Sports broadcaster Jim Nantz watched his father battle Alzheimer's while he achieved great success in his own career, and reflects on this emotional journey in his new book. Here, an excerpt from chapter one of "Always by My Side: A Father's Grace and a Sports Journey Unlike Any Other."
May 26, 1995, had been shaping up as “just another day at the office” — albeit an office whose desk faces a television camera, a monitor bank, and a bay window that, on this one Friday afternoon, was set up to overlook the 18th green at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.
My parents, Doris and Jim, had come up from Houston to visit me, and as a bonus they got to cheer on one of my college roommates, Blaine McCallister, who was playing in the PGA Tour’s grand old tournament, the Colonial. I was also blessed to be surrounded by my CBS “family” — in particular, Ken Venturi, our analyst, who sat to my right; the legendary producer/director Frank Chirkinian, who was, as we say in TV, “in my ear”; and Frank’s protégé, associate director Lance Barrow, who sat just to Chirkinian’s left in the production truck.
There I was, thirty-six years old, and about to celebrate my tenth anniversary at CBS Sports, the very network where I had envisioned myself working ever since I was in grade school. In my first decade, I had already been privileged to broadcast virtually every sport the network had to offer. In short, I was fulfilling my lifelong aspiration to narrate the great stories of American sports.
What would I have done with my life had I not been fortunate enough to defy the odds and land behind CBS’s anchor desk? Well, perhaps I might have been content to sell them that desk, joining my father in his office-furniture wholesale business. That was always the fallback plan, something I could do to help make life easier for Dad in his later years. Now, though, I was developing a far better father-son business model — one that centered on the three things, besides his family, that Dad loved most: traveling, meeting people, and sports. My schedule was growing more and more hectic. Wherever I turned, the demands on my time continued to increase. So I thought, why not enlist my father as my full-time, on-the-road business partner? He had plenty of management experience, and no one had better people skills. We’d work as a team, traveling together regularly, just as we did when I was growing up.
“Everywhere you go, people absolutely love you. Besides, there’s no one whose advice I value more,” I told him as I tried to pitch this concept. “Dad, there will be plenty for you to do, and besides, I need you!” I must have told him on a dozen other occasions — and I really felt that way. No matter how I worded my argument, he would invariably deflect it with a noncommittal, “We’ll see, Son.”
My father’s fierce independence didn’t surprise me. He never wanted anything handed to him — or even perceived to be handed to him — from anyone, including me. For the time being, Dad was more than content to remain a “free agent.” Whenever our schedules allowed, he’d join me at a big football game that I was calling — or the Final Four or the Masters. Then, when it was time for me to go on the air, he would stop watching the event — and simply stare at me. Somehow, he could do this for hours on end — sitting silently just off camera, listening on a spare headset as the producer orchestrated all the different elements that bring a telecast to life. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him beaming with pride, that beatific smile etched onto the world’s friendliest face, as if he could hardly believe that all of this was really happening to his only son.
“Oh, my God!” I muttered reflexively when my father entered the tower that day with about three minutes to air. I’d never seen Dad like this: His eyes were disoriented. His face looked confused. His speech was halting and barely coherent. We rushed to get him something to drink and some towels. Dad was a “young” sixty-six — vibrant, active, and strong. But on this sweltering afternoon, the heat and humidity — and his haste to make it back to the tower in time for the start of the broadcast — had left him seemingly overcome by exhaustion and dehydration. Instead of taking a few sips of water, as he might usually do, I watched him gulp down two full bottles.
“Listen, Dad, why don’t you go over to our CBS hospitality suite in the clubhouse. Cool off, catch your breath, and then come back here,” I told him. “We’ve got all weekend together, so you take your time — there’s no rush.” Normally, he would have waved off my suggestion, insisted that he was “just fine, Son,” and propped himself into his regular front-row seat so he could fixate on my every move. Instead, he nodded slowly and turned for the door at the back of the tower and started down the steps.
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And so for Ken Venturi and all the crew, this is Jim Nantz, saying so long from Fort Worth, Texas. We’ll see you again tomorrow at three Eastern time on CBS.
The moment I finished signing off, Frank Chirkinian gently instructed, “Jimmy, don’t get off headset yet.” Frank’s booming bark was now modulated to a solicitous whisper as he asked me, “Are you sitting down?” Instantly, it dawned upon me — and on Ken Venturi, who was at my side, also listening — that my father had not returned to the tower. I had assumed that once Dad had gone inside, he probably made some new friends — as he invariably does — and decided to stick around, tell some jokes, and watch the broadcast with them from the comfort of the air-conditioned clubhouse.
