It has become a ritual. Every game, no matter what’s going on, no matter where I am on the football field, I look around the stadium and my grandmother, Alice Black, will instantly pop into my head. I see her clear as a bell.
That’s understandable. I spent most of my life under my grandmother’s roof, under her supervision. She was my backbone. She was the love of my life.
I never saw the Alzheimer’s coming. I had honestly felt I would have her around for years to talk to, laugh with and watch her enjoying her great-grandchildren. It wasn’t to be. In 1996, my rookie year in San Francisco, we got the diagnosis.
The disease took her mind away. She never really understood I was becoming a professional player and what that meant. She never understood that she didn’t have to buy me clothes anymore and put them on layaway. I don’t even know if she understood that I owe my life and success to her.
My grandmother helped mold me into the person I am today. She helped raise me, my brother and sisters in her home, while my young mother was out working numerous jobs. I wasn’t the sweetest and nicest kid growing up, and I’m pretty sure I gave her a lot of headaches.
It’s true, she was extremely strict, but that’s the way she was raised herself. She didn’t let us go out and play or run around on the street unsupervised. But she did the best she could, and her parenting gave me many gifts.
My grandmother taught me the self-discipline, focus and work ethic that have powered my success. If I’m strong-willed and strong-minded, it’s because I learned that from her. She taught me to be proud of who I am and to never back down or take a back seat to anyone. I’m proud to be Alice Black’s grandson. Anything I do for her today will never be enough to match what she did for me.
But it doesn’t matter how much fame and privilege I’ve gained through football, how many hundreds of passes I catch, how many touchdowns I score. I can’t do one thing myself to cure my grandmother or slow her disease down.
“The disease took her mind away. She never really understood I was becoming a professional player and what that meant.”
That’s why I’m blessed to be part of the Alzheimer’s Association, using my status and my voice to heighten public awareness and get increased funding for research. Together, we can make a difference and defeat this horrible disease once and for all.
Today my grandmother can’t walk anymore and is confined to a wheelchair. Sometimes she gives you a look that makes you think she wants to say something and can’t, but then a smile on her face says it all.
If someone in your family has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, all I can tell you is to enjoy the time you have with them today. If they can still recognize and talk to you, cherish those moments, because they won’t last.
And also try to hold on to your memories of the wonderful times you’ve shared in the past. That’s what I’m doing when my grandmother’s image comes to me on the football field.