Mark Richt on having Parkinson’s Disease: 'The worst thing you can do is go in the tank'
So did some fans who crossed paths with the former Georgia and Miami coach in recent months at public events.
“Is your back hurt?
“Are you OK, coach?
“Can I help you?
Some people were more blunt: “What’s going on?”
Richt had a second hip surgery last year so he told them that’s what it was, but there were symptoms he had seen going years back.
Richt, 61, spoke Wednesday night in a room at the Westin Charlotte after a long day at the ACC Kickoff event he worked as an analyst for the ACC Network.
It came three weeks after he went public with a tweet that he has Parkinson’s Disease,
which the Mayo Clinic describes as a progressive nervous system disorder.
His wife, Katharyn, urged him to tell people if they ask. He decided instead to blast it out on his personal Twitter account to his 392,000 followers
“It was a little bit therapeutic to do it,” Richt said. “You feel like you’re not necessarily living a lie but you’re sitting there telling people something other than the truth.”
“The worst thing you can do is go in the tank,” Richt said. “You’ve got to keep a positive attitude, you’ve got to keep stretching.”
The disease affects movement and produces tremors and can cause stiffness and slowing of movement. People have told him boxing will help.
“I feel really good,” Richt said. “I’m doing things that I obviously should have been doing. What was it, Mickey Mantle, who said if I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself. I’m eating better. I’m working out. I’m getting sleep. I’m doing all the things I didn’t do as a coach. It probably didn’t help everything. I feel good. I can do almost anything. I just move slower.”
He experienced extreme fatigue when he retired from coaching at the end of the 2018 season at Miami.
When he called the plays, he noticed it took him longer to get the words out on the headset.
Even going back to his Georgia days, his energy was sapped.
“Working 15 years at Georgia can do that, too,” Richt said with a laugh.
More recently, he’s noticed a slight tremor in his left hand.
Walking takes focus. He needs to think about taking a longer stride or he shuffles his feet.
Moving, stretching and taking hot showers, he said, keep his muscles from getting rigid.
Last year, he noticed it took longer to button his shirts for his TV work and put his jacket on. Katharyn helped, but Wednesday he dressed himself.
It takes longer now to stand up. He noticed it when on the floor with his grandkids.
“I was thinking, I was just getting old, what the heck, but I was getting up in stages,” he said.
Almost a million people in the U.S. live with Parkinson’s with about 60,000 Americans diagnosed each year, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. About 10 million worldwide are living with the disease.
One of those is Richt’s father Lou, who is in his 80s.
Even before Mark Richt got the diagnosis, Richt suspected that’s what he was going to be told.
“The doctor told me pretty much what I already knew,” he told viewers on the ACC Network on Wednesday morning. “Usually by the time you know you have it, you’ve probably had it maybe as long as five to 10 years.”
Richt is starting his third season as an analyst for the network. He had a production meeting at 8 a.m. and went on the air at 9 a.m. for the day’s coverage.
He spoke some 10 hours later to a small group of writers including three who covered him during his 15 seasons at Georgia. He said the ACC Network lightened his load.
“They didn’t want to wear me out,” Richt said. “I’ve talked to my producer about it. Let’s just do it and I’ll let you know. Or if you see me and you’re like, ‘Coach, you’re struggling,’ or ‘you look fatigued,’ we’ll work around it…It doesn’t matter how fast I get in the chair. It’s when you get in the chair, can you still communicate?”
Richt said he’s “very independent,” now including driving, although the ACC Network sent a driver for the three-hour drive from Athens to Charlotte.
Richt won nearly 10 games a season at Georgia bringing the program its first SEC title in 20 years in 2002 and another in 2005. There was a Sugar Bowl win in the 2007 season and two more trips to the league championship game in 2011 and 2012, but suffered losses both time including five yards short against Alabama.
If that had turned out differently, he would have been in good position to win a national championship, but the 2015 season was his last.
Georgia decided to move on from the popular coach and moved quickly to hire Kirby Smart.
Richt went 145-51 at Georgia, but wasn’t done coaching, taking over at his alma mater, Miami, where he had a three-season run before retiring.
Richt said he’s in Stage One of Parkinson’s — which he’s doing his best to stay at--when symptoms are considered mild and don’t interfere with daily activities.
“The one thing I told him after he put out the tweet and told everybody is I just told him how proud I was to call him Coach and how his stance and his eternal perspective just exudes the way he is dealing with by all accounts a very, very tough thing with his illness,” former Georgia tight end Benjamin Watson said. “His testimony through it is a witness to so many people. I just told him that obviously I’m praying for him and love him, but just that I’m proud to say that I played for him just by the way he and his wife and family are handling this.”
