Commentary

Pasquarelli: 'I take nothing for granted'

During Super Bowl week in Arizona nearly one year ago, ESPN.com senior writer Len Pasquarelli had quintiple bypass surgery. ESPN senior analyst Chris Mortensen recently conducted a Q&A with Pasquarelli.

Updated: January 26, 2009, 4:46 PM ET
By Chris Mortensen | ESPN.com

During Super Bowl week in Arizona nearly one year ago, longtime ESPN.com senior writer Len Pasquarelli, a member of the writers' wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had quintiple bypass surgery. About a month into his recovery, Pasquarelli contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that affects the nervous system. ESPN senior analyst Chris Mortensen recently conducted a Q&A with Pasquarelli, who will be in Tampa, Fla., to cover Super Bowl XLIII.

Mortensen: Len, I missed attending my first Super Bowl in many years last year in Arizona. Your fault -- just kidding, of course. Recap that weekend for us one year ago in Phoenix. You gutted it out, but how did you end up in the hospital?

Pasquarelli: I think it really started the Friday before the game when I began to feel like I was getting the flu or pneumonia. I know a lot of friends in our media community were sick that week, so I just figured I had whatever they had. I remember going to Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith's first press conference and standing outside waiting for him. I wanted to explain to him that I was sick and couldn't stay for the press conference. I felt much better that night ... and thought everything was over with.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome

About a month into his recovery from quintiple heart surgery, ESPN.com senior NFL writer Len Pasquarelli contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder that affects the nervous system. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Guillain-Barre syndrome is "a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. The first symptoms of this disorder include varying degrees of weakness or tingling sensations in the legs. In many instances the weakness and abnormal sensations spread to the arms and upper body."
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Web site

I guess everything reached a head at the Hall of Fame voting on Saturday morning, when I began to cough a lot and just didn't feel very well in general. Our good friend, Nancy Gay, had been diagnosed with pneumonia, and she suggested that I go to an urgent care center to be looked at. I lasted into the Hall of Fame meeting, then went back to my hotel room, thinking I could get a few good hours of sleep. But I couldn't sleep at all, and called the hotel concierge to see where the nearest urgent center was. He said, "It's 4 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. None of those places will be open." He suggested that I try St. Joseph's Hospital, which was nearby, only about four blocks from the hotel where we were staying.

So my wife, Susan, and I jumped in a cab and went to St. Joseph's Hospital. Looking back, though, that probably saved my life. I was admitted to the emergency room and underwent a lot of tests. My doctor, Dr. Akil Loli, even thought he might allow me to go out of the hospital for a few hours Sunday for the game, as long as I came back afterward. But he wanted to do some tests on my heart, which couldn't be done until Sunday morning.

During a standard angiogram on my heart, the doctors discovered I needed immediate surgery. That was the last thing I thought would be the matter, but within a few hours I was on the operating table. The funny thing is, I never really had any symptoms of a classic heart attack. No shortness of breath, no pain in my chest or down my left arm. I thought maybe I would need a stent, and that would be the worst. I never imagined I would need such considerable heart surgery. In retrospect, those urgent care centers not being open probably saved my life. In essence, it made me go to St. Joseph's Hospital, where I got great care.

Mortensen: As you know, I felt compelled to get to the hospital, where you were getting prepped for quintuple bypass surgery. You were quite calm; your wife was quite scared. What was really going through your mind as you lay in that hospital bed?

Pasquarelli: You know, I was surprisingly calm before the surgery. The Pasquarelli family, by nature, is a pretty hyper bunch. But I was amazingly calm, almost serene, while I waited for the surgery. I knew it was serious, because the doctor urged me to send for my children and have them fly to Phoenix. I think I was more concerned with Susan and what she was going through. I guess all I thought was, "Let me go home and have the surgery there." But the doctor assured me that I could not travel, and that wasn't an option. Funny, but I recently asked Susan how close I came to dying. And she said, "Why do you think the doctor wanted you to send for the kids?" So I guess I was pretty bad.

Mortensen: So as we all at ESPN waited anxiously, praying that you were in the skillful hands with your doctors, word finally came that the surgery itself was a success. You missed a great game, one for the books. How did you find out about the Giants' upset of the undefeated Patriots and what was your reaction?

Pasquarelli: First of all, you're right about the doctors' being skillful. I owe my life to Dr. Akil Loli, Dr. Kevin Brady and Dr. Jeremy Feldman, who took great care of me. Dr. Brady was the thoracic cardiac surgeon who worked on me, and I like to kid everyone that I had the "better" Brady (no offense, Tom) that day. I can't say enough about the good people at St. Joseph's, especially the doctors. They are always in my thoughts, and I certainly thank them for the work they did on me Super Bowl Sunday. It's funny how I found out that the Giants won. I was in recovery, and one of the nurses was trying to awaken me from the anesthesia. She kept saying, "Len, wake up." I could hear her. For some reason, I remember thinking that I couldn't open my eyes for whatever reason. Somehow, while I was still out, I heard either a radio or television saying that the Giants had won. I thought to myself, "Gosh. I did die during this operation." I guess I missed a great game.

