Rob Oller: Mystery illness can't rob Brian Baschnagel of Thanksgiving blessings
The former Ohio State wingback suffers from dizziness and slurred speech, but he's thankful his condition isn't worse.
Brian Baschnagel never looked twice before crossing the goal line. See the hole. Hit the hole. No hesitation. But that was decades ago. The former Ohio State wingback now finds himself carefully looking twice before crossing the street.
Baschnagel’s legs that once gained 432 yards in a 1972 high school game and averaged 7.6 yards a carry at Ohio State are now wobbly. The lack of balance has to do with his lower back. Or his brain. Or genetics. Even after 2½ years of testing, doctors are baffled by what is causing dizziness in the 66-year-old who has lived in Chicago since retiring from the Bears after their Super Bowl win in the 1985 season.
The mystery illness also affects his speech. The Pittsburgh accent that Baschnagel picked up after his family moved from New York to western Pennsylvania in the 1960s now comes in slurred slow motion, giving the unsuspecting listener pause. Baschnagel forgives anyone wondering if he has had too much to drink.
“I’m a little sensitive about it,” he said. “I feel like people will think, especially in combination with my lack of balance, that I’m drunk or on drugs. Maybe it’s more that I’m a little insecure. But my speech won’t hurt me. A fall will. Balance is a bigger issue. I’ve already fallen.”
Just not while crossing the street. Not yet anyway, but only because he is extra careful at intersections.
“Walking across the road I can’t hustle or move quickly,” he said.
Growing up watching the Buckeyes in the mid-1970s, I recall Baschnagel being all hustle and quick movement. Torn between asking for a Baschnagel No. 48 jersey or an Archie Griffin No. 45 for my birthday, Archie won in a photo finish.
The teammates were even closer than that behind the scenes.
“Brian helped me personally,” said Griffin, who wonders if he would have won even one Heisman Trophy if not for Baschnagel’s impressive practice habits. “I would make sure I worked out with him because I knew he could run forever. He didn’t get tired. If I could keep up, I knew I would be in the best shape I could be in.”
Griffin hesitated before lamenting, “It’s just hard to imagine what’s happening with Brian. He was one of the leaders on the team. A Rhodes Scholar candidate. An unbelievable person.”
Here is where the story must turn, from tough luck to thanksgiving and blessing, because Baschnagel sees himself not as a victim but as incredibly fortunate. As he put it, “the lollipops outweigh the negatives.”
He is not dying. Doctors have ruled out Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mentally, he remains sharp. Emotionally, well, is it so wrong to sob during Hallmark commercials?
“The only other symptom I can relate is that I get emotional very easily over the stupidest stuff,” he said chuckling. “And 99% of the time it’s always a happy event. The other day I’m watching a show and one of the characters had a baby and I started crying. I knew it wasn’t a true thing, but I was happy for her. It just came out.”
Baschnagel also gets emotional talking about Mindy, his wife of 37 years, and his children, Mallory, Allie and Luke.
“I’m handling it all pretty good, and a lot of that has to do with the support of family,” he said.
There are frustrations, of course. What bothers Baschnagel most is not knowing exactly what is happening to his body.
“What I need are answers, good or bad,” he said. “The fact that I don’t know if it’s getting worse … not knowing what it’s going to be like five years down the road, that concerns me.”
Could it be CTE, the brain disease all too familiar with former football players and which requires an autopsy to be diagnosed with complete accuracy? Baschnagel kidded that he isn’t ready for that, but seriously doubts playing football from middle school through nine seasons in the NFL contributed to his medical issues.
So what’s going on? Baschnagel said MRIs have returned negative for deterioration of the brain’s cerebellum, which regulates balance, impacts speech and emotions. Heredity could be a cause, although his mother, who died in 2019, tested negative for genetic anomalies. His father died more than 30 years ago from a stroke, but doctors ruled out both stroke and heart attack in the son.
Baschnagel will have an electromyography procedure next week to determine if lower back pain may be contributing to his struggles with balance. The odd thing, though good news, is that none of his health problems is worsening.
For that, he is thankful, as he is for former Ohio State and Chicago teammates who have encouraged him through what has been an almost four-year medical mystery tour.
But things could be much more depressing, he said, explaining that he still manages to work out an hour a day on a stationary bike. And it matters to him that he can still mow the lawn.
Mostly, Baschnagel wants no one feeling sorry for him.
“To me that is worse than what I’m dealing with,” he said. “I keep thinking of Lou Gehrig, his comment when talking in Yankee Stadium about how he was the luckiest man on earth. I feel that way. I’ve lived a very good life and consider myself to be very fortunate.”
Don’t cry for this guy. Cry with him instead, when something beautiful happens. That’s how he wants it this Thanksgiving.