“First, let me assure you that your dad is just fine, Jimmy,” Frank said. “But he was taken to a nearby hospital. Apparently, as he left your tower, he collapsed at the base of the stairs. Your mother insisted that I not tell you while you were on the air. I’ve been getting regular updates for the last ninety minutes, and we’ve got a car waiting to take you to see him. Now, Son — don’t you worry. Everything is going to be all right.”
At times such as this, Chirkinian instinctively referred to me as “Son,” and he and Venturi were among several individuals who were important father-figures to me — and they remain so to this day. The one saving grace for my father was that the 18th hole at Colonial was directly across from a first-aid tent, and just a few hundred yards from where ambulances were parked on the other side of the clubhouse. The paramedics stabilized my father and rushed him to Harris Methodist Hospital, less than ten minutes away.
Kenny and Frank both offered to go with me, but I knew that Mom was there, and I figured that in this situation too many people in a small hospital room might overwhelm my dad. Quickly, I packed my briefcase and bolted down the same sixteen steps that had fatefully altered the course of my father’s life and mine.
When I reached his bedside, Dad’s eyes brightened — he still had his gift for communicating by eye contact — and he tried to speak. But the left side of his face was droopy, and it caused him to slur his speech. I couldn’t make out every word, but the gist of it was clear: He was apologizing for putting us through this, and he was sorry for having ruined all of the great plans we had made for this weekend. This was so typical of Dad — to be concerned about everyone in the room but himself.
My father had suffered a mini-stroke (technically called a transient ischemic attack, or TIA). But this episode was probably the latest in a series of setbacks that we had failed to recognize for what they were, dating back perhaps to the untold amount of head trauma he had incurred playing football in the era of leather helmets. In fact, there had been numerous other warning signals. For instance, my sister, Nancy, recalled a recent incident on a vacation, when Dad went to the hotel lobby for a quick cup of coffee and forgot what room he was staying in. We also remembered Dad’s sudden difficulty in correctly pronouncing the name of our longtime next-door neighbor. We had laughed off these awkward moments to put my father at ease. But these and other cognitive data points were hiding in plain sight.
In the weeks following Fort Worth, my dad’s condition improved. His speech returned and the partial paralysis of his left arm also disappeared. Still, something was amiss. We became more conscious of his inability to “connect the dots,” and our suspicions and fears mounted. Finally, we took my father to be evaluated by a prominent neurologist, Dr. Stanley Appel. He confirmed the clinical diagnosis that several other physicians had previously made. It was the single word we all had come to dread most: Alzheimer’s.
With foresight and sensitivity, Dr. Appel had arranged for a specially trained social worker to brief and console my mother in an adjoining room. Meantime, the renowned specialist, upon whom we had unfairly pinned so much hope, was not having an easy time convincing me that we were out of miracles. “There are a few medications that might slow this down in the short term,” he told me, in deliberate tones and measured words that were perfectly appropriate to this life-changing moment. “There’s nothing that can stop the inevitable.” Just then, we heard my mother’s anguished wailing; it penetrated through the walls and sent shivers up my spine. Dr. Appel reached over compassionately and took my hand in his. “Jim, she’s going to need you to be strong now and take charge as the leader of the family,” he said firmly. “The one thing I can tell you is that soon you’re going to have to make some important — and frankly, very painful — decisions.”
My dad was the personification of hope, confidence, and success — and I like to think that he passed those winning attributes on to me. But this joyful, can-do attitude also came with a flip side: I was simply not programmed for failure.
“You hang in there, Dad,” I kept thinking to myself. “We’ll figure this out and fix it.”
If I was aggressive enough ... creative enough ... persistent enough, I would find a drug, a treatment, a therapy; if not a cure, then at least something to buy us some more time. My old basketball mentality surfaced to suggest that all I had to do was come off the bench, hit a few three-pointers, and we’d be right back in the game. It didn’t matter that the doctor had declared, “Game over!” I refused to concede defeat. I was in a classic state of denial.
Months passed before it finally sank in that there would be no last-second game-winning heroics — even though I would more than gladly have paid any price or made any sacrifice for them. These months took years off our lives. Everything was playing out exactly as the medical experts had called it — including the extreme toll that Alzheimer’s takes on a patient’s family.
From 1995 to 2000, my mother and sister bore the brunt of tending to Dad with a devotion that bordered on saintliness. I made it to Houston at least once a month, tying in my CBS travels with a stop in Texas either on my way to an event or on my way back home to Connecticut. Eventually, even the most stoic among us had to wonder, how long can one reasonably expect a petite woman to drag her 220-pound husband up and down the stairs? How can a daughter, busy raising an infant son, effectively handle the demands of her own family life while being on call at a moment’s notice? We had full-time care, but it never seemed to be enough to satisfy every need. Would there ever be a second’s rest, when everyone could stop worrying that Dad might turn on the stove and accidentally scald himself — or, for that matter, burn down the entire neighborhood?
