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Amidst Alzheimer's battle, Bobby Beathard honored in Canton

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CANTON, Ohio -- Bobby Beathard is standing against a rust-colored stucco wall in a private room at Gervasi Vineyard, reflecting on his upbringing in Southern California. Attired in blue jeans, a black polo shirt and black running shoes trimmed in white, the 81-year-old mentions learning to swim at age 4 while growing up in El Segundo and its nearby beaches, then retraces how he gave up on competitive swimming when he briefly attended a landlocked military prep school as a teenager, then outlines how he chose to play football at LSU over UCLA and Oklahoma State but left during that summer because of homesickness.

When Beathard speaks with such detail while recalling the names of coaches and teammates -- not to mention their physical appearances and personalities -- you start to question whether he actually is in a daily battle with Alzheimer's. Then he repeats the same story or extends the same greeting minutes apart, as if telling it to you for the first time, and you realize the fight is real. But Beathard moves ahead with the same smile and grace and self-deprecating humor that makes him a favorite of everyone who knows him, including 70 invited guests who attended Saturday's Redskins-sponsored party to celebrate his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The moment was special for his family and friends because it marked the ultimate recognition for his nearly four-decade NFL career as a scout and general manager. But at times Beathard wondered what the fuss was about. His mind was telling him his bronze bust was already a part of the hallowed halls of Canton. Alzheimer's does that a person. It blurs the line between past and present, reality and make believe. And because Beathard had been enshrined in the Redskins Ring of Fame and made several trips to Canton for the inductions of coach Joe Gibbs, guard Russ Grimm and cornerback Darrell Green, all of whom he hired or drafted in Washington, perhaps he conflated the two things.

"As long as he thinks he's in, that's great," says son Kurt Beathard. "But it's good for us to know that, yes, he is in. I don't think it was a goal of his; it was just one of those things that is an accumulation of all of his hard work and love of the game. But we were hopeful it would happen when we could at least enjoy it and he knew everybody still and recognized them. That was very important."

The warning signs of Alzheimer's are incremental. Who doesn't forget a name or a date or an incident? Who doesn't repeat himself? Should that really be cause for concern? Christine Beathard wondered as much when her husband did these things. Bobby was always the picture of physical and mental health. He ran marathons, claimed world body-surfing titles for his age group, and rode bikes long distances across rugged terrain. His mind? Sports Illustrated once called him the smartest man in the NFL, as he oversaw teams that won 10 division titles, reached seven conference finals and won two Super Bowls in four appearances.

Then, the two joined 12 other couples for a bike trip through Europe for Bobby's 72nd birthday. They would pedal through Amsterdam and Holland and Belgium during the day while enjoying the cities at night. Bobby always had a GPS-like memory when it came to directions, but more and more he struggled to retrace his steps. He was turning right when he should have gone left, and landmarks that should have been prominent in his mind were like figments of his imagination.

When the pair returned home, one of Christine's closest friends suggested Bobby might be suffering from the onset of Alzheimer's. The friend knew the signs because she had seen them in her mother, who suffers from the disease. How dare you! Christine thought to herself.

"I was so angry with her for even bringing something like that up," Christine says. "Bobby? Alzheimer's? That's ridiculous. But she was right. I didn't know then, but all the little pieces of the puzzle in my mind started to come together after what she said. It takes you about a year or two of getting irritated with someone and saying, 'I just told you that' before you realize there is a pattern."

Bobby, who retired from the NFL in 2001, had not been officially diagnosed at that point, but sometimes you don't need to be told. You just know. Hoping to make the most of the time Bobby had remaining before his memory became even fuzzier, Christine recommended they move from their oceanfront home in San Diego to Tennessee, where they could be close to Bobby's children and grandchildren.

"He loves his kids and grandkids more than anything," Christine says. "When I asked him about moving, he came back that afternoon and said, 'Are you serious? OK.' Two days later I called a real estate agent and we put the house on the market. Then we flew back to Tennessee and started looking for a place."

Two years later, Christine arranged for Bobby to see an internist specializing in aging diseases. Bobby tensed at any mention of a failing memory, but he agreed to be tested. For someone who was known for being so mentally sharp, the test was horrible not only physically but emotionally. It was two hours long during which he was asked the same questions five minutes apart. When the test ended he was taken to a waiting room to await the results.

"Bobby never gets nervous about things. He's just so comfortable with himself," says Christine. "But after the test, he came out and sat around with me for an hour while they reviewed the findings. His hands were shaking -- I had never seen that before -- and they were cold. It broke my heart."

If a person can be simultaneously the same yet different, Beathard is him. The man who sat in a chair in his San Diego driveway so he could talk to people as they passed by is the same man who sits on his front porch in Franklin, Tenn., so he can talk to people. The man who treated cleaning crews and executive assistants and the equipment staff with the same respect he showed owners, coaches and players is the same man who has a smile and a kind word for hotel attendant or waitress or store clerk.

"I've never seen someone so happy to be around people," Christine says. "Bobby is like a sunflower. He's just so happy that he will find the light in everything."

And yet ... the man who was most alive in the water -- who actually negotiated a contract with then-agent Bruce Allen while body surfing in the Pacific -- has not been swimming in two years. Not because he doesn't want to, but because Alzheimer's causes him to believe he already has done so. The man who loved to bike across mountainous roads no longer does so because Alzheimer's often creates anxiety among those afflicted when they get out of their immediate environment. Hence the man who loved to travel his entire life does not like to travel anymore because he finds himself in places he doesn't know or remember.

Beathard initially "dreaded" the idea of coming to Canton because of the anxiety. However, Giants Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor happened to be on his flight, and that set Beathard at ease and erased his fears. He was comfortable and back in his element. For as much damage as Alzheimer's can do to short-term memory, Beathard's long-term memory -- including battles against Taylor -- remain strong. Which is why the week in Canton has been so good for him.

"As tired as he's been with all the things taking place, I've never seen him so excited to see these people and to be able to reintroduce him to these people," says Casey. "He's on Cloud Nine, and the good thing is every day is like a new day for him. When I saw him on the field before the pre-game introductions for the Hall of Fame game, he was really alive. Like, 'This is cool. I'm back in the middle of it. I know these guys. This is what I do.' It was exciting for him. More than anything he was excited because he was going around seeing people that he basically grew up scouting and drafting and working with. Just being able to reintroduce himself, he was like a kid in a candy store."

Rather than address the live audience in Tom Benson Stadium, Beathard and his family had the Hall play a recorded induction speech. And while it's possible he would have lost his way, he could not have been more present during the week. Christine marveled as he called off the colleges that many of the Hall of Famers attended as they passed by. She beamed as his self-deprecating humor returned, like when people congratulated him on being part of the most exclusive club in the NFL and he said, "They had to fill the spot with someone," or "They ran out of candidates." She laughed when Allen, now the president of the Redskins, said he considered wearing flip-flops to the party in honor of Bobby.

There's no way to know how much of the week Beathard will ultimately remember, but there's no question his family will never forget it. As son Kurt said: "It's great that he's going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the best part is he's a Hall of Fame dad. Always has been."

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter @JimTrotter_NFL.

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