Ex-Colorado coach Bill McCartney on dementia: Is this really happening to me?


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FEDERAL HEIGHTS, Colo. – Bill McCartney can’t really believe what’s happening to his mind. He has dementia. And it scares him to death at times.

“I’m still in denial a little bit,” McCartney said. “I’m going, ‘Is this really happening to me?'”

In a recent interview with USA TODAY Sports, the former University of Colorado football coach gave a candid assessment of his own mortality and condition. He called his memory problems “frightening” and “sobering.”

He said he’s visited senior living facilities as a possible destination for himself but doesn’t “want to go out that way.” He can’t remember things that happened in the last several hours. He also forgot his appointment for this interview – at 8 a.m. on a Thursday at a supermarket cafe outside of Denver. He was late by about 35 minutes after being reminded of the appointment he set the night before.

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“Nobody expects to experience something like this, at least I didn’t,” McCartney said. ”So now I don’t know quite how to discuss it or describe it, other than I did not know I was meeting you here. I may have told you I was, but I don’t remember that. If you hadn’t called (to remind), I wouldn’t be here.”

This is not to embarrass McCartney, 77, or tarnish his legacy as Colorado’s greatest football coach. McCartney agreed to talk about it to give an update on his condition, which was announced by CU and his family last year as late-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. McCartney also wanted to help raise awareness about it and has advice for those dealing with similar issues: Have faith and pray.

It also helps to keep your spirits up, as he does despite his frustrations.

McCartney doesn’t get angry about his condition, unlike many who struggle with Alzheimer’s, a disease that attacks the brain and gets progressively worse. More than 5 million Americans are living with it, and there currently is no cure for it.

McCartney just gets flustered with the loss of his short-term memory and doesn’t want to let people down because of it. For example, he apologized profusely for being late.

“Because when you’re a coach, you can never, ever come late,” he said. “Because if you ever come late, you give those kids a license to say, ‘Coach, we had a meeting, and you were 15 minutes late.’ So I’ve never come late to anything. Yet here I am.”

`God’s gift to me’

His dementia has gotten worse over time. But it does not affect all of his memory, nor his spirit and faith. His long-term recall remains strong. Although it took a few minutes to warm up, he gave an engaging and articulate interview on a wide range of topics about his childhood and his coaching career.

“He is upbeat, he’s positive, he’s hopeful, and he has more good days than bad days,” said his daughter, Kristy, who lives with him. “He’s doing well, but it’s a struggle.”

Physically, he doesn’t look much older than when he surprisingly announced his retirement from CU in 1994. “He’s doing great physically, and he’s doing great socially,” McCartney’s son Mike said. “His long-term memory is good. His short-term memory is a major issue.”

Bill McCartney rides a mountain bike for exercise and drove an automobile to this interview, where he wore Colorado Buffaloes gear and waved to people who recognized him. 

 “What if we talked about the 1990 national championship game?” this reporter asked.

“I know we won, you know,” McCartney said. “I don’t remember who we played.”

“Notre Dame, Orange Bowl,” the reporter replied.

“Lou Holtz maybe,” McCartney said, referring to Notre Dame’s coach in that game. “Yeah, that’s not fresh. If we discussed it, I could say, ‘Oh, yeah.’ But it doesn’t just jump out at me.”

It didn’t jump out at him at first. But it did soon enough, after he was asked more about his career and became encouraged with his command over those memories.

He soon remembered much about the January 1991 Orange Bowl, including how it ended with a controversial clipping penalty against Notre Dame to preserve the win for CU and a share of the national championship.

And he remembers what happened when he led Colorado in a game at Michigan in 1994, a homecoming for him as a Michigan native and former Michigan assistant coach.

“We went back there and beat ’em, 27-26, I think it was,” he said.

Colorado won the game on a 64-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass as time expired – one of the greatest plays in college football history.

“That play right there was like God’s gift to me,” McCartney said. “That’s how I saw it.”

‘A way out of this’

A born-again Christian, McCartney long has been outspoken about his faith. He can recite Bible verses with ease and relies on them to help him through this. In 1990, he started Promise Keepers, a men’s Christian organization. Just hours after this interview, he attended a Promise Keepers event in his honor with his sons in Denver.

“I can’t talk in this depth without explaining my faith,” McCartney said. “See, I believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. OK? So in Matthew 7:7, these are his words: He says, `Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door will be opened.’ Another passage says, `The effectual fervent of prayer of a repentant man availeth much.’ So I believe there’s a way out of this.”

His family has sought help from clinical trials – experimental treatments that may or may not help him. The exact causes of Alzheimer’s are unknown. He doesn’t recall memory problems running in the family.

“I’m 77 years old,” he said. “My mom lived to be 103, and my dad lived to be 87. I don’t know that they ever went through this.”

But he does wonder if head trauma in football had something to do with it. He remembers being knocked unconscious when he played college football for Missouri under coach Dan Devine.

“I think I would be more concerned if it happened more frequently,” McCartney said. “Here’s what football does: It teaches a boy to be a man. You say, ‘How does it do that?’ Well, what if you line up across from a guy who’s bigger, stronger, faster and tougher than you are? What do you do? Do you stay and play? Or do you turn and run? That’s what football does. You’re always going to come up against somebody who’s better than you are. That’s what life is. Life is getting knocked down and getting back up and getting back in the game.”

The same can be said about his condition. He has faced no bigger foe.

“Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease,” said Heather Snyder, senior director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association. “There’s currently no way to stop or slow its progression or prevent it. It’s the sixth-leading cause of the death in the United States, and it’s the only cause of death in the top 10 that we don’t have a way to stop or prevent its progression.”

‘The fourth quarter’

McCartney’s four children have helped him after Lyndi, his wife of 50 years, died in 2013. Kristy McCartney, whose son Derek is a senior linebacker for CU, said her mom noticed her father’s emerging memory problems maybe 10 or more years ago. Then it got worse, and last year they decided to announce his condition as a way to protect him and so people would understand if he didn’t remember things.  Though she lives with him, Kristy McCartney said she doesn’t have to take care of him.

“He’s always happy, he’s always in a good mood, he’s always just so kind and sweet,” she said. “I would say he’s mellowed a lot. So in that sense, he’s changed a little bit. He is just so tenderhearted, is what I’ve noticed the most.”

There’s also a certain silver lining to his dark, short-term memory cloud. McCartney gets disappointed in himself when he is aware he has forgotten appointments or thinks his memory has let people down in some way. But then he forgets that he forgot. And so there’s no dwelling on that disappointment.  

“I have what’s the early stages of dementia, so I don’t know what to expect,” McCartney said. “I don’t’ know how it accelerates or moves slowly. I’m 77 years old. My mom lived to be 103. My dad lived to be 87. I’m hoping you’ve got to play your best football in the fourth quarter. I’m hoping to live out the best part of my life in the fourth quarter. My time might be short. I don’t know.”

At the end of this interview, McCartney again expressed disappointment in forgetting the appointment. The reporter told him it’s no problem and reminded him his long-term memory is solid, as is his command of other thoughts and beliefs.

“Good, that’s encouraging to me,” he said. “I benefited from this dialogue because it gives me the picture that I’m not far gone. … This is helpful to hear you interpret it that way, because it’s frightening to be soberly facing the (question of), `Where is this going?’”

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