LSU offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe visited with reporters Friday at LSU’s BCS media day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and talked about his Parkinson’s Disease, his quarterbacks, and what the future holds for him as a coach at LSU:
“The guy I wanted to meet the most when I went to Louisville (as head coach) was Muhammad (Ali). I got my picture take with him a couple of times and he came and talked to the team a couple of teams. After this diagnosis that was one of the first things I thought about.”
“The biggest thing for me, and that’s what I told Les (Miles), is I don’t want to create a distraction for the team. I have a situation but it’s manageable for me. It’s not going to affect me on the field coaching the quarterbacks. He has enough distractions being the head coach. He doesn’t need any more distractions from me.
“I’ve tried for the most part to do things from an awareness standpoint to help other people, hopefully. Once I get done with the season when I have more time I’ve thought about flying out to see Muhammad and his wife, and do a little more research on my own.”
Was it your decision to step back from your offensive coordinator duties?
“I just felt like at that point I was going on medicines, I didn’t know how I would respond. Some people do great. Some people don’t do very well at all. I’ve been fine. The only side effects I get are at the end of the day when my medicine wears off and my symptoms come back.
“The (BCS) game’s going to kick off at 7:30, so I’ll start taking my medicine a little later starting (Saturday).
“I thought to myself, ‘If I was sitting in his shoes, what would I want my assistant to do?’ I thought of all the worst-case scenarios. What if I wake up on a Saturday morning and we’re playing in the SEC Championship Game and I can’t go to the game? Now all of a sudden someone has to call the plays who hasn’t prepared all week to do that. Even though I wanted to do it, it wasn’t the best thing for the team.”
On the day he had his illness put into perspective:
“I walk out for the Northwestern State game, our first game in Tiger Stadium, and I’m mad. I’m genuinely mad. I want to call the plays. I’m saying, ‘Why is this me.’ I walk over to the corner of the end zone to warm up the quarterbacks, I look over and there’s a 13-year-old little boy in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy. I look up to the sky and said, ‘Ok, you win.’ ”
You said you first started feeling symptoms at the end of spring practice last year. What were they?
“I had tremors in my left hand, my left arm. Fortunately it hasn’t moved over to my right side, though it may. Sometimes my speech would get a little bit affected if I was tired.”
“You think, ‘What is it?’ You get on the internet and you Google it up and you go, ‘Oh, great, I’ve got one of 500 different things.’
“In June, Les had given us about four weeks off. I said, ‘This is the least stressful time of my life, why would I be feeling this way right now?’ That’s when I figured out what it was.”
Do you think you could be a head coach or offensive coordinator again?
“Maybe. I’m happy right now. When the academic guy or the security guy or the AD walks down the hall they go by my door now. I wave to them. I’ve got a good deal. I’ve got a great group of quarterbacks to work with and I don’t have to deal with all that junk every day.”
What has it been like working with current offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa?
“It’s been great. We have such a great staff and the camaraderie and chemistry on this staff is as good as any staff I’ve ever been around. That translates to the players. They see how we work together.
“With our operation offensively, nothing has really changed. Billy Gonzales (passing game coordinator) is such a big influence, (tight ends coach) Steve Ensminger has been a coordinator at various Division I schools, (running backs coach) Frank Wilson is a heck of a coach. And of course Les (Miles) is in there a lot with us. Stud just takes the lead on game day and he does a great job calling the game. But we’re all talking during the game.
“Les put it in the best way. It’s a battlefield promotion he got. He’s taken it and run with it. We’ve got great guys in the room. It’s not like I’m stepping down.”
On his wife Cynthia, who suffers from a heart condition and multiple sclerosis:
“I tell people all the time, if I want sympathy I don’t need to go to my house. That ain’t happening. She’s got a great attitude. She’s doing better. The cool thing is there are so many advancements right now for MS and Parkinson’s. It’s amazing how much progress they’ve made in the last five years. If they can continue to make that in the next five years it’ll be pretty good.”
Do you and Cynthia joke with each other about your illnesses?
“Oh, absolutely. You have to. Laughter is the best medicine. She’ll laugh at me or I’ll laugh at her. We’ll laugh together. We look at this situation not as a mountain but as a speed bump in the road. You can sit and have a pity party every day for yourself, but all that does is make you feel worse.”
On having a season to coach after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s:
“I think one of the things that’s helped me is getting up and coming to work every day. It’s mentally stimulating for me – and physically. You have to be as active as you can so your body continues to function.”
You coached briefly at Texas A&M for six months in 2010 when your wife became ill. Now men’s basketball coach Billy Kennedy has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Have you spoken with him?
