Commentary

Indiana coach, wife, battle MS

Updated: September 17, 2010, 4:36 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- If at first glance, Mick and Elizabeth Lyon appear no different than the quintessential modern married couple, it's because they are not. They walk their dogs, Vivian and Max. They manage professional careers and juggle busy schedules between work and home. Whenever Mick, coach of the women's soccer team at Indiana University, has a home game, Elizabeth stops after work to pick up pizza for the pep band.

[+] EnlargeMick Lyon
IU Media RelationsMick Lyon plans to keep coaching as long as he can.

They live their everyday lives.

Three times a week, they inject themselves with a drug designed to slow the effects of multiple sclerosis -- which allows them to keep living normally as long as possible.

For better, for worse, in sickness or in health, the Lyon's story is one of a couple with what most would consider improbably bad luck. In reality, it's a story of two people with the impossibly good fortune to find each other first.

"Don't think anything different; nothing's going to change," Mick told his players when he revealed his illness in 2006. "I'm just letting you guys know, if you see me fall over, don't worry about it. I'll get back up. I don't want you to think that's who I am; it's just something I'm carrying with me, a little bit of baggage I've got."

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society lists the risk of developing the disease in the United States as 1 in 750. Precise odds aside, it doesn't take a math degree to extrapolate that "improbable" is an understatement if talking about spouses being diagnosed with the same not communicable, not contagious disease within two years of each other.

The odds are about as long as a young woman from Brown County, Ind., and a young man from Lincolnshire, England, ending up on a blind date at a Huey Lewis & the News concert in Evansville, Ind., more than 20 years ago.

Mick came to the University of Evansville to play soccer after growing weary of the sport's lower rungs back home where, as he put it, the balls get longer and the tackles get harder. Elizabeth was also in Evansville for school, but unlike Mick she was born and raised in basketball country (she was in the stands at Assembly Hall when Bobby Knight tossed a chair across the court and into immortality). She didn't even know Evansville had a soccer team, let alone an All-American from England, but when mutual friends suggested they meet, she bought the concert tickets and asked him out.

"We'd never met each other, but we did that night, and that was it," Mick said. "We became instant friends and two years later, we were married."

Instead of returning to England or trying to make another run at a professional soccer career, he finished his degree at Evansville and entered the coaching ranks, first as an assistant on the men's team at his alma mater and then as coach of the school's brand new women's program. Eager to have his own program but unsure of the gender jump, he made the move on the advice of friends like current Missouri women's coach Bryan Blitz, then the women's coach at Butler, and on the counsel of Elizabeth, who told him soccer is soccer and teaching is teaching.

Unfortunately for me, because I want to win all the time, I want to find a way to beat it. And I can't sometimes accept that we can't beat it. I always want to be better than it. I want to be better than what the disease is and beat it because I always want to win everything.

-- Mick Lyon

"After one year, I'm like, 'I love this; this just fits right in with me,'" Mick said.

Elizabeth still isn't entirely sure how many players each team has on the field, but when she came home from work one day in 2002 and saw cream and crimson streamers tied to the mailbox excitement over her husband's new job at Indiana led her to park the car in the first available spot. In this instance, the middle of the lawn.

"I probably spent the first three or four years [coaching women] trying to figure out who the female athlete really was," Mick said. "But I had a great resource in my wife, who is brilliant in her own way in her field, and is never short of wanting to give me advice if I ask for it -- honest advice."

But within weeks of Mick accepting the job at Indiana in the summer of 2002, Elizabeth was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that disrupts the central nervous system and causes a variety of neurological symptoms of variable severity, including impairment of motor skills, speech fluency and balance.

Perhaps equal parts stubbornly defiant and defiantly stubborn, Elizabeth insisted neither the diagnosis nor the disease would define her. An avid runner, who started competing in marathons before the diagnosis, she continued running -- not as fast as when she qualified for the Boston Marathon but running all the same. She hopes to compete in at least one more marathon, perhaps in front of Mick's family in London next year. That determined spirit made it easier in the initial months while the couple was split between Evansville and Bloomington, Ind., until Elizabeth could relocate. Mick had to be in Bloomington to tend to all the demands of his new program at Indiana.

"I don't think there was much guilt," Mick recalled. "But I certainly felt like, 'OK, well, now it's my responsibility even more to take care of her. Whatever else happens or is going on or whatever is happening in my life, the No. 1 thing is I've got to make sure I take care of her.'"

