Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Coach with Parkinson's inspires on and off the field

By Don Horton, Special to CNN
updated 12:53 PM EST, Wed November 6, 2013
  • Coach Don Horton was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at 48
  • He found himself in the locker room, unable to button his own shirt
  • He calls the moment a "turning point in my life"

Editor's note: In The Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. Don Horton is currently coaching high school football, but he's also coached in all three NCAA divisions, and more than a dozen of his former players made it to the NFL. As a coach, he's been inspiring players for 30 years, but how he's coping with Parkinson's disease has been inspiring on and off the playing field.

(CNN) -- When I was 48, I was working at Boston College, at the pinnacle of my career and raising the family we had waited for so long to start. The last thing I was ready for was being told I had Parkinson's.

There we were, being warned that our lives were changing forever. Maura, my wife, didn't blink an eye. When we spoke of the disease, we were always positive and stayed strong. In hindsight, I realize how scared both of us silently were.

My daily activities didn't change. I worked, as all coaches do, extremely long days, but looming in the back of my mind was the disease and its progression.

To thwart the development I was able to stay active, something I had always been; however, I started to notice small changes, and the inability on some days to complete the simple tasks I had always done. That would come and go; it wasn't consistent. One day I was able to change a light bulb and the next time I would try, my hands would fail me.

Afraid to admit the decline was beginning, I never mentioned it to Maura, but I know she was watching, waiting to step in.

Parkinson's didn't stop his space walk

Maura started to notice my good days and bad days, and I would see her instinctively change our plans and schedule. She and the kids would jump in and help me the same way that my players had each others' backs on the field.

I fondly remember the loving moments of my two girls helping me button my shirt in the morning, though those moments were bittersweet. Shouldn't I be helping them?

My newfound clumsiness was beginning to be the elephant in the room, and the locker room was where it decided to expose itself.

We had just lost a well-fought game and had to catch the team plane. I had spent all of my energy on the field, and there was nothing left my body would give me.

With my hands unable to steady themselves, I couldn't button my shirt. A task so simple, mastered at age 5, was now gone. My weaknesses were completely exposed, and there I was, unable to get dressed on my own.

One of my college players, Russell Wilson (now the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback), noticed. He came over and helped me in silence, the way Maura or the girls would.

I didn't really realize that my players had watched this painful process I was going through. Players were always a part of our family, but here I realized that now I was a part of theirs. This moment was the turning point in my life and changed how I was going to address my condition.

NASCAR driver races to stop diabetes

My pride was out the window. I was hoping to make a difference in my players' lives, and now they were watching this unfold. Would they still respect me? Would I still have a job?

All those fears that I had pushed to the back came flooding to the surface. I was afraid to tell Maura, afraid that she would think less of me as her husband, less of me as a parent.

Instead, everyone dug in and helped secure my dignity in their own ways. All the years of preaching perseverance was paying off.

My disease continues to progress despite the fight we rally. I cannot count the things I've lost. That list is extensive, but I prefer to take the lead from another coach, the legendary Tom Landry -- "I've learned that something constructive comes from every defeat" -- and now, I am blessed with the things that I have gained.

My path may have changed course from where I started, but I am grateful that it has not hit a dead end.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Wed July 10, 2013
A few hours after I was born, our doctor told my parents that I had Down syndrome. Now I manage a restaurant.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Fri March 22, 2013
This country boy wasn't going down without a fight. "I realized that I needed to stop dwelling on being diagnosed with a chronic disease."
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
In doing the Push Across America, Ryan Chalmers wanted to help promote disability sports in the United States.
updated 4:38 PM EDT, Tue April 9, 2013
After surviving the Bataan Death March, Lester Tenney founded an organization that sends care packages to troops.
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Mon March 25, 2013
Chelsea Roff nearly died from complications of anorexia. She wants to serve as a "beacon of light" for others.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Thu March 21, 2013
Youssif was attacked and burned in his Baghdad yard in 2006. CNN viewers and readers paid for him to come to the United States for treatment.
updated 1:56 PM EST, Thu January 17, 2013
I've been given this opportunity to use my voice for those who don't have one or have yet to find theirs.