LSU inspired by Steve Kragthorpe
In the end, Steve Kragthorpe decided, all he can do is laugh.
He tried crying. That lasted about a day. He tried getting mad. That lasted about a week. He tried holding a pity party, only to realize that he isn't even the sickest person in his own home. So Kragthorpe made a deal with his case of Parkinson's disease. He moved on with his life.
"I just kind of settled in," he said the other day.
Kragthorpe is the quarterback coach at LSU, the guy who has made fifth-year senior Jarrett Lee an effective leader of the No. 1 team in the nation. Kragthorpe will tell you Lee did the work. Tigers head coach Les Miles will tell you that Kragthorpe "is the best quarterback coach in America."
Miles hired Kragthorpe as his offensive coordinator last winter. The job represented the end of a long losing streak for Kragthorpe. He arrived at Louisville in 2007 as one of the hottest young head coaches in the game. Kragthorpe had taken over a 1-11 Tulsa team and driven the Golden Hurricane to three bowls in four seasons.
The magic didn't travel with him to Louisville, where he went 15-21 before being let go after the 2009 season. As the Cardinals sunk, going from 6-6 to 5-7 to 4-8, Kragthorpe remained a beacon of optimism amid the clouds that swirled about him.
"He is an unbelievable human being," said former Cardinal quarterback Justin Burke, now a graduate assistant for Kragthorpe's successor, Charlie Strong. "He's got an infectious attitude. Here at Louisville, it didn't go very well for him. But the way he came in every day and worked his butt off, even when things were down, was pretty unbelievable. The way he treats his players is the way I would want to treat mine. He knows how to inspire people."
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Soon after Kragthorpe left Louisville, Texas A&M head coach Mike Sherman hired him as offensive coordinator.
"And the Cindy deal happened," Kragthorpe said.
Cindy is his wife. Multiple sclerosis -- "the deal" -- hit her hard enough that Kragthorpe resigned from Texas A&M the week before the players reported in August 2010 in order to take care of her. By the time that Miles approached Kragthorpe after last season, Steve and Cindy felt good enough about her condition that he decided to re-enter the fray -- and at the very top.
"I guess the best way to describe it," Kragthorpe said, "the way kids talk nowadays, I really felt like, 'Man, I got my swagger back. I'm back doing what I like doing.' I really like calling the game. I was excited about that."
But the tremors came and the fatigue, the deadening fatigue. Kragthorpe learned in the summer that he is one of 50,000 Americans who are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year. Faced with the unknown of a progressive disease, faced with medication that can have debilitating side effects, Kragthorpe gave back the coordinating job.
"I wasn't sure what kind of days I was going to have," Kragthorpe said. "If there was a day when I couldn't be at practice, or something like that, it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the team for me to continue to [coordinate]."
He called a meeting of his five quarterbacks and explained his new life to them. Kragthorpe told them that his body, his speech and his cognitive ability all could be affected. He told them he believed he could still coach them. He told them he would continue to come in every day and work his butt off.
"As a coach, you always talk about overcoming adversity, fighting through everything," Kragthorpe said. "You talk to your players about doing that. I've talked it all these years. Now I've got to live it. I don't think it's affected my performance to coach these guys. I think they're prepared every week. It's a good life lesson for everybody, too, to kind of put things in perspective, especially with my wife's situation and everything, too."
He really wanted to call the plays. Coordinators love the chess match.
"I walked out for our first home game against Northwestern [La.] State," Kragthorpe said, "and I was kind of like, 'Yeah, this is so unfair that I'm not getting to do this tonight.' I had a little 'Poor me' going. I walked over, and I was warming up the quarterbacks, and I see this kid with cerebral palsy. He's probably about 13 years old. And I looked up in the sky and said, 'I gotcha.'"
Kragthorpe takes Requip, a powerful drug with a long list of side effects, almost none of which have affected him. It lasts 12 hours, so he usually takes it around 8 or 9 a.m. Since the game Saturday at No. 2 Alabama won't kick off until after 8 p.m. ET, Kragthorpe began Wednesday to take it a little later each day.
The other medicine he employs is laughter. His quarterback meetings do not include kid gloves.
"There will be situations where I'll have a hard time finding a word," Kragthorpe said. "It may take two seconds. I'll just flash two [fingers] up until I'll find the word. If I'm real tired, and my speech isn't immediate, and I'm stuttering, I'll say, 'Hey, I'm fixing to quit stuttering in a minute and really chew your ass right here.'"
Kragthorpe's message is clear, even if his words occasionally aren't. Billy Kennedy, the Texas A&M men's basketball coach, announced last week that he has Parkinson's. Kragthorpe plans to call him. After all, he knows how to inspire people.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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