Parkinson's isn't deterring Kennedy
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Someday soon, Billy Kennedy vows he'll respond to the cards and letters.
"There must be two, three hundred of them," the Texas A&M coach says, sifting through the piles of envelopes stacked side by side on the hardwood floor of his College Station home.
Some of the messages came from coaching colleagues such as Bill Self and Billy Gillispie. Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer -- a man Kennedy hardly knows -- sent a "get well" memo. And a Texas A&M professor had each member of his class sign an oversized card that Kennedy reads almost every evening.
"Thinking about you," one student wrote.
"Thank God for each day. It's all a wonderful gift," penned another.
Kennedy closes the card and places it on a dresser. Standing in the center of his home office, Kennedy is surrounded by dozens of plaques and awards he's won during his 27 years of coaching and, more importantly, by photos of former players. Jason Kidd and Tony Gonzalez from Cal stare at Kennedy from one wall. On another is a picture of his Murray State team beating Vanderbilt in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament.
Unbeknownst to her husband, Mary Kennedy decorated the room nearly three months ago while Billy slept upstairs, ordered to his bed by doctors. When he was finally was summoned from the bedroom, Kennedy discovered more than a spruced-up office.
He found a new motivation.
"I think my wife did it because she knew it would affect me," Kennedy said. "Seeing those pictures and having those memories it was a reminder that my mission in life is to be a coach, that this is what I'm supposed to do.
"At that point, I knew I'd be able to keep going."
Kennedy's future in the profession was something he questioned last fall. Just three months after leaving Murray State for his "dream job" at Texas A&M, Kennedy was diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's disease.
One day the 47-year-old coach was hosting recruits and preparing to coach an Aggies squad that had been picked in the preseason to win the Big 12, the next he was staring at his bedroom ceiling, unable to sleep as he thought about his family, his career, his life.
"Anxiety, depression all of that stuff can set in," Kennedy said. "I was thinking about things I shouldn't have been thinking about -- about the future and the possibility that things could go south.
"I had this great new job. Recruiting was going well and practice was about to start. Then all of a sudden, I'm hit with this. I was like, 'There's no way this can be happening to me.'"
Hours before he was offered the Texas A&M job, Billy Kennedy purchased a maroon tie.
Kennedy had spent the morning in Tunica, Miss., speaking at a coaching convention. As he prepared to approach the podium, a friend stopped Kennedy and told him word was spreading that the Aggies had decided to hire him to replace Mark Turgeon, who had left for Maryland.
Anxiety, depression all of that stuff can set in. I was thinking about things I shouldn't have been thinking about -- about the future and the possibility that things could go south.
-- Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy
Kennedy had trouble concentrating during his 60-minute speech. After a half-hour, he paused and said, "How much longer am I supposed to talk?"
On the 198-mile drive back to Murray, Ky., Kennedy -- who was with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, Anna Cate -- stopped in a Memphis, Tenn., clothing store and picked out an Aggie-colored tie he could wear to an introductory press conference. Just in case.
Kennedy lost cell phone service as he drove through small Tennessee towns such as McKenzie and Paris. When he finally regained a signal, a voicemail was waiting with a job offer from Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne. Kennedy returned the call and accepted.
"Billy doesn't have a whole lot of excitement or hyper in him," Mary said. "But after that call, we pulled over to the side of the road and had our little moment. It was a big day for him."
Indeed, Kennedy loved his head-coaching stints at Southeastern Louisiana (1999-2005) and Murray State (2006-11). But ever since spending the 1990-91 season as an assistant under Tony Barone at Texas A&M, Kennedy had been infatuated with College Station.
Kennedy attended Holy Cross prep school in New Orleans, an all-boys academy where discipline and leadership were heavily stressed. So Kennedy took an interest in Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets and the sense of unity and camaraderie that hovered over the campus.
Most basketball coaches strive to land jobs at tradition-rich programs such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas. But for the last 20 years, when people had asked Kennedy to name the school where he'd most like to be a head coach, his answer was always the same.
Kennedy and his family were days away from a vacation to Florida when he was introduced in College Station on May 17. Instead of relaxing on the beach, Kennedy immediately went to work.
He spoke to as many groups on campus as time would allow and spent a good portion of June running youth basketball camps. He was on the road recruiting for almost the entire month of July and, in August, he coached the Aggies during their exhibition tour of Europe.