Tom BradyDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesLen Pasquarelli on missing last year's Super Bowl: "Somehow, while I was still out, I heard either a radio or television saying that the Giants had won. I thought to myself, 'Gosh. I did die during this operation.' "
Mortensen: And you went home, what, 10 days later and all was relatively well, right?

Pasquarelli: I was able to return home and was making what I would call a textbook recovery from heart surgery. Everything was going fine for the first three weeks. I certainly wasn't in any pain, and I was able to walk the neighborhood without any problem. Things were certainly moving along well for me at that point. I remember telling my boss, John Banks, that I would be back to work within a month. And I honestly felt that.

Mortensen: Then, I can't remember the exact date, maybe a month later I got a frantic call from Sue on a Saturday. Something was wrong and you needed help. What happened?

Pasquarelli: As I said, my recovery from the heart surgery was really terrific. But I woke up one day and was literally bouncing off walls. I couldn't gain my balance or navigate around the house. And I knew something was the matter. After about three weeks of feeling pretty lousy, and just lying on the sofa, Susan called you and asked for your help in finding the best internist in the country. We would have flown to the Mayo Clinic or the Cleveland Clinic at that point. I think we were both at the breaking point that day. After all, I had been hospitalized twice, and we were still no closer to a diagnosis. I didn't know what was the matter, and neither did Susan, a retired registered nurse. So we turned to you, and you certainly came through for us big-time. The next day, a Sunday, Susan received a call from the personal physician for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and we just went from there.

Mortensen: Explain the disease you contracted. I still can't spell or pronounce it.

Pasquarelli: It is called Guillain-Barre syndrome, and it's an autoimmune disease that affects the peripheral nerves. In fact, William "The Refrigerator" Perry suffers from the same disease and is confined to a wheelchair. Our good friend, Gary Myers, knows someone who has been on a ventilator for months. Our ESPN colleague Mark Schlereth had it years ago, and it took him nine or 10 months to get over it. Todd Archer, the excellent football writer who covers the Cowboys for The Dallas Morning News, contracted it as a senior in high school, and it took him a full year to recover. It affects two out of every 100,000 people, but the more you mention it to people, the more they know someone who has suffered from the syndrome.

For me, it most manifested itself in my arms and legs. I basically had to learn to walk again. The last thing to come around is the fine motor skills in my right hand. The therapists all tell me that the hand is the last thing to come around. Nerves regenerate at the rate of just 1 inch per month, so I've just got to wait until that takes place. But right now, I can't type or take notes, and that's probably the only things that keep me from returning to work full time. I'm a hunt and pecker at best. The beauty of the Internet is that you can get information out quickly. But I can't do that. It takes me too long to type. Hopefully, the hand will come around soon.

Mortensen: Len, day after day, week after week, month after month, a lot of your friends in the business -- journalists, team executives, coaches, players, agents -- called your home. But Sue was screening calls and very few of them spoke with you. Why?

Pasquarelli: First of all, I probably didn't feel well enough to speak to people. I had a really hard time talking in general, let alone on the telephone. But looking back, it was probably sheer pride more than anything else that kept me from talking to people. I just didn't want anyone to hear me, or certainly see me in the condition I was in. I can recall our good friend, Peter King, calling to say he was in town for the NFL draft and asking if he could stop by. And I said to Susan, "I really don't want to see anyone at this point." And simply, that's why Susan answered the phone and not me.

Mortensen: I guess the most reassuring sight many of us had came in Canton, Ohio, in early August when you received the Bob McCann Award that placed your name in the historic wing of the Hall of Fame in recognition of your longtime excellence as a journalist who covered the NFL. Excuse my sick sense of humor -- at least it wasn't posthumous. Overdue, maybe, but you made the trip, your family was there for the moment, and you gave an eloquent speech that night. So that was progress. Did it give you a renewed sense of hope?

Pasquarelli: That was a great award, and a perfect weekend for my entire family. But I was still pretty shaky in my balance, and you'll remember that you and David Elfin had to help me down the steps. Honestly, at that point I was still pretty bad and couldn't see light at the end of the tunnel.

Mortensen: That was obvious when NFL training camps were in full swing and you were nowhere close to being able to travel and work, even though you made it to Canton. Why?

Pasquarelli: I couldn't board an airplane at that point yet, and I probably would not have lasted a full practice in the sun. That was incredibly hard, the first time in years that I haven't been part of training camps, but I simply couldn't do it.

Mortensen: I guess my hope as a friend, colleague and fan was that you would at least be able to write your nationally acclaimed Friday Tip Sheet once the 2008 season kicked off. I know what a workaholic you are, I know that what we do in this profession is very addictive. How did you handle being almost docile in work?

Pasquarelli: Frankly, I didn't handle it very well at all, to tell the truth. I really missed work in general, and particularly on the Tip Sheet. There were probably some days where I felt really sorry for myself. I just couldn't work. When I hear injured athletes talk about separation anxiety -- the feeling that they are no longer a part of the team -- I know exactly what they mean now. I think my body told me, "Hey, it's July. Time to go to work." And I missed it immensely. I guess, looking back at that period, it made me a more patient person in general. That's one of the few pluses that came out of it.

