Former Missouri Tigers football coach Warren Powers battles with Alzheimer’s disease
Gathered above the north end zone of Memorial Stadium on Saturday stood three of the four living former University of Missouri football coaches: Warren Powers, Bob Stull and Gary Pinkel.
Stull was as engaged as ever on a variety of topics, including how his protégé Andy Reid is enjoying this Chiefs team. Wearing blue jeans, Pinkel exuded the opposite of his intense coaching persona as he spoke of such things as the “it” factor radiating from Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Powers was cheerful but, alas, faraway on this sun-splashed homecoming day on which he and his 1978 Mizzou team were being honored. The Kansas City native, an all-state quarterback at Bishop Lillis who went on to play at Nebraska, is contending with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Warren’s not what I call conversational any more. Sometimes I think it’s because he’s afraid he might say the wrong thing and might sound silly,” said his wife, Linda, standing nearby — as always — and encouraging people to say hello but asking that you do it properly. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t say, do you remember when?’ Because he’s not going to. You tell (him), ‘Oh, I remember when we did this.’ You bring it up to him. Don’t ask him to pull it out.
“He’ll usually just agree and say, ‘I remember,’ whether he does or not. But it really eases the burden.”
In fact, the 77-year-old Powers, who was 46-33-3 at MU and guided the Tigers to several unforgettable victories, enjoyed the day immensely. As he did the dinner the night before, when players he no longer knew the names of re-introduced themselves.
He remembered none of it a day later, she said in a phone interview Tuesday, but that didn’t change that it was time well-spent.
“You live the best you can each moment, no matter what your plight,” she said. “And that’s where we try to live, is in the moment.”
It’s a shattering thing to know and to see, another of life’s cruel reminders to be grateful for what you have and love generously and take nothing for granted.
“It’s an insidious disease, man,” said Howard Richards, who played for Powers before careers in the NFL and CIA and now is an MU assistant athletic director for community relations and color analyst for MU football.
“It’s really, really hard to watch,” added Richards, who appreciates all Powers did for him and the program and prays for “a miracle” to at least slow down the disease. “The lesson is right now just try to enjoy life to the fullest.”
There’s a lesson, too, in the remarkable strength and resolve of Linda Powers. Like Ardythe Sayers and Pat Schottenheimer, the wives of other prominent local former football men, she has been steadfast and inspiring in her own approach.
Devastated as she is, Linda Powers is her husband’s caregiver, a dedicated fundraiser and vigorous advocate in efforts to fight this wretched illness that along with other forms of dementia afflicts more than five million Americans.
Knowing the work their dear friend Norm Stewart has done through Coaches Vs. Cancer, she looked for ways to be involved in this cause. Since she signed on in 2014 as The Longest Day chair for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Missouri, the avid bridge player has raised nearly $250,000 at the St. Louis Bridge Center. In the last year alone, she raised $69,000 to be recognized as the chapter’s top Longest Day fundraiser and second overall nationwide.
“I’ve always been a strong person. And I decided early on I can’t change it, but I can make it the best I can,” said Linda Powers, a St. Louis native who was on the pom-pom squad at Mizzou when she was set up on a blind date with her future husband. “It is a mission for me.
“And the reason is I can’t do research, but I feel like this is a disease that’s ravaging our country right now, and the more people who live longer the more people are going to suffer from it, and we’ve got to find a cure. And I’m hopeful that some day we’ll even find a prevention. But as of right now, we’ve got to have awareneness.”
In their case, the awareness of something awry began in 2009, when she started noticing he was forgetting things they had just spoken about or had planned. Basic tests didn’t immediately reveal any cognitive issues.
But when she told his doctor about a concussion that had knocked him unconscious for 20 minutes when he was playing for the Oakland Raiders in the second Super Bowl, a psychiatric evaluation was ordered that determined cognitive decline and early signs of Alzheimer’s.
A neurologist diagnosed Alzheimer’s in 2014, and they went public in 2015 as part of her notion to be proactive and help others.
At home was a challenge in itself. For a while, she’d leave him notes to remind him of things he needed to do. But even that system had its limitations.
If it happened that she’d go out for something when he should be eating the lunch she left him, for instance, she’d call to check and he might have to go to the refrigerator to see. Even if she would then suggest he eat as soon as they get off the phone, chances are he wouldn’t have by the time she got home.
Now, he’s in adult day care three times a week and rarely alone for significant time.
If there is a sliver of good news in this, it’s that he has showed no signs of CTE or the depression or violence that can be associated with it. While she notes that there is no way to know now to what degree head injuries from football caused this, they plan to donate his brain for research.
“It’s important,” she said.
Also important for her to say: If they had a son, she said, she would have no problem with him playing football. After all, you can suffer a head injury in many sports or any number of other ways. You can’t spend your days in bubble wrap.
“You have to live your life,” she said.
Much of her own life now is about taking care of him. She has good days and bad, of course, and has learned not to beat herself up for the bad ones. But at least since he doesn’t wander or demonstrate any aggressiveness, so she feels comfortable leaving him at home for an hour or so to go to the store.
“I’m lucky there,” she said, “if there’s anything to be lucky at here.”
In a Mizzou Athletics video honoring Powers that was presented at halftime of MU’s 65-33 victory over Memphis, he, too, spoke of his luck.
Something he can count on that not everybody has, something that he still knows.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said, “to have my wife.”
In turn, she is grateful to the Alzheimer’s Association being there for them — and so many of us who will face this one way or another.
“When you’re lost, and you don’t know where to turn and what you’re going to do, that’s the place to go,” she said. “I want people to know that the Alzheimer’s Association is there for them if you suspect anything.”
So even as she grieves, she finds some solace in this.
“I tell myself,” she said, “we’re further than we were.”
Donations to the Alzheimer’s Association can be made online at http://act.alz.org/goto/blitzalz4powers or by texting blitz4powers to # 51-555.