Float Like a Butterfly, Waddle Like a Duck

The film When We Were Kings documents the 1975 heavyweight championship fight between the then defending champion, George Foreman, and the ex-champ, Muhammad Ali.  The fight took place at a time when the Heavyweight Champion of the world was still one of the most revered and glamorous titles on the entire planet.  I was in high school at the time and the prevailing opinion was that Foreman, possibly the most powerful puncher ever, was invincible, and that Ali was past his prime.  No one gave Ali much of a chance.   Ali, of course, did win, in the famous “rope-a-dope” fight, where he spent much of the early rounds on the ropes and let Foreman punch himself out.  Once he had exhausted Foreman, Ali came to life and knocked him out in the 8th round, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history and the greatest moment in his illustrious career.

As the movie points out, simply labeling the fight as the “rope-a-dope” doesn’t give Ali enough credit.  Ali had a strategy that confused and frustrated Foreman from the beginning, as he came out in the first round dancing, “floating like a butterfly”, and throwing more right leads (and landing a surprising number of them) than he had ever thrown before.   Then in the next few rounds, he’d balance his time on the ropes with his famous dancing and left jabs.   As a result of spending so much time on the ropes, he took an incredible beating, as Foreman gave him literally everything he had, repeatedly landing crushing blows to the body as well as occasional solid connections with Ali’s head.

Now, Ali has Parkinson’s disease, likely caused by blows to the head he received in his boxing career.  It has been documented that Ali had been diagnosed even before his last fight, the sad and pitiful bout with Larry Holmes.   When I watch replays of the Ali-Foreman fight now, I can’t help but wonder, each time Foreman lands a shot to his head, if that is the exact moment that triggered Parkinson’s in Ali.  It also makes me wonder when was the precise moment that whatever caused my instance of Parkinson’s occurred.

A major issue driving Parkinson’s research is the lack of known biomarkers for the disease.  Unlike heart disease, which has cholesterol and blood pressure measurements to diagnose pre-disease likelihood, there is nothing to determine if one person is more or less likely than another to get Parkinson’s disease.  Not understanding the causes makes the search for a cure all the more difficult. 

There is evidence to suggest that repeated blows to the head or long-term exposure to certain chemicals or pesticides may cause Parkinson’s disease.  But, other than not getting into the ring with Foreman, or not taking that job in the DDT manufacturing plant, there really isn’t anything anybody can tell you to do or not do to avoid Parkinson’s Disease. 

The most disturbing possibility, currently unproven, is that there may be a genetic link to Parkinson’s.  In my family, only my maternal grandfather had been afflicted with the disease, and he was a farmer in the 1950s and early 60s, when DDT was legal – so I hope, with no proof, that he used large amounts of the pesticide on his farm and that was how he contacted Parkinson’s.  The alternative, that there is some genetic component that was passed down to me, is of course too horrible to consider.  My greatest fear is that I’ll somehow pass this down to my children or their children.

I was officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s on March 25, 2005, but when and why I was first afflicted, when I first came down with the disease, remains a mystery.  Looking back, there are a couple of clues that suggest I had already had the disease for at least two years by the time I was diagnosed.

It was Christmas day, 2003, and we were celebrating at my in-laws house, when someone suggested that all the guys play a game of touch football.  I and my sons Jon and Nick went against my brother-in-law, Doug, and his sons Jason and Jordan.  My other brother-in-law, Mike, was neutral and played quarterback for both teams as the epic battle went on to a quickly forgettable and laughable resolution. One of the wives videotaped the proceedings, and when we sat down to watch, my wife asked very pointedly, “why are you running so weird?”

The videotape revealed that the pass patterns that I thought I ran I had actually waddled, as I shuffled along taking very short steps.  I knew I wasn’t going at full speed (full speed for my age, weight and conditioning being pretty slow), but I assumed I was running.  I had no answer for why the short shuffling that I had thought was normal running.  It was one of the most bizarre and unexplainable things I had ever experienced.  I looked like a bald and overweight duck.

The other clue also involved my brothers-in-law and another middle aged attempt at athletics.  In the spring of 2003, Doug had formed an adult, co-ed softball team and asked Deb and I to join.  I readily agreed, with the memories and glory of being the starting shortstop in my little league all-star game at age 12 playing like a highlight reel in my mind.  At some point before the first game, I realized that it had been about 25 years since I had really played (I had coached my sons rec-league teams, but hadn’t played in a while) so I was fairly nervous as I took to my position in left field.  The nervousness quickly faded, though, as I felt the familiarity of being on the field and had a couple of base-hits come my way.   As I made the routine throws from the outfield to second base, I remembered how fun the whole experience was, the feel of the glove on my hand and the smell of the grass, and for a moment, the butterflies faded and the years rolled away and I was a kid again.

This feeling lasted until the bottom of the second, when, with one out and a runner on first, I was due to bat for the first time.  Suddenly the butterflies were back.   I remember thinking, just focus on the ball, look it in until it is on my bat, and, maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll hit the damned thing.  Sure enough, the first underhanded slow pitch came in, high and a little bit short, and I reared back and swung.  Much to my pleasure I heard the aluminum twang of the bat connecting with the ball, and I watched as a sharp grounder headed in the direction of the opposing shortstop.  My thrill at hitting the ball was quickly dampened by the realization it was a custom made double play ball, a double play that would take us out of the inning.  I put my head down and started running as fast as I could to first base, hoping to beat out the relay and keep the inning alive.

Head down and running full speed to first base, I wasn’t even out of the batter’s box when I saw the sand of the infield rushing up to my face.  Before I could put my hands up to brace myself, I had fallen, face first in the dirt.  I tried to get up and run but I couldn’t summon the proper coordination to get my feet, which still thought they were running as they repeatedly scraped the infield sand, on the same page as my legs and my upper body, which were frantically trying to get me upright again.  Finally upright, I started running again, but soon my upper body was in front of my legs, and I stumbled onwards, finally losing my balance again, as it was first base itself that rushed up to greet me this time.  I don’t know what happened to the ball I hit, there had to be a couple of errors along the way, because the result of my long and tortuous journey ended up with me being safe literally by a nose, as I fell once again face first, this time smack in the center of the bag a split second before the ball arrived in the first baseman’s mitt. 

People from both teams came rushing to me to see if I was all right. I tried to laugh it off and make light of it, but it was weird. Again I had no explanation of what had happened.  I focused my attention on preventing a re-occurrence, and by consciously slowing myself down, the rest of the season went on without incident. I remember thinking that this must he what it means to be middle aged, that simple things like running that one in his youth took for granted, now had to be consciously controlled and managed .

Looking back on these events now, several years later, I recognize these as the early manifestation of Parkinson’s symptoms that in the future would become more pronounced and frequent.   The weird shuffling and shortening of strides observed in the football game would become later on how I walk, and the falling face first of the softball game would be a precursor of the balance problems I now deal with all the time, as my upper body is always getting ahead of my legs, which try desperately to keep up, resulting in my stumbling and bumbling throughout the day.

Having Parkinson’s disease is kind of like being sentenced to a punishment without knowing what crime you committed.  It’d be nice to know what I did or didn’t do that resulted in my conviction.  Not that it would make any difference. 

The good thing about having Parkinson’s is that, although I never was able to float like a butterfly,  I now have something in common with Muhammad Ali.   And while he may still be “the greatest”, I’m confident that I make a better duck.