Mortensen: You know, I'm a man of faith and prayer, Len, but I got pretty upset when I called one time and found out that you had a cruel setback of a different sort. Tell us about it.

Pasquarelli: I was making really good progress from the Guillain-Barre syndrome. I finally felt like all the rehabilitation was worthwhile, and that I was closer to being healthy. And then, on the morning of Nov. 1, I was walking down the stairs from our bedroom. I remember it was the day after Halloween. What I didn't know was that a bad trick was about to be pulled on me. I don't know if it was the syndrome, or just basic clumsiness on my part, but I missed the last step. I fell really hard on both knees. I guess when I couldn't pull myself up, I knew something was the matter with my right knee. I limped to the refrigerator and made an ice bag to put on my knee.

Finally, Susan came downstairs, saw my knee, and said, "I think you dislocated your kneecap. We'd better go to the emergency room." The diagnosis was a torn quadriceps tendon, which required surgery. I had the operation five days later. So, at that point, I was faced with a double rehabilitation. It was quite frustrating, and even to this day, I beat myself up, thinking about falling down the stairs. I wonder just how it happened. But that doesn't matter. What matters is, it did happen and I had to deal with it. I don't know if that set my rehabilitation from the syndrome back a little. At best, though, it put it on hold for about eight weeks.

Mortensen: So, you still had the disease and now had to rehab for this injury. Did you ever feel like giving up and what kept you going?

Pasquarelli: I am enormously grateful to Susan and the strength she has exhibited through this past year. She has put her life on hold to take care of me. She certainly didn't bargain for this, but she has been amazing. I'm sure that without her, I might have given up entirely. I had never really been hurt before in my life, let alone have two injuries to deal with. There were some very dark times. I thank God every day for my wife and her strength and understanding. I couldn't do this without her.

Mortensen: Your speech was somewhat halting in the immediate aftermath of your illness, but you came through clearly in your weekly podcasts with Jeremy Green, and I got excellent feedback on a couple of appearances you made on our Friday night radio show. When do you get back to writing?

Pasquarelli: First off, I had to undergo some speech therapy to get my voice back. The therapist was excellent, and taught me how to use my voice without straining my vocal cords. So gradually, my voice kind of got back to normal. Of course, I can't hear myself talk. To me, my voice sounds somewhat slurred, like someone who has had a stroke. But people I talked to say I sound fine to them. So that's a big step. I have written a few columns during my recovery, but they take me about two days. If it wasn't for my right hand, I would be back to work right now. So, when the hand comes around, I will be back at it.

I am enormously grateful to (my wife) Susan and the strength she has exhibited through this past year. She has put her life on hold to take care of me.

-- Len Pasquarelli, ESPN.com
senior NFL writer
Mortensen: What do doctors tell you about picking up your career?

Pasquarelli: The uncertainty of the Guillain-Barre syndrome means no one can give me a real timetable for when I'll be back. The disease kind of disappears when it wants to, and very little is known about it. It will be one year in April that I was diagnosed, and I'm anxious to get back to work. My doctors all tell me that once the disease is gone, there is no reason I can't work again.

Mortensen: What goals have you set for yourself?

Pasquarelli: I tell all my doctors -- and I will tell you -- that I want to return to work as normally as possible. I want to be whole. My goal is to get back to being 100 percent, where I was when I left for last year's Super Bowl. I really believe that can be achieved. I guess, I'll take nothing less than that.

Mortensen: What kind of life lessons have you learned?

Pasquarelli: For one thing, I learned to better understand athletes and their rehabilitation. Not just the physical part of it, but the fact they feel separated from their teams. I have learned firsthand that sort of separation anxiety, and that's probably the toughest thing to take. I've also learned to better accept the small victories in life. Things we take for granted, like walking up the stairs or being able to take a shower, or walking down the street without a cane, seem rather mundane to most people. But to me, they represent progress and the fact I am getting better. I take nothing for granted -- even the simplest things -- anymore. And as I've said, I've learned to be a more patient person in general.

For me, Sunday was the greatest day of the week, because the games offered a great diversion. Thankfully, I'm married to an NFL junkie who didn't mind the fact I watched games all day. But Sunday was also the most difficult day of the week for me, because I kept thinking, "I should be covering a game somewhere. I should be in a press box, not in my family room." And that was the most difficult thing to accept.

Mortensen: Finally, it's rather ironic that your first sporting event since last year will be a Super Bowl in which Arizona -- the host city where you had quintuple bypass surgery one year ago -- is playing your hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Surely, you see the irony and destiny in this coming week.

Pasquarelli: The year 2009 can only be better than last year. I have a close friend who keeps reminding me of that. I guess I'll look back on all of this someday and laugh. But it's not so funny now. On the other hand, I'm proud of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Rooney family. I've also come to know Ken Whisenhunt really well, and I'm pleased for him, too.

Mortensen: I'm speaking for a lot of people when I say we can't wait to see you in Tampa, Len.

Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.