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Kragthorpe and wife show faith, courage

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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BATON ROUGE, La.

When Steve Kragthorpe first saw his future wife, he was walking to the football office in between classes.

The backup quarterback at then-West Texas State University saw the smiling brunette and made sure to introduce himself.

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At the time, Kragthorpe had a girlfriend, and the girl he had noticed, Cynthia Poff, had a boyfriend. But Kragthorpe was smitten at first sight.

“I may need to make a transaction here,” Kragthorpe recalls thinking.

A year later, Kragthorpe and Poff were engaged. A year after that, in May 1988, they were married.

And with that the young couple packed up their belongings and made the 30-hour drive to Corvallis, Ore., where Kragthorpe had his first coaching job as a graduate assistant at Oregon State under his father, Dave.

It was the start of a nomadic journey across the country that took the young Kragthorpe to the University of Tulsa, a program he transformed from downtrodden to respectable, and in the process became one of college football’s top young head coaches. The Kragthorpes’ future was as bright as ever.

That was just four years ago, but it seems like ages for the Kragthorpes.

That was before Steve Kragthorpe was fired at Louisville after the 2009 season for failing to make a bowl in three years and disgruntled fans put for-sale signs in the Kragthorpes’ front yard.

It was prior to the stress of the Louisville losses that — Cynthia Kragthorpe believes — brought on the multiple sclerosis with which she was diagnosed in February 2010, and before the heart surgery she needed so she could take medication for the disease.

That was before the pain in her arms and legs, the loss of dexterity that sometimes causes her to drop drinking glasses, and the stumbling she occasionally has when she walks.

It was before Steve Kragthorpe resigned last year as an assistant coach at Texas A&M to take care of his wife — and before the fatigue he began to feel just months after being hired earlier this year as an assistant coach at Louisiana State, and the shaking in his left hand and arm.

No. 8: LSU

That was before he stepped down as LSU’s offensive coordinator in July after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but was allowed to remain as the team’s quarterbacks coach.

But as Steve Kragthorpe and fourth-ranked Louisiana State take the field Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against No. 3 Oregon in the season opener for both teams, he and his wife aren’t dwelling on the adversity they have faced.

“When something happens, you don’t ask, ‘Why?’ to God,” says Steve, 46. “You ask, ‘What do you want me to learn from this, and what can I do to further your kingdom?’ ”

SOMETHING'S WRONG

The summer before Louisville’s 2009 season, Cynthia Kragthorpe could feel the pressure. Her husband had yet to take the Cardinals to a bowl game in his previous two years and was coming off a losing season.

She had removed the for-sale signs from the couple’s front yard enough times to know that if he didn’t win at least seven games, he would likely be fired. She was nervous and stressed.

That summer, Cynthia’s face began to tingle, her left leg started to hurt, as did her left arm, which felt like a log. She also developed neck and back pain.

Before the season, she and her husband were at a booster function at an upscale restaurant when she dropped the drinking glass in her hand and it shattered on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked his wife. “Stop dropping your glass.”

“I think people thought I was drinking,” says Cynthia, 48. “But I really hadn’t had anything to drink.”

But glasses weren’t all Cynthia was dropping. It also happened with her keys, cell phone and makeup.

What she didn’t know then was that she was losing dexterity because of her multiple sclerosis.

“Everybody just thought I was clumsy,” she says.

Cynthia’s friends assured her all the problems were caused by stress. As the wife of a football coach and a mother of three sons, she endured stress most of her life. But she had never reacted like this.

'SHE'S TOUGHER THAN ME'

Cynthia made a doctor’s appointment in August 2009, and lesions were discovered on her brain. That was the first time she was told she likely had MS.

BROKEN PROMISE

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With Louisville’s season about to start, she didn’t want her husband to take his focus off football. Instead, she decided not to tell him, and to conceal her pain.

Not that it was difficult, because she rarely saw him. When he came home at night, she was often already asleep or would see him for only 15 minutes.

When she woke up in the mornings, he already was back at work. Because she attended her two youngest sons’ football games, she also rarely traveled to Louisville’s road games.