Through it all, Kennedy was having difficulty sleeping. A pain that had lingered in his left shoulder was becoming more and more intense, but Kennedy wanted to wait until his new insurance policy kicked in on Sept. 1 to have it examined. An MRI finally revealed that Kennedy had bone spurs, but doctors were uncertain of the cause.
Kennedy visited a neurologist, and his left hand began to shake during a series of movement and stress tests. His left arm was weak and, when he walked, it didn't swing like his right one. Mary had teased her husband about it for months, but she assumed it was because of his shoulder pain.
Instead the neurologist revealed the root of the problem. He diagnosed Kennedy with Parkinson's disease, an incurable, degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement.
He had just caught his big break career-wise. Then reality came along and punched him right in the gut.
--Kansas coach Bill Self
According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, Parkinson's develops gradually, often starting with a barely noticeable tremor in one hand. Other signs and symptoms may include slowness of movement, rigidity and impaired posture.
The progression of Parkinson's varies among individuals. Some people live with mild symptoms for many years, while others develop movement difficulties more quickly.
Three months after experiencing his highest high, Kennedy was suddenly at his lowest low.
"He had just caught his big break career-wise," said Self, the Kansas coach. "Then reality came along and punched him right in the gut."
Kennedy's initial reaction to the diagnosis was to pretend it never happened. At least publicly. Two weeks after he was given the news, he returned with his wife to the neurologist's office to get a better explanation of the disease and what to expect in the coming months and years.
"You're young," Kennedy said he was told. "You can keep doing everything you've been doing."
Kennedy left the meeting and met a recruit for dinner. Then he drove 98 miles to Houston to pick up a white Labrador puppy named Buddy he'd purchased for Anna Cate, who would be celebrating her birthday the following afternoon. Kennedy attended the party, gave the dog to his daughter then headed to a Texas A&M football game, just as he would any other weekend.
Other than Kennedy's wife and assistant, Glynn Cyprien, no one knew anything was wrong.
"I didn't face it," Kennedy said. "I just threw it to the side and kept going. I tried to hide it. I thought I could keep going without anyone ever knowing a thing."
For nearly a month, Kennedy spoke with as many alumni groups as possible and hit the recruiting trails as if nothing had happened.
Inside, however, the coach was a wreck.
Some days, Kennedy wondered if it was in his best interest to keep coaching, but then he'd remember the assistants who had moved their families to College Station because they believed in him and vision. What about those people? And what about his own family? Kennedy has two children in college and another (Anna Cate) who will be there about 10 years from now. Quitting, he said, wouldn't have been good for anyone.
"If I had a couple million dollars, maybe I could've shut it down," Kennedy said. "But that wouldn't have been me. The timing was the biggest thing. If this would've happened during the spring, I could've attacked it head on.
"Instead I needed rest, but there was hardly any time for rest."
And when there was, Kennedy wasn't capable of getting any.
He'd come home from work each night and lay wide awake in bed, thinking about the disease and the long-term effect it could have on him and his family. He thought about celebrities such as Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox who had developed more severe symptoms of Parkinson's and wondered if he'd end up like them.
Kennedy would get up in the middle of the night and try to tire himself out by jogging, watching television, reading or listening to gospel music -- anything to take his mind off the situation and get him to go to sleep. But for six weeks, he said, he rarely dozed off for more than two hours a night.
"I can be out in front of people all day and don't need to recharge," Mary said. "I can go and go and go. But Billy is the type that needs to come home and recharge. He never could do that.
"There came a point where his body said, 'If you're not going to take care of this, I will.'"
Sensing he had reached the point of physical exhaustion, doctors ordered Kennedy to "shut things down." They advised him to take a leave of absence from the basketball program for at least three weeks -- not so much to deal with the issues regarding Parkinson's disease, but instead to catch up on the rest he'd missed since being diagnosed.
While Mary worked to decorate his office downstairs, Kennedy took advantage of his newly prescribed sleeping pills and got the rest he so desperately needed.
When Texas A&M announced that an "undisclosed medical condition" had prompted Kennedy's temporary absence from the program, cards and letters began pouring into his office from all over the country. Kennedy said the support of Texas A&M's administration made it easier to step away.
