BY JAN THATCHER ADAMS, MD
When I was a child of seventeen, I lived in a fairy tale of my own creation. I could do this because, like most seventeen year olds, I knew everything. I had worked hard to be independent and to excel at academics, music, and sports. In addition, I understood family tragedy and financial struggle, through my own life experience. So what else was there to know about life? The world was safe, bright, and waiting to regale me with all the juicy fun stuff of living.
In 1962, as a seventeen-year-old high school graduate in Boone, Iowa, I received a full- ride scholarship to Drake University, in Des Moines. I could never otherwise afford this wonderful university. My attendance there would change my life forever. For me, Drake was the opening into the fairy tale chapters of the book of my life.
The ground support of these chapters starting at Drake included three jobs that kept me financially afloat while at college. For academics, I carried a double major in music and pre-med. This allowed me to play my cello in the Des Moines Symphony, to sing in a first rate chorus, and to practice on a spectacular, thrilling pipe organ. I found the science class work equally intriguing and stimulating. I was “rushed” and joined a top sorority. I dated many amazing and often wealthy young men from all over America. This was all completely heady fairy tale stuff for a small town Iowa girl.
And then I met the college football mega hero, senior Karl Kassulke. Besides his legendary football prowess, Karl (nicknamed “cowboy” by the Des Moines Register for his bow legs and rowdy style of play) had a jolly, unique quick laugh and an easy way about him. And he actually wanted to be with me. I couldn’t believe it! In true fairy tale form, we quickly fell in love and got engaged. Before my 18 th birthday, we announced our engagement to our surprised parents. So, at the completion of my freshman year at Drake, at the age of 18, I married my hero, who had already been drafted into the NFL to play pro football. And I absolutely knew he would make it into the pros. I had no idea how few men ever make it from the hundreds who are drafted.
Were there any red flags to the illusion of this fairy tale? Of course there were. There was the occasional excessive drinking, the alcoholic genetics, and the groupies. Did I pay any attention? Of course not. Who pays attention when in the middle of unbelievable good energy and fortune? Me, a small town girl suddenly catapulted into the world of celebrity with a man I adored. I was giddy. And of course I was absolutely certain I could easily change Karl’s few destructive habits, because he loved me completely.
For the next few years, the fairy tale continued. I went to the University of Minnesota to get a bachelor of science degree and go on to be one of the few women admitted to medical school. I thrived, though just one of fifteen women in a class of 250. Karl played top level pro football for the Minnesota Vikings, at the strong safety position, eventually becoming all pro. These were the salad years of the Vikings, the age of the Purple People Eaters and the first super bowl.
We created two wonderful sons, played thousands of games of cribbage, and built our own new home in Burnsville, which was a huge suburb of 5,000 people. Together we became media darlings, because of the unusual combination of the athlete and the scholar. Everybody knew us or wanted to know us, and we knew many of the great entertainment, sports, and political celebrities of the time. The world was our oyster. All doors were open, all possibility shiny.
But the darkness of real life was biding time behind the scene. This particular darkness, which eventually destroyed my marriage, was named concussion. About four years ago, a small group of researchers at Boston University began describing the damaged brains of pro football players, and the life effects of this damage. Prior to this, families, players, physicians, and team officials lived in complete denial, never thinking how the many concussions the players received might be affecting them. As it turns out, repeated concussions can have devastating effects on the traumatized brain.
The name of this problem is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. It’s symptoms are many, but early on they include memory, concentration, and attention loss: disorientation, confusion, depression, and suicide: dizziness and headaches: poor judgement and lack of insight: and aggression, impulsiveness, and sudden rages. Because the problem is a progressive, chronic brain deterioration, it can progress to health problems that look like Parkinson’s, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, dementia, and premature death.
After every football game, Karl, famed for his ferocious tackling, bragged “ Well, I got my bell rung three times today”. “Getting your bell rung” meant concussion, from mild “seeing stars and momentary confusion” to unconsciousness. It was a badge of honor, a symbol of physical and mental toughness. And unless you wanted to lose your position, the concussed player went right back in the game after each head injury.
And so, as the concussions piled up, this very good man, this devoted husband and father began to do bad things. I did not understand why, and grieved as I saw the man I knew fade into a stranger. The next to the last chapter of this fairy tale began with a late night telephone call from one of Karl’s women groupies. Things went rapidly downhill from this point, with Karl seemingly unaware of the damage his behavior brought to his marriage.
