Roy Exum: Ara Parseghian's Legacy

Thursday, August 3, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

One year, this well back in the day, the NCAA asked a small crowd of sports writers from around the country to come to their headquarters in Kansas City. They also asked an equal number of the top college football coaches. The idea was for us – as one group -- to spend two or three days with each other and not only were there some great stories told but a lot of good friendships were born.

Better yet, the unwritten rule was that since I was from the South, I was asked not to talk to the SEC coaches who were there but, instead, to spent time with folks like John McKay of Southern Cal, Darrell Royal of Texas and others seldom in my path. I remember that’s the first time Ara Parseghian of Notre Dame and I got to meet and we became fond friends, talking a lot in the following years. 

Coach Parseghian died yesterday at 94 and I immediately recalled what a wonderful human being he was – football totally aside – and how emotional I became one day when he turned a casual question into maybe the best answer I have ever gotten. I’ve always thought it that moment was when our friendship ignited for he knew more about me than I did him. 

Actually, it opened a door for me to call and send notes when his grandchildren began to die and, man oh man, I’ll never forget that horror. 

It was at lunch in Kansas City when I, hardly older than some he coached, asked him about his greatest victory. Understand, this was the guy who went 95-17-4 during the 11 years he resurrected the Irish in what has famously been labeled as “The Era of Ara.” His Notre Dame teams won two national championships, and, yes, Parseghian was the one who allowed the movie hero “Rudy” to walk on.   

Remember, Notre Dame had five straight losing seasons before Parseghian was hired in 1964 and – to this day -- many still consider him the greatest coach in the school’s history, with due apologies to Knute Rockne and Coach Leahy, of course. 

When I asked him “his greatest” it was in innocence, a conversation breaker. Smart coaches always answer with three or four teams, this because big wins have something in common: each is ‘really’ big. Not Ara. He focused his eyes on something far away and began to relive it. 

“In 1968 my daughter Karan was 17 and diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. My sister had MS and then my brother-in-law was diagnosed in his 40s and died within two years. The disease has devastated my family and I tell you this for a reason. I happen to know you are on the MS board in Tennessee,” he said to my amazement. “So you will understand this … (At the time Parseghian was the national chairman of the MS Society.) 

“My greatest victory, my most thrilling moment? On Karan’s wedding day, I rolled her wheelchair towards the main aisle of the church. The organ was playing ‘Here Comes the Bride’ and suddenly she squeezed my arm and said, ‘Stop … Help me stand up, daddy … ‘ She stood up from the wheelchair and the two of us walked – step by step -- all the way to where her new husband was crying along with everybody else in the church. That is my biggest victory of all time,” he said as those of us within ear distance all melted, before he added, “Football is only a game.” 

Coach Parseghian abruptly retired after 11 years of “shaking down the thunder” indeed (January of 1975). He was just 51 but said he was emotionally and physically spent. He became a TV commentator and a grandfather, Karan’s two children his joy, and soon another Ara’s son Mike, an orthopedic surgeon, and his wife Cindy began adding grandchildren, four to be precise. 

The oldest was named for his grandfather and the second was named Michael like his dad. By the time Michael began elementary school, two little sisters had also been born. They noticed Michael didn’t handle the monkey bars at recess as well as other kids and couldn’t raise his eyes without lifting his head. Cindy sensed something was wrong. They visited several pediatricians who couldn’t find anything wrong. 

Cindy persisted and, very suddenly, one doctor diagnosed Michael with Niemann-Pick Type C (NP-C), a rare disease that causes various substances to malfunction in cells, especially in the brain where the cells then die. There is no known cure. The young Parseghian couple had the other children tested – again the disease is fatal – and Michael, age 7, Marcia 6, and Christa 3, were all positive. 

Every Parseghian, along with thousands of Notre Dame fans, was in horror. Within two months, the fabled football coach was heading the Ara Parseghian Medical Research Foundation and has raised millions searching for a cure. Once again with his eye on the clock, he was his relentless self and the number of laboratories working on finding the NP-C gene has jumped from two to 20. 

Parseghian’s greatest victory 40 years ago was when his daughter walked the aisle but today doctors have hopes that his greatest legacy will be leading the determined charge against NP-C, a disease that robbed him of three grandchildren when Ara should have enjoyed them most. Karan, the daughter with MS, died three years ago. 

Ara Parseghian was a great football coach but as a contributor to millions of lives he turned out to be far more. I don’t know any person in all of sports who has endured as much emotional pain, not just the deaths of a daughter and three gorgeous grandchildren as much as helplessly being forced to watch all four loved ones endure the agonizing process. 

Yet they did endure, with the veracity and might of Parseghian’s Fighting Irish teams, but instead of the Notre Dame Fight song, their manta came from the end of a Garth Brooks’ song: 

“And now I am glad I didn’t know,
The way it would end, the way it all would go.
Our lives are better left to chance,
I could have missed the pain, but I’d have had to miss The Dance.”

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