Forrest Gregg has never backed down from anything.
So it’s with that fighter’s mentality that the former Green Bay Packers offensive tackle and Pro Football Hall of Famer will take on perhaps the greatest challenge of his life.
It was revealed on Wednesday that Gregg, 78, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating neurological disorder with no known cure.
“I’m just not ready to give up my life to something like this,” said Gregg during a telephone interview with the Press-Gazette from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo. “If there’s anything that I can do personally that will help the situation, I’m willing to do it.”
Gregg has watched his body decline over the past year. It started with tremors in his hands and arms. He also has stooped posture, which was evident when he appeared at alumni day at Lambeau Field last month. His voice has gotten softer, severe back pain has flared up, and his gait has slowed considerably.
“I knew I had something wrong,” said Gregg. “I didn’t know what it was.”
He admits the symptoms have been unsettling, especially for a once strong man that the legendary Vince Lombardi called the best football player he ever coached.
He remembers the day two months ago when he was diagnosed. “My mind started racing, (thinking) what is this all about,” said Gregg.
“I wasn’t happy, I can promise you that, because there’s a lot to deal with.”
Gregg has battled and beaten melanoma in 1976 and colon cancer in 1991. But Parkinson’s might be the toughest disease of them all because it threatens to rob him of normal daily functions.
“I think the symptoms are what bother you,” said Gregg. “When you hear about it, the tremors, the facial expressions, the voice going, there’s a lot of scary stuff that’s tied to it.”
His doctor, Rajeev Kumar, a Parkinson’s expert and medical director of the Colorado Neurological Institute’s Movement Disorders Center in Denver, told The Associated Press that research shows there is a link between head injuries and neurological disorders later in life.
Kumar said he couldn’t say for sure whether Gregg’s diagnosis was caused by the concussions he suffered playing football.
“If I knew for sure that Parkinson’s was caused by head injuries, maybe I wouldn’t have played as long,” said Gregg, who is one of just three players in NFL history to be part of six championship teams. “I would have played, there’s no question about that. I love the game and loved every minute that I played.”
Gregg, who spent 14 seasons with the Packers from 1956-’70 and was part of all five Lombardi championship teams, said he has no regrets.
“My life (has) been a good one, and I’ve been fortunate to have a great family and kids, a lot of good friends,” he said. “I’m not kissing anybody goodbye yet.”
Gregg said it was difficult to go public with his condition, but the subsequent outpouring of support makes him glad he did.
“The kids I coached, both in the pros and college — they’re not kids anymore, they’re old, but they’re still kids to me — but at any rate (they) have been calling and I really appreciate that,” said Gregg.
He started taking medicine for the tremors about 10 days ago, although there hasn’t been any improvement yet. But his doctor believes the combination of physical therapy, exercise and drugs can delay the effects of the disease.
Gregg hopes to raise awareness for others dealing with Parkinson’s.
“They’ve come a long way in treating this disease,” said Gregg.
“This is not just for me. I’ve talked to so many people (since Wednesday). … and I got to thinking that maybe this was worthwhile to tell people you’ve got it if it speeds up the process of studies that are being done on Parkinson’s.”
As for the future, Gregg hopes his back pain goes away so he can resume fly fishing, one of his favorite pastimes in retirement.
“What I hope to do is just have a good quality of life,” he said. “It’s been a good one, and I have no complaints, but I’d still like to hang around a little longer.”
Gregg always speaks fondly of Packers fans. When I asked him if there’s anything they can do for him, he replied: “Just say a prayer for me.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.