"They told me to take my time," Kennedy said. "Once they said that I knew I was going to be all right. You worry about those things from the business side of it. But when they said, 'Don't come back too soon. This is a long-term thing. You can handle this,' I thought, 'OK, I'm going to get this done.'"
Beneficial as it was to him health-wise, Kennedy's break from basketball couldn't have occurred at a worse time for the Aggies. Kennedy stepped away from the program the day before Texas A&M's first official workout and didn't return for three weeks.
The practices leading up to the start of a season are crucial for any team -- especially one with a new head coach. But with Kennedy resting at home, Cyprien ran the workouts and attempted to mold the team in the fashion his new boss requested.
"Coach Cyp did a great job, but he and Coach Kennedy do things a little differently," forward Ray Turner said. "We had to adjust to both of them."
Kennedy returned and coached the Aggies in their Nov. 13 victory over Texas Southern and accompanied the team to New York for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. Texas A&M lost to Mississippi State then defeated St. John's.
"I had only been back for a week and I didn't really know what was going on," Kennedy said, describing his emotions before the Mississippi State game on Nov. 17. "Still, I almost teared up when the game started. I thought, 'What a miracle for me to be here when I was totally crashed out three weeks earlier.'
"When we beat St. John's and I didn't have anything to do with the win, I was like, 'OK, there's hope.' I realized we had good kids that were willing to buy in and work hard."
Kennedy has been back ever since, but his first year in College Station has been a struggle. Injuries to key players such as Khris Middleton and Kourtney Roberson and the transfer of freshman Jamal Branch have stymied the progress of the Aggies, who are 12-8 overall and 3-5 in Big 12 play.
Kennedy said missing so many practices during the preseason has affected how he coaches his team.
"Sometimes I think I'm too nice or too soft on them," Kennedy said. "I didn't get the chance to train them like I wanted to in those first three weeks. So now I'm having to do it in between games, which is hard to do. Basketball-wise, we're behind."
With Middleton and point guard Dash Harris dealing with nagging injuries, the Aggies were practicing with just eight scholarship players entering Wednesday's game against Baylor. In some ways it's baffling -- and unfair to Kennedy -- that the Aggies were picked to win the conference.
"It's not what we thought it was going to be like," Kennedy said of the state of the program he inherited. "There's nothing we can do about it other than catch up in recruiting. That's what we're doing right now.
"I've been getting out to high school games. People need to see me. They need to know that I'm good and that I'm going to be here a long time."
Kennedy doesn't take any medication for Parkinson's -- at least not yet -- and his doctors have told him he may be able to coach 15 or 20 more years. There are times when a sharp pain in his shoulder or a tremor in his hand reminds him of his condition, but for the most part, Kennedy's life isn't much different than it was prior to his diagnosis. He jogs, lifts weights and, most importantly, gets eight hours of sleep each night.
"The hardest part about the disease is that there's no science to it," Kennedy said. "It affects everyone differently. In 20 years I could be doing just as well as I am now. Or in 10 years, I could be on strong medication to help me maintain balance.
"There's no way to predict anything."
So Kennedy won't bother trying. Instead he'll relish the opportunity to continue coaching at a school where he continues to receive loads of encouragement and support.
"I believe God placed Texas A&M in Billy's heart," Mary said. "That dream came from [God]. He knew this situation was waiting for us when we got here. He knew this was the perfect place to be. He knew it was the perfect place for Billy as far as the community was concerned. The largest healthcare system in the world is an hour and a half down the road in Houston. God knew all of those things.
"There are a lot of things I may question, but His sovereignty isn't one of them. He is in control or our lives and we are not."
Back in his home office, Kennedy is still telling stories about the various pictures on his wall. There's a shot of Anna Cate helping him clip down the net after Murray State won the Ohio Valley conference tournament. Nearby are plaques honoring him as the conference's coach of the year.
With only a month remaining in the regular season, Murray State is the country's lone undefeated team. While his former assistant, Steve Prohm, deserves much of the credit, Kennedy takes pride in the Racers' success, too. His system worked there, and he's thankful for the chance to prove it can work at Texas A&M, too.
Kennedy thumbs through another stack of cards and letters.
"I'm going to get back to all of these people," he says. "But we've got some games to win first."
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.
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