Richt chalked up some of movement issues to a slow rehab from surgery on his right hip. He went to see a doctor about his motor symptoms.
“The more I read about it, I was kind of a poster child for the symptoms,” he said.
He was sent to a neurologist and underwent brain scans and then a specialist in Augusta.
“Within a couple of minutes he said you’ve got it,” Richt said. “I said how do you know? He said when you stood up and shook my hand, I knew it.”
The two or so months it took to confirm what he suspected took away some of the “shock.”
Richt is keeping up a vigorous public schedule.
He was surprised at the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville in June when Bobby Bowden, the former Florida State coach who Richt credits to bringing him to his deep Christian faith in 1986, surprised him on stage. Bowden, 91, told the Tallahassee Democrat on Wednesday that he has a terminal medical condition that he didn’t disclose.
Richt believes that his Parkinson’s Disease is a “momentary light affliction compared to the glory of what’s to come. We’re here on Earth, it’s temporal. Heaven is forever.”
Richt spoke at a gathering of football teams near Jackson, Tenn., last week and also had events in Nashville and Knoxville and visited a former player to try to cheer him up.
“By the end of the week, I was tired and I felt it,” he said.
He stopped by David Pollack’s charity golf tournament at the Georgia Club in early July.
Days later, Richt announced his diagnosis.
In his tweet on July 1, Richt wrote he had been “waddling around lately and people have asked me what’s wrong.”
Richt,isn’t planning to slow down much.
He has a book 'Make The Call' coming out Aug. 31 and he will be a guest speaker Monday night at an event at Prince Avenue Christian School. He’s planning to take his family to Colorado for a return vacation.
Parkinson’s, though, is a formidable opponent.
Its symptoms “usually begin gradually and get worse over time,” according to the NIH’s National Institute of Aging. “As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty walking and talking. They may also have mental and behavioral changes, sleep problems, depression, memory difficulties, and fatigue.”
Actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with the disease 30 years ago at age 29 and he and his foundation continue today to search for a cure and improved therapies for the disease.
Richt said he’s been approached by someone interested in him bringing more awareness to the disease.
Georgia fans have lived and many prayed for Richt when he had heart attack in October 2019 and they were there to offer support when Katharyn was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2006.
“A lot of well-wishes and a lot of people praying,” said Richt, who figures his text messages numbered at least 300 this time. “A lot of people who either have it or a family member has it.”
They were ready to welcome him home when he posted in March on Twitter that he and Katharyn bought a house in Athens to be close to their family while spending time still at their two-bedroom beachfront condo in Destin, Fla. Richt said part of the return to Athens was that he had a feeling Parkinson’s would be diagnosed.
His parents, son Jon and daughter Anya and grandchildren Jadyn and Zoe live in Athens as does his brother, two sisters and nieces and nephews.
Richt invited Georgia tight ends coach Todd Hartley over for lunch to his new house, but he hasn’t had a chance to take him up on the offer. Richt hired Hartley four different times, as a student assistant, grad assistant and to oversee recruiting at Georgia and then tight end coach/recruiting coordinator at Miami.
They keep in touch via texts or on the phone and they exchanged messages when Richt made his announcement.
“That stoic demeanor that he always put out there never really told the true story of the competitive fire inside his belly,” Hartley said. “He is probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met. I know he’ll see this as just another opponent, another team, another face he has to gameplan for and get ready for it. He’ll attack it like he attacked his foes throughout his career. He’ll go in there wanting to win this battle like he did everything else. I know he’ll come out on top. That’s just how he is. He’s a fighter, doesn’t quit.”
Hartley, whose parents were divorced, said Richt was a stabilizing force for him as a young adult.
“He has unbelievable perspective,” Hartley said. “That’s one thing that a lot of people in our profession don’t have is perspective and he has what it takes to beat this thing for sure.”
Richt has a 50-minute routine includes going to the second floor of his house to hit the weights and treadmill and walking up and down the stairs three times. He does some Yoga and reads the Bible.
Forget 40 times. Richt times how long it takes him to put his shoes and socks on. He first has to untie them. He said he can do it in 31 seconds.
“I think it’s a Guinness World Record,” he said. “I guarantee you none of you guys can do that.”
Richt said Katharyn is handing it well.
“She’s up for whatever,” he said. “For better or worse. For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. That means something to us.”
Richt’s goal is simple.
“Keep living life,” he said, “keep enjoying every precious moment of it.”
And, he said, “I don’t mind people praying for me. I’d like that. Praying for a good course of action and praying for a cure.”
© Copyright Gannett 2021