Former NFL Player Tim Green Has A New Opponent — ALS A well-known voice on NPR in the 1990s, Tim Green is one of a growing number of former football players with the degenerative illness Lou Gehrig's disease. And he's not hiding it.
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Former NFL Player Tim Green Has A New Opponent — ALS

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Former NFL Player Tim Green Has A New Opponent — ALS

Former NFL Player Tim Green Has A New Opponent — ALS

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former pro football player Tim Green was a well-known voice on this program in the '90s. He offered commentaries on a violent sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TIM GREEN: My parents told me when I was a boy, if I was going to play the game of football, I had to expect to get hurt. How do you expect to get hurt, though? You can't.

INKSEEP: Recently, Tim Green announced he has ALS. We are hearing more about football players with that illness, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Now, Tim Green is doing what he can to raise awareness and money to fight it. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: I was one of Tim Green's MORNING EDITION producers, and I have this favorite memory. He was in D.C. for a game, and we went to dinner. He had a huge plate of pasta. And when we finished, the waiter came over and asked, anything else? Tim pointed to his clean plate and said, yeah, let's do it again. And that was him - one entree wasn't enough. One high-profile career wasn't enough. He's also a prolific author. And he works for two law firms. And ultimately, it wasn't enough for Tim Green to deal with ALS in silence.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Don't be sorry.

TOM BRADY: Let's beat this.

MATT RYAN: Let's beat this.

TIM GREEN: Good to see you.

GOLDMAN: Great to see you. It's great to see you.

I visited Tim at his lakeside home in upstate New York right after he helped launch the Tackle ALS fundraising website. We sat down in a room with a huge picture window. Outside, driving snow obscured Skaneateles Lake. As we talked, Tim was getting an infusion of a new drug that's been shown to slow the progress of what's currently a fatal disease. Tim launched the website last month when he went on "60 Minutes" and revealed his illness.

TIM GREEN: I got to a point where I couldn't hide anymore.

GOLDMAN: He first noticed the symptoms about five years ago - hands not strong enough to use nail clippers, words that wouldn't come out as fast as he was thinking them. A diagnosis in 2016 confirmed he had the disease that weakens muscles in the arms and legs and those that control speech, swallowing and breathing. Tim tried to keep it private. He didn't want people feeling sorry for him. But when he couldn't hide it anymore, his son Troy pushed him to go public.

TROY GREEN: What we said is, you either write your own history or someone's going to write it for you.

GOLDMAN: The history he's writing with Troy's help is positive and hopeful. They say ALS can be cured, it's just underfunded. His history certainly includes family. Tim and Illyssa have been married 29 years. They have five kids, and they're all incredibly close - literally, says Troy.

TROY GREEN: My brother lives on the same lane as us. My little sister is at school. My little brother lives here. And then my older sister lives the furthest away. She's about a three-minute drive (laughter).

TIM GREEN: We're going to reel her in.

TROY GREEN: Yeah. You want to reel her in and get her closer, right?

TIM GREEN: Yeah.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Tim Green celebrates.

GOLDMAN: Any Tim Green history has to include football, for better and worse. Tim says football gave him the disease. His eight years in the NFL in the 1980s and '90s as a defensive lineman were before protective rule changes and concussion protocols. He had countless head collisions, most during practice. Researchers say repetitive head blows may play a part in causing ALS. The recent NFL concussion settlement acknowledged a link by including payouts to former players with the disease, including Tim.

I want to read you something...

In 1992, Tim wrote a commentary about a teammate who'd had enough of the physical toll and was retiring. The piece ended this way...

(Reading) Back at the locker room, I checked my protective neck panting and pumped some extra air into...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TIM GREEN: ...(Reading) The padding of my helmet, like a gypsy gazing into a crystal ball. I looked at my own distorted reflection in the glossy black surface of my helmet. A smile let me know I was glad to be there, but there was nothing I could see that told me how long it would last.

GOLDMAN: Tim could articulate what many players couldn't. Why, I asked him, with his insights, would he play a sport that could permanently damage him?

TIM GREEN: Then, I had no idea.

GOLDMAN: A future with pain in his back, neck, his knees. He knew it was worth it. Football had been a passion since he was a kid. It taught him so much and let him vent anger and violence in an acceptable way. The love remains so strong that, even now, he's ambivalent.

TIM GREEN: Can I say getting ALS was worth it? I don't know. I don't know.

GOLDMAN: His two oldest sons played football. His 12-year-old, Ty, plays now. And it has split the close-knit Greens. Illyssa doesn't like it. Tim wants Ty to play if he wants to. Tim is his coach, and he limits hitting in practice. It is, he insists, a safer sport than it was. But there's a more complex reason behind his support. Troy says his dad doesn't want the illness to be a burden on anyone. So Tim doesn't want Ty not to play just because the game hurt him.

MERIT CUDKOWICZ: I do want to point out again that most people who play football don't develop ALS.

BRADY: Dr. Merit Cudkowicz from Massachusetts General Hospital treats Tim's ALS. She's researched the disease for 25 years. She thinks football probably is a factor that led to his illness, but not the only one. Cudkowicz says Tim's and other prominent people's involvement and publicity present a great opportunity.

CUDKOWICZ: Absolutely. I think this is a huge next step.

GOLDMAN: In raising needed money for research and treatment, she says, following the success of the highly publicized Ice Bucket Challenge a few years ago. Tim's other passion as a kid was writing, and he still does it every day. He can't type, so he has a sensor on his glasses that highlights letters. He then clicks a mouse and the letters show up on his laptop screen. He's working on a kid's baseball book and the fundraising, which lets him help others.

He says he's one of the lucky people with the disease. It's relatively slow moving. I asked what keeps him positive. He recounts what he told Illyssa 12 years ago, when she was diagnosed with cancer. He told her she had great doctors, that she was going to beat the illness, which she ultimately did. And, he said, he didn't want her to wallow in fear and misery.

TIM GREEN: I said because we have a very good life. And if you have a good life, it's never long enough.

GOLDMAN: Outside the house, there's a sculpture of a lone football player running, catching a pass. Tim says it's an homage to the game that let him buy, in his words, this amazing property and build a comfortable home. It's a home and a family in it that now mean even more than they have all along. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Skaneateles, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIM ASPEN'S "FLOATING")

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