“I’ve talked to him a couple of times. We have a very kindred relationship, because he’s coaching and I’m coaching. He was diagnosed in September. Our symptoms are very similar. There’s a high school coach at Brenham, Texas, the defensive coordinator, Craig Agnew same age, same symptoms. The great thing for me is as public as my situation has become, I get a lot of feedback from people. That’s been great. I’m going to try to connect with people once I’m done with the season. But sometimes I have a few minutes and I’ll talk to Billy, and we’ll try to pump each other up.”
There’s a huge range of how well or how poorly people are able to deal with Parkinson’s, isn’t there?
“It’s the same thing with MS. A wide range of how you respond to treatment. Wide range of symptoms. Everybody’s body chemistry is different. The medicines I’ve been on have worked pretty well so far. I’m going to continue to look at different options, but not until after the game. I could have gone on some other medicines about a month ago, but I don’t want to do anything to change my routine right now.
“There are some encouraging things out there with stem cell research. Graham Harrell, the quarterback with the Packers, his dad Sam has MS and he’s gone to Costa Rica for stem cell treatment and done real well with that. There’s a lot of cool stuff out there.”
Have there been some days when you just have to say, “I have to stay home today”?
“There have been some days I wanted to.”
Why didn’t you?
“Because that’s the way I’m programmed. You just fight through it. I’m used to being tired and working a lot of hours, being in a position where I don’t feel good. Some days I just feel a little worse. You just get up and you go. To me, if I get up and go to work I start feeling better as the day progresses because I’m stimulated, whereas if I just laid in bed it wouldn’t be a good situation.
“I’m doing OK right now. Some days are better than others, just like for all of us.”
Are you please with how everything has transpired on the field?
“Oh, yeah. It’s been a lot of fun. I woke up after the Georgia game about 3 in the morning and said, ‘Either I’m dreaming or we just won 13 straight games.’ That’s a pretty neat deal to be part of this program. I’d never coached in the SEC. I’d coached against some SEC teams. It’s fun. Just the fans. You go to Alabama and Tennessee, some great venues.”
Have you ever started feeling bad during a game?
“No, I usually do pretty well. My mind isn’t on it. The more my mind is off it the less it affects me. I don’t care what disease you have, I think the mind is the greatest healer and sometimes the greatest deterrent in terms of feeling a little bit better. I try not to think about it a whole lot.”
On Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback in 2012:
“I think he’s going to respond great. He’s been in our program going into next season for a year and a half. That’s one of the reasons I want to stay. I want to stay and coach him. He has a comfort level with me, I have a comfort level with him, and he doesn’t need another change. Then I guess I can’t talk about what’s happening in the future, but I want to stay here for awhile. For me that’s the fun part of coaching, seeing guys come into a program and seeing them come out as better people.”
On Jarrett Lee:
“I have a lot of admiration for Jarrett. It’s been a rollercoaster ride for him. I don’t think you can buy a ticket to an amusement park and take a better ride than he’s had. I really admire him, because like my situation he could have packed his bags and done something different. He’s a valuable guy in our room because he has such a great demeanor. He’s got a chance to play in the Hula Bowl, which will be great for him.
“He’s a testament to what you should be like. You get in a situation like my situation and you fight through it and battle. He’s done that and played well for us. For me, as the quarterback coach, I’ve got two guys who can play. Really three, because I know Zach can get in there and do it if he needs to.
“That’s a good situation. I’ve been in rooms where I had none.”
Jarrett said he believes he will play Monday.
“There’s no reason we would ever hesitate putting Jarrett Lee in the game. Our whole entire plan is something he could execute. He’s stayed very engaged with everything. When I talk to him on the ring down phone during the game or at halftime he’s seeing things. He’s done a good job and come back and played in other games after (Alabama). He’s mentally tough.”
Do you hope to be back in this position next year?
“I’ll be back. I’m definitely coming back. I think we have a great team coming back. I can see myself doing this another 8-10 years. I’m not going to be Bobby Bowden, I can promise you that.
“Probably the three worst days I’ve had this season were at Christmas. I wasn’t active. My mind wasn’t active. I was sitting on the couch. For me, most of my stuff is called ‘resting tremors.’ If I’m up moving around doing things I don’t have nearly the problems when I’m sitting around.
“I enjoy living where I’m living. I’ve moved 11 times in 23 years. My wife, I think the next time I’m flying solo. She loves Baton Rouge. We really love living there. Our son’s a junior in high school. I’ve gotten some calls asking if I’m interested in some head coaching jobs this year and I’ve done it for seven years. If I do it again great, if not, that’s fine, too.”
“Merrill Hodge, who’s with ESPN, and I played high school football together. He’s beaten cancer now for eight years. He said, ‘attitude will be the difference.’ It was a really good call because it was about two days after the announcement and I was down.”