Some years later, Karl was at a point where he might forget entire days of his life. Around this time, the last chapter of the fairy tale opened with his sudden, inexplicable rage and lacerating fist blow to my head, and the whole book ended with our divorce. The fairy tale was over. Reality was the title of the next book of my life.
But, I was raised to believe that life would be what I made of it, a trite but true saying. So our lives went on in the real world. Karl’s wild chapters ended with a motorcycle accident a year after our divorce, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, abruptly ending his ten year, all pro football career. I moved to Shakopee, and entered an all-consuming life as a mother and busy family practitioner. It was a challenging and rewarding time.
True to both of us, we still managed to experience life as a rich feast, and we each maintained the best hopes for the other. Karl found meaning through charitable service, his Christian conversion, and his sons. Our sons caused me great joy, and the privilege of being a healer and being present at the deliveries of over 3,000 babies was remarkable.
Once both my sons were off to college, I began expanding my charitable service, starting foundations to help kids both locally and internationally. I received awards, such as the KARE 11 Eleven Who Care Award. Eventually I began traveling to Russia and many other trouble spots on the planet with my friend, Dr. Patch Adams (no relation). We were clowning in orphanages, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and on the streets, strong in the knowledge that laughter is a strong healer. I branched out to the amazingly rewarding service of doctoring in unserved places in the world.
Of course, through all the joys of these years, trouble also tagged along, because this was real life. That is the nature of life, I learned, and those troubles brought the benefit of valuable lessons to teach me wisdom and better service as a person and as a physician.
So, since 2000, I have married my beloved Russian husband, Dmitri( introduced to me by our friend, Patch), travelled the world in service, suffered a collapsed back with two emergency surgeries, approached death from cancer and radiation complications, had two surgeries to shore up a collapsed foot, acquired a pacemaker and wrote a book about my years with Karl.
It was while I was suffering near fatal setbacks from the cancer, having lost 100 pounds, that Karl suddenly and unexpectedly died. At his funeral, the long lingering and un- resolved questions about what happened to our marriage (for we truly did love each other) were suddenly thrust front and center when another Viking wife told me about CTE. I went home from the funeral to research CTE. To my complete amazement, I saw Karl written on every page, and I finally understood that long-ago unfinished chapter.
So, that chapter really was closed, in a good way. But, since I was so ill, I had to stop practicing medicine. I missed it terribly, but when people asked why I didn’t practice anymore, I joked – “I finally got it right! I don’t have to practice anymore.” Now I am so blessed and grateful. I have survived the cancer, and gone back to work, after nearly four years of recovering. It feels like I never missed a day. What a huge gift to me!
So, what does this real life story mean? Does it have anything to do with all of us? It surely does. Life, as it turns out, is not a fairy tale for anyone. There are many stages, or chapters in each of our lives, some more challenging than others. But if one can hold to the sure belief that happiness is a birthright, and can live each day with gratitude, joy, and laughter, even the darkest chapters can be not only navigated, but mined for the lessons they provide.
Do I recommend marrying at an early age? No! Do I regret marrying Karl? No!
Do I recommend that parents, coaches of all sports, and doctors familiarize themselves with CTE and do everything in their power to protect the precious brains of our young people? Emphatically yes!
Right now, concussion prevention is the only known way to prevent CTE, (there are an estimated 300,000-3,000,000 sports related concussions every year) though perhaps allowing a concussion to heal completely may also turn out to be valuable. Time will tell.
Would I ever recommend marrying a celebrity? Mamma’s, don’t let your babies marry a celebrity! This isn’t completely fair, of course. There are many solid marriages and wonderful marriage partners among celebrities, but it is a more difficult way to go.
Have I learned my lessons about reality versus fairy tale? I would hope so.
But, reality can be just as wonderful as a fairy tale, lived with juicy joy and laughter. For the wisdom and truth and knowledge my challenges have taught me, I am deeply grateful. I still feel I have lived the most privileged life imaginable.
As for Karl, well, I’m sure wherever he is, he’s laughing, joking, and beating his partners at his beloved game of cribbage.
Jan Thatcher Adams, MD is author of the book, “Football Wife: Coming of Age With The NFL as Mrs. Karl Kassulke” and lives in Shakopee, MN