Adamle's struggle: 'I can feel the decline every single day'

Mike Adamle poses for a photograph at his home Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, in Evanston, Ill. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Credit: John J. Kim

Credit: John J. Kim

Mike Adamle poses for a photograph at his home Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, in Evanston, Ill. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Mike Adamle was holding court.

In the kitchen of his Evanston, Ill., home, he was waving his arms, telling jokes like a late-night host, reciting an old football poem he wrote, "The Ballad of Special Teams," and rattling off phrases in Spanish, Russian and Korean.

Adamle, 68, a retired NBC5 sports anchor and former Bears running back, doesn't seem like someone who's exhibiting the symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the crippling brain disease that has affected many football players.

But the Mike Adamle who can command a room is just the surface.

Adamle's neurologist, Michael Smith of Rush University Medical Center, said Adamle has post traumatic epilepsy, which is "caused by sort of a bruising of the brain, and that happens with concussions."

"He has had behavioral changes, he has had mood changes, he has judgment changes. He has had cognitive and memory changes. All that's consistent with CTE," Smith said.

Adamle's wife, Kim, said her husband's life has changed dramatically in the last few years. She relates a story from last winter that illustrates how one loose thread can leave him unraveled.

"Mike's able to be pretty independent, right," she said. "He hasn't been able to drive for a year and a half but he can take the train, go down to the East Bank Club (gym), and use his CTA card to come back.

"Well ... he's downtown, he can't get on the train, and he lost his card. So what does he do? He starts walking. ... He's telling me this, and he goes, 'I can't get an Uber. ... My Uber app won't work, I don't know why.' And he goes, 'Oh, and my phone's going to die' " because he forgot to charge it.

The Adamles rely on routines, but one small problem can send Mike into a spiral. Impulsivity, frustration and anger set in. While Kim was trying to figure out his location, Mike hung up on her.

She called the NBC Sports desk, where Mike had worked until he went on leave in 2016, a year before he retired in March, and asked if someone could go out and see if he was wandering near NBC Tower, put him in a taxi and send him home.

"Mike luckily had come into the building," she said, "and was talking to the security guard."

He made it home safely.

Mike Adamle is adamant that he's not going to wait around for the disease to claim the rest of his faculties. He and Kim have gone on the offensive, partnering with Boston University's CTE Center and the Concussion Legacy Foundation to create a national support network for suspected CTE victims and their families, called the Mike Adamle Project: Rise Above, set to launch in late January.

Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO Chris Nowinski said his group agreed to host the Adamle Project on its website to reach more people quicker.

"It's perfect timing for us because we're looking to grow our family and patient services for those with CTE," he said.

In October, the Adamles testified before a House Judiciary Committee forum on traumatic brain injuries alongside Boston University neurological researchers Ann McKee and Robert A. Stern and former NFL players Harry Carson and DeAndre Levy among others.

"I can feel the decline every single day practically," Mike told House Democratic members. "You are going around like this, and then the next thing you know you drop down a little bit. And you not as sharp as you once were. Then you drop it down a little bit. You start to get scared. When you get scared, a lot of things happen."

Mike Adamle admitted during his Tribune interview that he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about his mortality.

"You pop up like this. It's hard not to, it happens to a zillion people every day on the planet Earth," he said. "I'll be gone. I'd like to make that a little longer and I definitely don't want to spend it in an old folks home; that's never going to happen. So we just keep on going until."

It gives his project a sense of urgency.

"This is part of something bigger," he said. "We're supposed to leave this planet having done something that really mattered."

One thing Adamle wants to change about football culture for sure is "the man" thing where getting your bell rung was just a "red badge of courage."

"I'm good friends with almost every single one of the '85 Bears," he said. "Otis Wilson is one of them and we were talking one night, and he said, 'That was normal, man. We just got dinged.' "

At the second annual CTE conference at Boston University in early November, Adamle was adamant when asked how he would make the game safer. "I said, 'Listen, if you have some (expletive) father grabbing you or coach that's grabbing you and attacking your masculinity get rid of him! Don't even let that guy coach anymore!' "

While the Adamles' new project will rely on guidance from the research community, it also will pull supporters from several of the couple's contacts in football, including the 2,500-member NFL wives Facebook group.

"A lot of us, we've coalesced under a lot of different issues," Kim said. "The younger wives don't want to hear about it. They're traumatized by what we're going through. And so that (younger) group has made a rule that they don't want to talk about CTE now. They need to hear about it."

The Adamles' network also embraces a mostly overlooked sector: college football players and their families.

"They have no advocacy and no voice and no resources," Kim said. "I have a couple of women who have come to me just in tears. Young families, little kids, and their husbands are going through _ they're husbands in their young 30s _ and going through this thing and they're lost. ... and their husbands are young enough in their careers, they have no money either."

"There's almost no services. ... We don't have doctors who are trained to treat it," said Nowinski, adding that there were only 45 confirmed cases of CTE worldwide as recently as 2008. "We are starting from square one."

Nowinski said the professionals can learn a lot from caregivers like Kim, who keeps a color-coded binder to make sense of the procedures to follow to get financial assistance from resources for Mike such as the NFL's Plan 88, and she hopes to use it as a playbook for other families.

"You have the medical system, you have all the insurance things, you have disability and/or Social Security, you have pensions and investments, you have the NFL you're dealing with and all the different things," Kim said. "You have the legal system because of the NFL settlement. ... Logistically, it's a nightmare.

"And not only that, you're trying to deal with it while you're raising a family, while you're caring for the man and now you are the sole breadwinner in the house. ... Part of what we're doing is breaking it down for women to make it more manageable."

The Adamles stress that they don't have everything figured out.

"The hard side is," Kim said, "because it is progressive, it's like being on shifting sand. You never adjust to it."

Mike has periodic checkups with his doctor, and the most recent visit in October showed more erosion in some of his cognitive functions.

About Adamle, a Northwestern alumnus, Smith said: "Just like a lot of smart guys, he can hide dementia until you do specific testing. ... We saw between MRI scans that were 10 years apart. We saw approximately a 1 percent per year change (in brain volume), a 10 percent decrease over 10 years, which is pretty dramatic."

Kim said. "You think you have it, you understand what to do and how to handle it, and then, like Mike says, there's more slippage. Every day you see a bit of that. We can only slow that down at this point, hopefully."

Slowing that down means constantly challenging Adamle's brain by taking up new skills and hobbies, avoiding junk food and exercising.

Adamle's on record with Congress that "if I have another bite of kale I think I'll puke."

Adamle ballroom dances, too, but he used to relish more strenuous exercise _ he has run in two Ironman triathlons _ but doctors recently advised he cut back on physical activities when they discovered a congenital heart condition that will require a pacemaker.

He copes with his disappointment and explains his dementia to friends through a comedy monologue, where he jokes that his brain's neurons have cousins like "Teflon" and "Moron."

Says Adamle, smiling, "If you can't make fun of something ...being like this is a lot more fun than being the other way."