There were two- to three-week stretches where she would see her husband for only a combined 90 minutes, and that was in 10-minute segments.

Eventually, Steve noticed his wife had painful neck aches and debilitating pain in her left arm.

“It’s just stress,” Cynthia assured her husband. “No big deal.”

Cynthia told her husband not to worry and to focus on coaching. She never once complained, Steve says.

“She’s really tough,” he says. “Tougher than me.”

BREAKING THE NEWS

When Cynthia Kragthorpe went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in October 2009, she told her husband it was to have doctors look at her pre-existing heart condition of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare disorder involving irregularities in the heartbeat. But she really was going to see whether she had multiple sclerosis.

The doctor at the Mayo Clinic told her she likely had the disease, but wanted her to come back in a year to see whether she also had lesions on her spinal cord before officially diagnosing her.

Again, she didn’t tell her husband about her health. Times were tough enough with Louisville losing five of its first seven games.

Yet with two doctors having told her she probably had MS, she didn’t want to wait. She made an appointment to see a doctor in Oklahoma City in early December.

By then, Steve Kragthorpe and his family had moved back to Tulsa after he was fired by Louisville the previous month following a 4-8 season. He went to the appointment with his wife, and the doctor told the couple she likely had MS, but he too also wanted to wait on making a diagnosis until she had more lesions.

Still reeling from the chaotic past few weeks, Steve was in denial about his wife’s health. She wasn’t, and made an appointment to see another doctor in Houston two months later.

Just a couple of weeks before she went, her husband accepted a job to become wide receivers coach at Texas A&M. After being fired at Louisville, Kragthorpe planned to take a break from coaching for the next year, but couldn’t turn down an offer from Aggies coach Mike Sherman, with whom he had previously coached at the school.

Kragthorpe moved to College Station, Texas, for his new job, but his wife and two youngest sons stayed in Tulsa. The plan was for them to join Kragthorpe after his middle son, Brad, graduated high school the next year.

When Cynthia went to her doctor’s appointment in Houston, her husband again went with her. After reviewing her MRIs and other medical records, the doctor walked into the patient room where the Kragthorpes sat and told them what Cynthia Kragthorpe had suspected.

“You have MS,” the doctor told the couple. “I’m going to diagnose you with MS.”

As the doctor continued to talk, Steve was stunned. He began to wonder why she had to have MS instead of him.

“I was devastated,” Kragthorpe says.

JOINING HER BATTLE

Cynthia Kragthorpe’s diagnosis was a good and bad day for her and her husband. They were saddened she had multiple sclerosis, but also relieved to finally know what had been causing her health problems.

Even after Cynthia was diagnosed, she and the couple’s children still planned not to move to College Station to join Steve until the following year. In the meantime, her doctor wanted to start her on shots for her disease, but first she had to undergo testing to make sure she was healthy enough to do so.

The tests revealed she would need to have surgery for her Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome before she could start taking the shots. Those with the defect have an extra electrical pathway in their heart.

Cynthia had known she had the condition, and had surgery to try to fix it 18 years earlier, but the procedure was unsuccessful.

Faced with needing the surgery again, she and her husband debated whether she should undergo the procedure. They finally decided she should so that she would be able to take the needed shots.

For a couple of months afterward, Steve continued to work at Texas A&M. But the more he thought about his wife’s upcoming surgery, he became increasingly concerned.

The rehabilitation from the surgery would take a month. Steve knew his wife was resilient, but that even she couldn’t handle the procedure and taking care of the couple’s children with him living seven hours away. He began to contemplate quitting his job at Texas A&M.

Sometimes Steve would think he could keep coaching, but then immediately realize he couldn’t.

“It was going to be very, very difficult for her to manage,” Kragthorpe says. “I had to put it as my No. 1 priority.”

The decision was tough, but a month before last season, Steve met with Sherman and tendered his resignation.

“I need to take a step back and re-evaluate,” Kragthorpe told Sherman.

