
So Pat Schottenheimer wants you to know that this should be seen as a positive story more than it is anything else, and that her husband “is good. He is fun. He is happy. He is Marty all the time.”
She wants you to know that she’s grateful for terrific medical care in Charlotte, that they’ve been to the Nantz National Alzheimer Center in Houston and that Marty is participating monthly in a drug-trial test offered by Roche laboratories in Switzerland.
“We are hopeful that it can help him,” Pat said. “It may not, who knows? But then hopefully it will make a difference for somebody in the future.”
Pat Schottenheimer doesn’t deny how hard it is to see her husband have to contend with this, or that it can be draining to be his caretaker 24-7, or that there has been a scare or two — like when he seemed to go missing one day but had just taken Phoebe out for a walk and got turned around a bit.
But you keep moving forward and compensate where you have to.
That’s why Marty always has a phone on him now, for its built-in GPS. And it’s why grandchildren will volunteer to go with him, just in case, if he needs to visit the bathroom in an airport.
It’s also why the family does its utmost to find humor in the anguish instead of crying.
“Obviously it’s a very tough disease, and it goes in different stages,” Brian Schottenheimer said. “But if you can’t laugh at it, you can’t enjoy some of the silliness that goes with the disease, that’s where it becomes heartbreaking.”
With his short-term memory “just not there,” as Pat put it, Marty might leave the room to bring her a cup of coffee only to come back with clothes from the dryer.
Or he might forget he already ordered at a restaurant, or think they’re going someplace that they’re not, or wake up and not know where he is.
Instead of focusing on the deep anguish in those scenes, their way has been to just explain things to him or even tease him about it.
“That’s very easy for him,” she said. “He’s always had such a good-natured personality. He just kind of rolls along with it.”
Among their family Christmas traditions now are customized pajamas and Santa Claus hats that riff on the recipient.
Brian’s wife, Gemmi, orchestrates that with a certain mischief in her heart — including her own “Fired Wife” hat for herself last year after Brian was on the University of Georgia staff that was let go.
It was in that spirit that she came up with this year’s theme for Marty and Pat.
Marty’s hat was adorned with the words, “Where’s Pat?”
Pat’s said, “Papa’s Blanket” — as in for security.
Marty thought it was great and laughed, knowing the truth in the joke … but also the affection behind the truth.
“It really summarizes our family,” Gemmi Schottenheimer said, noting her own parents are close with Marty and Pat and adding, “We love so hard, and we laugh so hard.”
Knowing what we know now about football and head injuries and dementia, it might seem natural to wonder to what degree the game did this to him.
Schottenheimer was a linebacker at the University of Pittsburgh, after all, and played pro football from 1965-70.
But speculating or fixating on that would be counter-productive to the family’s game plan with Schottenheimer, who was 200-126-1 with four NFL teams — including 101-58-1 with the Chiefs from 1989-98.
“Were there side effects to him playing? Probably,” Brian Schottenheimer said. “But we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it; we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.
“Our choice has been to live in the moment. And we wouldn’t be where we are as a family, I wouldn’t be where I am today as a coach, he wouldn’t have accomplished the great things he did (if not for football).
“We love the game of pro football, and we look back and think of the happier times and try not to figure out what went wrong … It’s a troublesome situation; it is what it is and now how are we going to make the most of it.”
It’s also evident that football is providing a guiding light in this fight.
For one thing, it’s been energizing for Schottenheimer to stay around the game, whether at Arrowhead in September for the induction of Tony Richardson into the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor, or at a reunion of the 1986 Cleveland Browns a few weeks later, or at Brian’s home games.
“Football is the thing that kind of keeps us consistently together; it’s all that we know as a family,” Brian Schottenheimer said, adding, “So many (former players) go out of their way to come up and just tell him how he changed their life. Or just fans who appreciated the way he carried himself along the journey.
“And he’s still quick with his thoughts after a game, and it’s kind of fun to get in the car and listen to him give his feedback.”
But it runs deeper than that, too.
Asked how they knew what approach to take when Marty was formally diagnosed in the last year or so, Pat Schottenheimer said it was second nature.
The family did more or less what it has always done: be competitive, proactive people who make the best of everything in an ever-changing world — or set of jobs, as the case may be.
“It’s what we do; it’s who we are,” she said. “In the profession we were in, you’re forced to stay positive, if that makes sense. It becomes a habit, and it’s a good habit.”
When her kids were young, and they’d pass a moving van on a street somewhere, Pat learned to say, “Oh my gosh, somebody’s daddy got fired. They get to move. They’re so lucky.”
If her own husband got fired, she brainwashed the kids to figure, “It was great!”
“If that tells anything, that’s us,” she said. “That’s how we approach life, and that’s how we are approaching this. We don’t like it, but it is what it is and we’re going to make it work.”
Even if he’s still “Marty all the time,” as Pat Schottenheimer said, that doesn’t mean it’s not excruciating to watch these dramatic changes unfold.
But wallowing in sorrow won’t help anything. And don’t mistake this for denial.
Instead, it’s about not surrendering … and finding a way … and everything that the coach would’ve asked of his players.
The Schottenheimers are going at this “full throttle,” Pat said, because that’s how Marty coached, and that’s how you live.
“He could not be paired with a better partner to go into having to tackle this disease,” Brian Schottenheimer said.
Pat considers herself “one of the luckiest caretakers,” because of all the support she is getting. Maybe she learned some of her resolve from her father’s imprisonment in a German POW camp during World War II, insists you not feel sorry for them.
Marty called his prognosis “very favorable” as long as he’s careful about what he does and how he does it. He figures he’ll be fine “as long as I can keep that putter hot.”
Then he thought of something from a long time ago, advice he got when he was a kid delivering the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in his wagon.
“Life is a journey of one step at a time: You pick one foot up, you put it on the ground,” he said. “You pick your other foot up, you put it on the ground. And you just continue to do your thing.”
Soon, he hands the phone back to Pat, and the first thing she wonders is if you can tell he’s happy.
If you heard him talk, you’d smile and believe he sure is.