Q&A: Forrest Gregg tries to stay active despite Parkinson's disease

Forrest Gregg had a Hall of Fame career for the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, forging a reputation as one of the game's greatest offensive linemen as he won three Super Bowl titles. He then had a coaching career with top jobs in the NFL, CFL and college football that included leading his alma mater, SMU, and one Super Bowl appearance with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Gregg, 79, retired from coaching in 1995, but three years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Gregg has gone public with his illness, and this week he attended the World Parkinson Conference, talking about his battle with the disease. He has been working with a Facebook support group, More Than Motion.

The Colorado Springs, Colo., resident talked to NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley on Thursday about his discovery of Parkinson's, how he has coped with the illness and why he has no regrets about his NFL playing career.

You've been involved in the World Parkinson Congress this week. How have the speaking engagements gone for you?

We've gathered a lot of information. We've talked to a lot of people. It's good to be able to talk to somebody who has Parkinson's. People can exchange ideas and things that will help each other. It's been very enlightening for me. I really appreciate the More Than Motion Parkinson's group. More Than Motion people brought me here. They've been great. I really appreciate them.

You were first diagnosed about three years ago. When did your symptoms first start showing up?

I really didn't know anything about Parkinson's until I was basically diagnosed. I knew someone who had it one time, and it wasn't a very good ending to the story. I started having some tremors in my left hand. I would be doing something with my right hand and my left hand would tremor. I had no idea what was wrong. I went to my family doctor, who said he didn't know enough about these problems to diagnose what I had. He said he would send me up to a doctor up in Denver -- (Dr. Rajeev Kumar) a neurologist -- and let him see what he could find out. So (my wife and I) went up there and he had me do some exercises, voice things and few other tests. At the end, he called my wife and I into his office. He said, "Well, I don't have good news for you, but you have Parkinson's disease." Neither (my wife nor I) knew anything about it to speak of. We started looking into getting some brochures and getting some stuff from the doctors that would help us a little bit. I went through some lectures about Parkinson's, about medicine that was valuable, that type of thing. That's how I found out. I've kind of been able to hold my own. That's a good story because the last time I went to my doctor, he said, "You're doing well." I said, "How well am I doing?" He said, "You're holding your own. That's a win."

Forrest, you seem to be staying very active right now despite the Parkinson's.

That's one of the keys to it, I think. I work out about two or three times a week, and I have a series of exercises that I do. That has helped me. When I can't work out three times a week, I work out two times or once -- or what I've got left of the week. It's pretty time-consuming, but I try to stay on the straight and narrow as much as I can, because I feel like that's what has helped me the most. I have a series of things I do. It usually takes me about an hour and a half, close to two hours to do my series of workout stuff. It has helped me. Balance is one of the exercises. That's probably the thing I have the most trouble with. I do as much as I possibly can to help that.

You have been a crusader for Parkinson's. What made you go public with your illness?

I thought about it. I talked to my wife and my children. Knowing Parkinson's, as I do now, I was going to have to explain to everybody exactly what was wrong. So I decided the best thing I could do was go public with it, announce that I had it. Maybe I could find out something from somebody else that would help me. Maybe the fact that I had it and people know that I had it; maybe I could do something to help them out. I have interacted with a lot of people who have Parkinson's to just exchange ideas. That's one of the things I really enjoyed about being (at the World Parkinson Congress). You talk to people who understand your problem and you understand theirs. That's my story why I did it, and I'm glad I did it because it's been good for me. Hopefully it's been good for somebody else.

What does More than Motion want to accomplish?

They are on Facebook. They put out a lot of information about Parkinson's. They're a resource, that's what I call them. I got to know these people, and I really appreciate what they're doing. Personally, they have helped me and they have helped a lot of other people. I have spent some time helping them here at the Parkinson Congress, and it's been very rewarding for me.

Do you have an opinion how much playing football has contributed to your illness?

Before my doctor gave us the diagnosis, he tried to find out what my problem was. He asked me a lot of questions about my health, my family's health. Had anyone in my family ever had Parkinson's? The answer was no. He asked, "How long did you play football?" I told him when I started and when I finished. He said, "There's no doubt in my mind that your problem is related to the number of hits you took over the years. I can't attribute it to anything other than that." Now, that's his diagnosis. I don't know that I could have changed anything if I had known. But I know that they're doing a lot of stuff now to prevent head injuries in the National Football League. As a bystander and a fan, I appreciate that, and I'm glad that something is being done so other people maybe can prevent them in the future from having what I have.

Do you notice programs like Heads up Football and the safer tackling techniques that are being taught?

All you have to do is watch a game, and you can see the things that they're changing and the calls that they're making to discourage that head-to-head collision in football. Football is a collision sport. There's no way around it. You play it according to the rules. That part of it will never change, I don't think. But I have noticed they have made a lot of changes in the rules and calling those things that can be dangerous.

Any regrets about your pro football career or anything you would do differently while you were playing?

Hey, the game's over. You can't go back and replay it. You can only think about it, and I don't know that there's nothing I can do to change what happened. It's part of my life. I have to deal with it. Would I have done anything differently? I don't know. Maybe so; maybe not.

You sound as if you still enjoyed playing the game.

I enjoyed playing. I enjoyed coaching. Football has been a big part of my life for so long. It was fun; it was challenging on both the sidelines as a coach and on the field as a player.

How closely do you follow the NFL these days?

I'm still a Packers fan. I watch as much football as I can. ... And I'm still friends with Bengals owner Mike Brown. We still get together from time to time. I have made lot of friends over the years that have played the game. And I have heard from a lot of them in recent years. What's been really great is that a lot of the kids I coached (at SMU in 1989 and 1990), I have heard from since they found out I had Parkinson's.

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