Sherman understood, and Steve moved back to Tulsa with his wife and their children. She had the surgery in early August 2010. It took five hours, seven hours less than anticipated.

When the surgeon came out so early, Steve thought something had gone terribly wrong, but it turned out the procedure had been overwhelmingly successful.

AWAY FROM THE GAME

For the first time in his life, Steve Kragthorpe wasn’t involved in football. He had been around the game since he was born because of his father. He had played it and coached for 22 years.

The absence allowed him to take care of his wife and spend more time with his sons. He attended their football games, but when he did, he sat alone up in the corner.

Kragthorpe was tortured by not coaching, and by listening to others talk in the stands. When a friend called and asked him how he was doing just prior to his son, Brad, a quarterback, starting his first high-school game in Oklahoma last season, he told her, “I look like a parrot on cocaine right now. I’ve eaten four bags of sunflower seeds and I’m a freaking wreck.”


During his season away from football, Kragthorpe attended college games he had always wanted to see. He went to Oklahoma-Texas, and to Florida’s game at Tennessee with tickets given to him by then-Gators coach Urban Meyer.

But Kragthorpe wanted back into coaching. When LSU coach Les Miles called in January and asked him to be offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he accepted the offer the same day he received it.

Kragthorpe moved down for the job with his youngest son, Nik, while his wife stayed in Tulsa until their middle son graduated high school. For the first four months after Kragthorpe’s arrival at LSU, he felt as good as he had in years.

“I felt I had my swagger back as they say now,” Kragthorpe says.

SOMETHING ELSE IS WRONG

But a month after the Tigers finished spring practice in April, Kragthorpe started to feel fatigued. He had a lot of body aching and cramping, especially in his left hand.

“I felt like someone had hit me in the head with a baseball bat,” Kragthorpe says.

The fatigue was something Kragthorpe had never experienced. It hadn’t ever been as bad while working 100-hour weeks at Tulsa and Louisville.

Kragthorpe knew he shouldn’t be as tired as he was while doing spring recruiting. He was working 12-hour days and traveling extensively, but still getting six hours of sleep nightly.

And for the first time in four years, he didn’t have any significant stress in his life.

“I just didn’t feel right,” Kragthorpe says.

A tremor had also started in Kragthorpe’s left ring finger. He noticed, though, that it stopped when he moved the finger.

At first, he attributed the tremor to his whirlwind move to LSU and getting acclimated to his new job. The only problem was that he wasn’t stressed at all.

Before long, the tremors in his finger had spread to his entire left hand and arm. He wasn’t overly concerned, though, and put off going to see a doctor.

Last spring, a doctor in Tulsa examined Kragthorpe. He assured Kragthorpe he was fine and that his body was just struggling with the stress of the previous year.

He continued to work, and went on a vacation in June with his family on a cruise to the Bahamas. When he returned from the trip a week later, Kragthorpe still didn’t feel right.

He was tired, his neck and left arm hurt, and he was losing dexterity in his left hand. He knew the ailments couldn’t be caused by stress because the summer is the most relaxing time of his job.

He still didn’t think anything was wrong, but made an appointment to see a doctor in Dallas in early July. His wife went with him to the appointment, and when the doctor told Kragthorpe he had Parkinson’s, he was shocked.

He had expected the doctor to tell him he had benign tremors.

As the doctor explained Parkinson’s to Kragthorpe, even his normally stoic wife fought back tears.

“That was a big blow,” Kragthorpe says. “It was a disappointing day.”

STANDING TOGETHER

When Steve Kragthorpe and his wife quietly walked back to their sports utility vehicle after his diagnosis, they passed the Children’s Medical Center. As they did, they saw a mother walking inside the center with her child who was wearing surgical mask.

“Steve, as tough as it is for us to have diseases, thank the Lord that we’re not walking our kids into that hospital,” Cynthia told her husband.

Later when Steve told his children about his Parkinson’s, one of the first questions his son, Brad, asked was, “You’re still going to keep coaching, aren’t you?”

“That’s going to be up to coach Miles,” Kragthorpe replied.