Mick's was not a plan that included waking up one morning to find he was unable make his left leg do what he wanted. Staying at his brother's while in England on a recruiting trip in 2004, he finished his day with a run of about three or four miles, his normal routine. The next morning, his left leg was unresponsive. He could walk, but the complex interaction between mind and muscles required to run, which can easily be taken for granted, had broken down.

Whatever you want to ascribe it to -- being an athlete, being mule stubborn, being a husband intent on putting his wife's health first -- he kept quiet and told himself it would go away. It didn't; it kept getting worse. He couldn't run anymore, and as the weeks progressed, his speech started to slur. Even Elizabeth, whose experience as a physical therapist led her to suspect her own diagnosis before it came, didn't put the clues together.

"I thought he had a drinking problem," Elizabeth said, recalling a particular incident when he fell walking down the steps while attending another IU sporting event and someone nearby jokingly asked if he'd had too much to drink. "I thought, 'I don't think he did. I was with him. But what is wrong with him?' The slurring, the falling, you just wonder. It's so funny because it should have been right in front of me."

Mick finally confided in the team physician, who sent him to a local neurologist (Elizabeth sees a different neurologist in Evansville). It's perhaps more often the patient left speechless when a diagnosis like MS is given, but when the neurologist asked him if he knew anything about the disease she was the one dumbfounded to learn why he could respond in the affirmative.

[+] EnlargeMick and Elizabeth Lyon
Courtesy Elizabeth LyonsMick and Elizabeth Lyon have an unusual bond.

Multiple sclerosis does not manifest itself uniformly. It is unpredictable. The exact course and symptoms for one person rarely match those of another. People like Elizabeth and the largest percentage of MS sufferers, who are diagnosed with the relapsing remitting form of the disease, experience periods of waxing and waning symptoms, including periods of remission in which there may be few, if any, outward signs of the disease. Those suffering from progressive forms of MS experience a more continual evolution of effects, potentially to debilitating extremes. The forms the disease takes are not mutually exclusive, as relapsing remission may also show or develop progressive elements.

Mick, 46, describes his MS as mildly progressive. He's down from the five or six miles he routinely ran before being diagnosed to three or four laps around the soccer pitch, but that is not to say he's frail. He still looks like a cross between a soccer player and a middleweight boxer, and he's adamant that if can't run, he'll bike. And if he can't bike, he'll ride horses.

But there is no escaping the one indisputable truth of an unpredictable disease. There is no cure. Drug treatment is a continual effort at managing the symptoms and limiting flare-ups.

"Unfortunately for me, because I want to win all the time, I want to find a way to beat it," Mick said. "And I can't sometimes accept that we can't beat it. I always want to be better than it. I want to be better than what the disease is and beat it because I always want to win everything. Whereas I've got to be able to say, as Elizabeth tells me, 'You can't win everything. All you can do is do the best that you possibly can.'"

He has the support of the athletic department at Indiana, and the Hoosiers certainly remain an improving product on the field (they reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 2007). He and Elizabeth spend more time than most couples their age researching long-term care and insurance options for their future, and he acknowledges a degree of fear about the disease eventually taking away a part of him more important than his daily run.

"In the back of the mind, there is fear in not being able to do this job at the level it needs to be done to be successful," Mick said. "Because, I mean, I've dedicated my life to this sport. From the farthest back I can remember, being about eight years old and playing on my first team, the sport has defined me. I love it in every respect that could possibly be out there."

Nobody understands that better than his wife, even if the offsides rule remains a mystery to her after all these years. She understands it as someone diagnosed with the same disease. She understands it because of what intertwined their lives long before MS. She understands that the day may come when she understands better than he does that it's time to walk away.

"I offer my opinion, as I'm sure he has told you, more times than I should because that's just how I am," Elizabeth said. "Ultimately, he will do what's right for him. He'll either listen to me or he won't, and he'll make the decision he thinks is best for him at the time, which is what we all do. We make good decisions and we make decisions we wish we had done differently. But I think when and if -- and we don't know that that time will come, the disease is so unpredictable -- I do think I'll see it before he does. But I'll have to find a way to let him discover it because that's how he's wired."

Until the time comes to make that decision, Mick and Elizabeth Lyon will go living each day, just like everyone else.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.