Only someone who has had to deal first-hand with Alzheimer’s can fully appreciate the grim litany of vile and demeaning tasks that become part of a caregiver’s routine. Yet these physical chores may not even constitute the worst of what a family must endure. In the early stages of the disease, you tend to focus on covering up for embarrassing public gaffes so that you can preserve your loved one’s good name and maintain his reputation. Later, when there are no more public moments, the ongoing struggle shifts to preserving his human dignity, even when he can no longer control his own basic bodily functions. Finally, as Dr. Appel had warned me from the start, one is forced to make brutal end-game decisions.
Mom’s love for the man she cherished “in sickness and in health” remained inexhaustible, but after five grueling years, her physical and emotional resources were almost fully depleted. Nancy was also totally spent. Clearly, something had to change. Caring for Dad at home was no longer a viable option. Intellectually, the decision to place my father into a special-care facility made perfect sense; in fact, it should have been implemented much earlier. Emotionally, however, everything was suddenly surreal: One moment, I was all set to take Dad on a whirlwind tour of the sports world, and now I was kicking him out of his own house. What kind of loving son could even think of doing such a thing to his father? Ultimately, it was the loving son who realized that he was on the brink of losing his mother, as well.
Just as Dad never sought sympathy or pity, neither did I. So every Saturday and Sunday, I would soldier on, seemingly without a care in the world other than “Would so-and-so sink that putt?” Or, “Would XYZ advance to the Sweet 16?” CBS Sports wasn’t paying me to share my problems with our viewers. For many of them, we were the ones who were providing an escape. Being on the road and so far removed from the day-to-day problems in Houston was frustrating. Knowing how much Mom and Nancy were suffering only added to my already overwhelming sense of guilt. I had long gotten past the denial stage — I knew that Alzheimer’s was tantamount to a death sentence — but I was becoming increasingly despondent.
In June of 2000, I was in Carmel, California, where I hoped to snap out of my emotional funk by spending time in one of my favorite places. The sounds of the surf, the scent of the salt air, and the bracing coolness of the ocean waters stirred fond memories. Both of my parents loved the beach, and they had passed that appreciation on to me. To this day, when I need a tranquil setting in which to ponder life’s difficult questions, I immediately head out to the town beach that’s only a mile from my house and walk along the water’s edge. This time, however, no serenity or healing was to be found. Instead, I found myself trudging aimlessly up and down the sand at Carmel. I was, in a word, “lost.”
After a few days, though, I started making peace — albeit an uneasy one — with the plan to move my father into a private-care facility. Had we “given up” on him? That issue haunted me emotionally. Only when I concluded that, no, we had not given up on Dad, we were doing what had to be done, did my pervasive gloom begin to lift. I raced inside to call my mother, begging her and Nancy to take the next flight out for a much-needed break.
“What about your father?” Mom asked me. “Who’s going to look after him?”
“I am!” I replied. “I’m on my way to Houston. You two come out to Pebble Beach. I’ve already rented this cottage, so stay for as long as you wish.”
I returned to Texas that evening knowing that it would be the last time I would ever experience being in my old house with Dad. For five days, I watched him, I fed him, I bathed him, I dressed him, I entertained him, and I protected him. In short, I did everything for my father that one would expect a parent to do for a very young child — everything that Mom and Nancy had been doing on a daily basis for the past five years.
I have mentally replayed these scenes countless times. It’s the eve of the Super Bowl — Saturday night, February 3, 2007 — and they’re churning again, like the loud waves of the angry ocean beyond my hotel balcony. With the rest of the family joining me here in Miami, I feel my father’s absence acutely. But he remains bedridden in Houston, staring at the ceiling. He continues clinging to life, yet completely oblivious to it.
Such is the pernicious pathology of Alzheimer’s. It ravages the human brain the way a computer virus attacks hard drives, disabling programs and erasing all stored memory. Earlier in the day, I had managed to get out for a run along the beach. Once again, the magic of the ocean conjured up memories, and I thought back to that time, only a dozen years earlier, when I really believed that I was going to have it all: my dream job, traveling from championship to championship with CBS Sports — with Dad, my hero and inspiration, by my side, to share my world and all the excitement, satisfaction, and fun that I’ve been privileged to enjoy.
This Super Bowl marked the beginning of a journey that took me from Miami to Atlanta for the Final Four — then on to Augusta for the Masters. This would have been the ultimate father-and-son road trip, and in a profound way, it was. Now it was time to celebrate a man who’d spent his first sixty-six years on this earth living life the way it should be lived. Over the course of this journey, I reflected on the legacy that my father had lovingly bequeathed to me as I continued to seek his grace through the goodness of others.
In my mind and in my heart, Dad remains always by my side.
Excerpted with permission from "Always by My Side: A Father's Grace and a Sports Journey Unlike Any Other" (Gotham) by Jim Nantz.
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