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Chuck Noll’s quiet, private, lonely, and ultimately futile battle with Alzheimer’s

How an agile, keen, inquisitive mind of an accomplished man was numbed by a horrific disease … the difficulty of keeping that knowledge private

The story of Chuck Noll is similar for those who have had to encounter this deadly, devastating disease called Alzheimer’s,

Chuck had heard in 2001 about his old teammate Otta Graham, who’d been diagnosed with east stage Alzheimer’s. Across pro football, the disease took root. The vacant eyes, the repeated anecdotes, the slurred speech. He’d begging to see some of those traits in his own players.

At [a doctor’s] behest, Marianne took Chuck for a battery of tests, during which he maintained an imperturbable good cheer …

After the tests were completed, they went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to see Dr. Steven DeKosky, the head of neurology. The CT scan results were clear enough — there was damage. DeKosky showed them both the pictures, then asked Chuck to step outside for a moment.

After Chuck stepped into the hallway, deKosky leveled with Marianne, uttering the inevitable, dreaded word.

“He has it,” DeKosky said. “He has Alzheimer’s.”

Michael MacCambridge “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” p. 359

Chuck Noll had been one of the most successful professional football coaches in history, had played the game on a professional and college level. He became one of the best-known coaches of his time.

His mind was a key to that success, but even those with tremendous success are debilitated by this disease.

The gradual diminution of faculties

There is no definite decision by medical authorities about whether or not playing football can cause Alzheimer’s Disease. Some think so because it is similar to the the CTE that results from too many concussions.

The facts of Chuck Noll’s football life are clear: He played some grade school football for a few years, and then three years in high school at Benedictine in Cleveland, four in college at Dayton, and seven for the Cleveland Browns. At that time, the helmets that were used did not always provide the requisite protection. Whether or not this caused Noll’s faculties to diminish is not clear.

What was clear to the family was that gradually after he retired, his once acute faculties started to fail. It is gradual at first — forgetting, then failing to remember key information like names of family and friends, then failing to know what day it is, then repeating the same questions over and over … anyone who has cared for someone with Dementia or Alzheimer’s can outline the gradual diminution of cognition.

That was occurred for Chuck. He became lost coming home from a restaurant at which they dined regularly. His former players would hug him and see in his eyes no recognition that he knew who they were.

Most of the initial diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is anecdotal: stories that are pieced together over time to illustrate the failure of the cognitive faculties.

Keen faculties

As a coach, Noll was known for taking a professorial approach to the game. He was not a yeller or screamer and did not deliver famous motivational speeches like Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech at Notre Dame.

Even one of his most intense players said that he appreciated his intellectual approach to the game, according to Sports Illustrated,

It was an extraordinary collection of talent that Noll molded not with intimidation, but with intellect. "He was the perfect coach to play for because I didn't need to cheer three times in the locker room at halftime," [Hall of Fame linebacker Jack] Lambert said.

Tim Layden, “Chuck Noll: 1932--2014 Three Bricks More Than a Load,” June 23, 2014

And Noll made every effort to have dinner each night at the same time with Marianne and his son Chris, whenever possible. However, at those dinners, the topic of football was never discussed. He talked about wine, airplanes, philosophy, music, politics — attempting to stimulate discussion with his family and guests.

His players would marvel at his knowledge of history, shaking their heads, though Joe Greene often said that the players did not always understand the point or analogy that Noll was making.

Tony Dungy’s heartbreaking response at the Super Bowl when he could not talk to Noll

Former Super Bowl winning Coach Tony Dungy both played and coached under Noll, and he said this of his mentor,

Ninety-five percent of what I learned about coaching, I learned from Chuck.

Michael MacCambridge “Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” p. 363

So, in 2006, facing the biggest game of his coaching career, the Super Bowl game against Miami, Dungy was devastated because he could not talk to his mentor two days before the big game.

The reason? The Nolls, primarily Marianne but also Chuck, made a decision to not announce publicly that Noll was suffering from Alzheimer’s. It was a mistake on many levels, but it is common because people want privacy and do not want everyone to know that someone who had reached such success in life can no longer function intellectually.

MacCambridge describes the situation this way,

On Friday, two days before the biggest game of his coaching life, Dungy called Chuck. Marianne answered. He explained the 1st just wanted to tell his coach how much he appreciated all that he’d passed on.

“He’s not having a good day,” she said. “The back is really a problem. He’s sleeping right now, but I know he’ll be glad you called.”

“I can call back later, if that would be easier.”

“No, let me just tell him you called ”…

[Dungy’d] also gotten the message that Chuck wasn’t available and wouldn’t be available. He wouldn’t try again.

“Chuck Noll: His Life’s Work,” p. 364

It was a shame that the coach could no longer talk with those who had been so important in his professional life, but that is what Alzheimer’s does: It robs the person of dignity. They do not want others to see how far the loss has taken him or her.

Eventually, the media learned of the seriousness of the disease, but they pretty much respected the privacy of the family and said nothing.

Battle is lonely

When Sports Illustrated asked Chuck Noll after he had won his fourth Super Bowl in six years in 1980 with the Steelers how he would want to be remembered after he left the game, he said,

"A teacher," Noll said. "A person who could adapt to a world of constant change. A person who could adapt to the situation. But most of all a teacher. Put down that I was a teacher."

Tim Layden, “Chuck Noll: 1932--2014 Three Bricks More Than a Load,” June 23, 2014

Noll’s college degree was in education, and he planned to teach and coach in high school after graduation. While his teaching occurred at the professional level, he relied upon his intellect.

So, when Chuck would continually ask Marianne questions that he had just asked five minutes earlier, the result is also heartbreaking for the caregiver. Marianne and Chuck Noll has a strong marriage built on love and respect for 57 years. She knew that Chuck, while a very public person, was a very private one with his personal life. That is why she made the decision to not discuss the Alzheimer’s.

Those closest to the family knew the full details, but outside, few did.

That is a lonely journey, but one that everyone has to endure with this disease. It is heartbreaking.

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