Former Packers coach Gregg fighting Parkinson's, not the NFL

Published On: Apr 17 2013 09:06:23 PM CDT
Green Bay Packers

GREENWOOD VILLAGE, Colo. (AP) — Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg says that while he and his neurologist blame concussions for his Parkinson's disease, he's not going to sue the NFL like thousands of other former players.

The 79-year-old says he doesn't begrudge those who have joined the lawsuits but he has his pensions from his playing and coaching days and "I don't need anything from anybody but what I earned."

He said he's an "independent type" and doesn't believe in holding others accountable for his well-being.

"And my experience in the National Football League was good," said Gregg, who is promoting UCB, Inc.'s "Parkinson's More Than Motion" campaign during Parkinson's Awareness Month.

Gregg said he's doing well 18 months after his diagnosis and credits medicine, exercise and daily phone calls from his son and former teammates to reminisce about the good ol' days, which keeps his mind sharp.

The former offensive lineman known as "Iron Man" said he wants to help others recognize the signs of Parkinson's and seek treatment early enough to delay the degenerative effects of the chronic, debilitating disease on both mind and body.

When Gregg was diagnosed, his neurologist, Dr. Rajeev Kumar, a Parkinson's expert and medical director of the Colorado Neurological Institute's Movement Disorders Center in Denver, said the many concussions Gregg suffered during his playing days may have served as a trigger for Parkinson's.

More than two dozen Hall of Famers are among the 4,200 former players who contend the league misled them about the harmful effects of concussions.

In recent years, scores of former NFL players and other concussed athletes have been diagnosed after their deaths with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, including popular Pro Bowler Junior Seau and lead plaintiff Ray Easterling. Both committed suicide last year.

About one-third of the league's 12,000 former players have joined the litigation since Easterling filed suit in 2011. Some are battling dementia, depression or Alzheimer's disease, and fault the league for rushing them back on the field after concussions. Others are worried about future problems and want their health monitored.

"I have been asked to join these lawsuits and my gut feeling, first thought is no," Gregg said. "I've always been an independent type, I never believed in somebody else being responsible for my life and for my well-being."

Gregg praised the NFL for its crackdown on illegal hits and enhanced protocol on concussions and said he applauds Roger Goodell for saying his top priority as commissioner is reducing head trauma in the game even though it's changing the sport that he played and coached.

At the owners meetings last month, the NFL barred ball carriers from using the crown of their helmets to make forcible contact with a defender in the open field and also eliminated the peel-back block everywhere on the field.

The game looks different from the one Gregg played from 1956-71 with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys and later coached, but Gregg said he doesn't mind that.

"Anything that can be done to help in that respect, in that regard, I think is good, any time you prevent an injury by changing the rules," Gregg said. "I know it's not easy because these players are going to have to relearn how to play the game.

"Right now if I was coaching defensive linemen, it would be a hard matter for me to tell my linemen where to tackle the quarterback. If you tackle him above the shoulders, you hit him in the head and that's a penalty. You tackle him below the hips, that's illegal. Or if you have a hold of him and you slam him down to the ground, that's illegal. So, what's left? Maybe his belt buckle, that's about it," Gregg said.

"And I don't say that's wrong, because anything that can prevent injuries to ball players is good."

Gregg said he was taught in high school in the 1950s that "the helmet was part of the weaponry."

"My high school coach said if they try to run you over, you give them some plastic," he recalled. "That was just the game, it really was. Nobody thought anything about getting hurt."

Gregg sustained so many concussions he lost count, although he recalls one time he was so dazed he sat on the other team's bench and when he came to with an ice pack on his neck, players on the other team told him he'd been "gone for a while."

Gregg said he would still have chosen to play the sport even if he'd known there would be a price to pay later in life, however.

A guard and tackle, Gregg is one of three NFL players to win a-half dozen NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls with the Packers. Gregg finished his career with another Super Bowl title with the Cowboys in 1971. He went on to coach the Bengals, Browns and Packers.

There is no cure for Parkinson's, but a combination of drugs, exercise and physical therapy can delay the effects of the disease that strikes more than 50,000 Americans every year.

Gregg said he first went to the doctor when he noticed his left hand trembling in 2011. Although his motor symptoms began to show up over the year or two before that, Gregg's wife, Barbara, said he began acting out his dreams about 15 years ago. Kumar said this phenomenon, known as REM sleep behavior disorder, was a possible early warning sign of Parkinson's.

One time he dreamed he was trying to strangle a snake and his wife had to sock him to get him to let go of her wrist. Another time he dreamt he was back blocking for Bart Starr and knocked her out of their bed.

Sleep problems, memory loss and fatigue are some of the possible symptoms of Parkinson's along with the typical motor aspects such as slowness or tremors.

The Greggs are sharing their story through a reality-style video series that is part of "Parkinson's More than Motion" Facebook community and follows the couple as they cope with the disease and its treatment.

"I'll tell you what, it's emotional. You have to fight getting down," Gregg said. "And I've been on the physical regimen. In fact, I think I was working out too much. I forget I was 79 instead of 39. And so I had to back off a little bit and now I don't worry if I miss a day working out. The main thing is to continue to work out, try to keep a good attitude."