Inquirer writer Lyon keeps working with Alzheimer’s
BROOMALL, Pa. (AP) The hands that wrote the stories that branded him Philadelphia’s sports raconteur now tremble when he sits. Bill Lyon smacks the right hand resting on a cane to try to briefly stifle the tremors.
”I can no longer write cursive,” Lyon said. ”Terrible. Completely illegible. Block print.”
He sits in his chair, a laptop behind him on his desk in the quiet sanctuary of his den. Lyon’s pain with the pen seems almost inconsequential because he can still type. The words that used to blaze out of those fingertips on deadline – from brain to screen with the bite and speed of a Steve Carlton fastball – slog out now to the point where Lyon must re-examine sentences to make sure he’s found just the right words.
”The first time around it’s, what the hell is this?” Lyon said.
What it is, well, it’s still the best damn sports writing in Philly. Disease be damned.
There was a time, for more than 30 years, when Lyon was one of the finest sports writers in America. His dateline spanned from dingy Veterans Stadium to the Kentucky Derby, the Olympics, the Indianapolis 500 and championship fights. Now, the story he tells is his own, through columns that chronicle his three-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease, a series that has proved cathartic for the writer and an inspiration for the readers.
”I’m going to write,” Lyon said, ”until I can’t.”
Lyon wrote about Mike Schmidt, Julius Erving, Reggie White and scores of otherwise forgotten games for The Philadelphia Inquirer through both championships and thousands of losses before he officially retired in 2005. He never really stopped, though, and became the newspaper’s de facto tribute writer for legends such as Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer. Lyon was as much a heavyweight in his own field as those stars in their sports and he was feted as a seven-time winner of Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year, a six-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, a 1999 inductee into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and 2006 inductee into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.
The writer who penned countless columns on Hall of Famers turned out to be pretty good about crafting his own induction speeches.
He could spin a tale at the podium, yet always knew it was the written word that truly counted.
”It’s a great rush,” he said. ”If you can embrace it, it’s good, but you don’t embrace it until the third beer afterward.”
Lyon, who turns 79 next week, first fell under the spell of Thomas Wolfe and Dick Butkus when he was just an Illinois boy. He played sports and could have given his career path a serious run as a pitcher. He even boxed. But not even the squared circle could fully steel his will for the fight of his life.
The news hit hard, stunned him enough to leave him frozen in a doctor’s office, fearful of a crumpled mind that would force him to live his daily life in a haze of chopped memories.
He had his wife. He had family, some of whom lived next door. The grandson that once counted 39 paces from door to door is now a junior at Penn State. Lyon’s great-grandson Liam – or, the full name as Lyon was fond of writing – William Carl Lyon now lives in the house and waits for a play date with Pop-Pop. Lyon has made time with Liam as much a part of his routine as daily walks, crossword puzzles and reading – once a pleasure, now so toilsome – that he believed could stave off the cobwebs mucking up his brain.
The shtick with his 2-year-old great-grandson is always the same.
”Somebody’s coming in downstairs,” Lyon hollers when he hears clatter at the door.
”It’s me, Pop-Pop! It’s Liam , Pop-Pop!”
For a moment, when Lyon hears that voice, the disease has been knocked out, a casualty of love and family and an attitude that spits in the face of a diagnosis for which a cure isn’t on the horizon.
Screw Alzheimer’s. ”Al,” as he calls it.
It’s the disease that has robbed him of the ability to drive. His memory that once could serve as a sports almanac has short-circuited and is hazy on new details. He courts the muse of inspiration and begs it to strike in the late morning when he feels like he can best write. He feels at best like a .500 pitcher who never knows what kind of stuff he’ll have on the mound.
”Why is it I can remember words from a 129-year-old song, but I can’t find out where I put my razor?” he said.
He can only flip on Flyers, Phillies, Eagles or 76ers games for short spurts. Given the state of the four franchises, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lyon laughs at the thought, a sign that at least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
Lyon quit the column grind long before writers tried to make hay with 140-character bursts and round-the-clock hot takes, and a decade or so in retirement made him wonder if anyone still cared about what he had to say.
But writers don’t work decades in a city without developing a kinship with their readers. Lyon’s first column in June – where he called the disease ”an insidious and relentless little bastard, a gutless coward who won’t come out and fight” – sparked more than 1,000 emails. That number has avalanched into more than 6,000, and every reader has a story to share.
One man asked, ”Do you think after all the millions of words you’ve written, these will be the most important?”
”Boy, that really put me back. Still does,” Lyon said. ”I don’t want to let anybody down.”
Hardly. He’s the fifth Philly franchise and the only one without an L on his record.
Lyon has soldiered on even as his wife of 53 years, Ethel, whom he tenderly dubbed his 5-foot-1, 98-pound middle linebacker, struggles with her own health issues. He has raised money for Alzheimer’s research, threw out a first pitch at a Phillies game and continued to be honored for his slice of Philly sports history. Lyon was named Most Courageous by The Philadelphia Sports Writers Association and delivered a touching speech at Friday night’s banquet. He’ll be inducted in April into the Big 5 Hall of Fame with local basketball greats Jameer Nelson and Randy Foye.
Give up? Now?
”Adjust. Adapt. Don’t concede an inch to Al,” he wrote.
Sports in Philly can make a writer a realist. Teams tank. They lose 10,000 games over 100 years. Super Bowl weekend is for another city to celebrate.
Every season ends.
”I know it’s inevitable,” Lyon said of his prognosis. ”It’s hardly a secret.”
Lyon’s fight against the clock isn’t much different from one against the deadline. He knows the editor told him to write 700 words, but he hears it as 800, 900, as long as he can stretch until the story has been told. Lyon just can’t let Alzheimer’s keep him from adding chapters to his story.
”I’m hoping,” he said, softly, ”it will give me the time.”