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Mike Adamle, the former Bears running back and sportscaster, deals with slowly advancing dementia: ‘I’ll wake up one day, and there goes another part of me’

Chicago Tribune - 11/6/2019

It was the Bears’ 100th season celebration last summer in Rosemont. Mike Adamle was with all the other former players gathered in a room, some the same as always and others mere shadows with faraway eyes.

“I’d see this guy I played with and I’d hug him, and he’d hug me, and we’d both walk off in different directions going, ‘Who the hell was that?’ ” recalled Adamle, once an undersized running back and then a sportscaster. “I mean, it’s funny, but it’s terrible. I’m just glad we’re addressing this now.”

What’s being addressed is mental health.

Adamle’s mind is slowly eroding, a result of the brain-rattling concussions he suffered playing for Northwestern and the NFL’s Chiefs, Jets and Bears.

He has post-traumatic epilepsy. His doctors also believe he’s showing symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a disease also tied to brain trauma and frighteningly common among former football players.

CTE can be confirmed only by an autopsy, and Adamle, 70 is very much alive if not as sharp as he was on CBS-2, ABC-7 and NBC-5 and programs such as “WWE Raw” and “American Gladiators.” The effects of dementia forced him into retirement in 2017.

“I was watching CNN or something about … the Arctic Circle (in which) a big piece of ice breaks off and goes off into the distance, and it’s kind of like that,” Adamle said. “I’ll wake up one day, and there goes another part of me.

“I’m just trying to hang on as long as I can. Stay positive and not negative. That time you get negative, as everyone knows, you get in that dark spot and you can’t get out of it.”

Adamle and his wife, Kim, an educational psychologist, reflected on his condition and what it demands of them as part of a panel discussion NBC Sports Chicago staged Monday night.

Moderated by David Kaplan, the public forum was meant to promote “Headstrong,” a special on athletes dealing with a variety of mental health issues that all the NBC regional sports networks plan to run.

“With so many athletes and celebrities talking about mental health and mental stability, we think it’s (a topic that’s) really, really important,” NBC Sports Chicago boss Kevin Cross said.

The program is set to air at 9 p.m. Saturday in Chicago, and former Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, who has been open about dealing with a diagnosed borderline personality disorder, is one of its executive producers.

Gail Grabcynski worked with Marshall when she was the Bears’ lead mental clinician, a role she had for 11 years. She said one of the challenges was educating Bears coaches, enabling them to differentiate an ordinary “bad day” he might have from something symptomatic of Marshall’s disorder.

Meanwhile, Marshall was one of several players she helped deal with the pressure of playing pro ball, depression and other issues.

“Coaches did want to hide it," Grabcynski said. "They wanted to put Brandon in my office, close the door (so) no one knew about it. They did not want to deal with it because if they knew about it, that means they had to talk about it. If they had to talk about, potentially they had to evaluate other players or themselves.”

Dr. Stewart Shankman, a professor and Northwestern Medicine’s chief of psychology in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said he’s hopeful mental issues someday no longer will be stigmatized but rather viewed like other chronic diseases.

“Nobody has to come out that they have diabetes or come out that they have thyroid problems,” Shankman said. “They just take their medicine and move on. But we need to be moving forward by having more awareness.”

The Adamles have been doing their part to educate the public, sharing their struggles as Mike deals with the slow but steady advance of his dementia.

“We’re partners,” Kim Adamle said. “I hate (the term) caregiver. We’re partners. We’re life partners, and that’s how we approach everything. We like to joke that we share a brain now.”

From a distance, one might not know Mike has a problem.

“You see him,” Kim said. “He looks great. He’s athletic still. He keeps moving. He does everything that he needs to, to keep himself going to address this, but he can’t operate the coffee maker. He can’t do the TV remote. He has extreme difficulty doing his phone. It’s the simplest of tasks. He has difficulty remembering what was just said to him.”

She said it is “like having a toddler on steroids” in that Mike is restless and eager to do things but requires constant vigilance because he can’t always accomplish what he thinks he can and should.

“For me the hardest part is the slow grieving, because every day there’s a little bit that slips or you see something else, and I see this beautiful, brave man working so hard and being so brave.” she said. “He never complains.”

Mike sometimes tears up but never, he said, because he feels sorry for himself.

“The biggest thing is I try not to be a burden on everybody else," he said. Yet "from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, I have someone taking care of me when it’s medications I need to take, rides to the airport, all these things I used to be able to do. I can’t do, just simple, meaningless tasks.”

Having kids, Mike said, is a blessing because they not only give him joy but something more to fight for.

“At the end of the day, everything comes down to, do you want to live or do you want to die, and I was never one of the” latter,” Adamle said. “Dying was never an option there.”

The Adamles keep their schedule on a big whiteboard in their home. Also on it, Kim said, is their latest motto: Right here, right now.

“You can get caught up in the frustration of forgetting, of losing memory, of losing that skill,” she said. “You can get really fearful and lost and mired down in that fear of what the future will bring. But we have right now. We have this moment, and so we explicitly try hard to find the joy and the gifts that we have right here, right now.”

So even when the names elude you, you savor the hugs.

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