Steve had been so excited about being at LSU as offensive coordinator. Despite his diagnosis, he still wanted to coach, but was concerned about the extra time commitment the job required and how his ailments would impact his play calling duties.

 

On the occasional day when he feels bad, he doesn’t think as quickly as he normally would.

 

“If I have a bad day and it’s on a Saturday, I penalize the team if I’m not at my best,” Steve says. “You never know when you wake up if it’s going to be a bad day, a good day or an in-between day.”

The day after Steve’s diagnosis, he talked with Miles and told him he was well enough to be quarterbacks coach, but not offensive coordinator.

“I think I’d penalize the team if I was the coordinator in not knowing the unknowns that could be ahead,” Steve told Miles.

Miles understood, but insisted that Kragthorpe remain as quarterbacks coach. Miles promoted offensive line coach Greg Studrawa to offensive coordinator and also honored Kragthorpe’s request that Miles not announce the change until the start of preseason camp to avoid questions about it at SEC Media Days.

“He’s handled it extremely professionally,” Miles says of Kragthorpe.

“There’s never been a time where he didn’t do more than he was expected to. He’s really done a great job progressing our quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s really any issues with him being the quarterbacks coach and really helping our football team. I think things have gone very well.”

Steve has what are called resting tremors, which means they only occur when the affected body part is at rest. As he explains it, his left arm and hand shake noticeably like the soft reverberation of a guitar string.

Being diagnosed with Parkinson’s has been tough for Steve emotionally because he has seen its effects firsthand.

His wife’s grandfather, a once-strapping 6-foot-2, 210-pound Texas oilman, who wore an off-white-colored cowboy hat, had the disease. Steve still vividly remembers watching him waste away to 80 pounds and not being able to speak at the time of his death.

While at Louisville, Steve also got to know Muhammad Ali, who has Parkinson’s. In his office at LSU, Kragthorpe has a photo of himself and his family with the former boxing champion.

“This is not a fun disease,” Steve says.

KEEPING THE FAITH

But the Kragthorpes aren’t sulking about their diseases. Devout Christians, they are instead using them as part of their testimonials.

“It’s a great opportunity to show people that no matter what happens to us as a family, we’re going to continue to praise God and believe that absolutely he is in control of everything that’s going on,” Steve says.

Because Parkinson’s and MS affect people differently, both Steve and Cynthia Kragthorpe don’t have long-term prognoses for their health.

Cynthia takes four prescriptions daily. She occasionally stumbles while walking and still has pain in her extremities, but works out daily and sees a physical therapist.

Steve takes a pill every 12 hours to treat his disease. By the time he takes his second pill each day, he feels tired.

“I feel good,” Kragthorpe says. “I don’t feel 100 percent, but I don’t feel awful.”

Before being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Steve had said he didn’t plan to coach beyond the age of 55. He says his disease has made that timeline more definitive.

“I was never going to be Joe Paterno,” Steve says. “But now I’m certainly not going to be able to be Joe Paterno.”

Since being diagnosed, Steve has received hundreds of emails of support, which he appreciates. Many are from those with disease and they give tips on treatment, diet and exercise.

“I’m not on an island,” Steve says. “There are other people fighting the same thing.”

With it so rare for the Kragthorpes to both have neurological diseases, they have received letters, including one from a doctor in New York, asking if they have possibly been exposed to something that caused their health problems. So far, their doctors don’t think that’s the case.

“Maybe we lived on a nuclear dump site or something,” Cynthia says with a laugh.

When the Kragthorpes are lying in bed or sitting on the couch, they usually ask each other how they are feeling. Steve often says his left arm is bothering him, and Cynthia says her neck and shoulders are stiff.

They joke and tell each other how they are “quite a couple.”

“We’re going to be getting old and decrepit together,” Cynthia says.

That’s fine with the Kragthorpes. They still think they are that same love-struck couple who met on a quaint campus 25 years ago.

To donate to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, click here.

To donate to the National Parkinson Foundation, click here.

Tagged: LSU, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisville

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