Ex-Colt's illness brings Shinnick family closer

January 16, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

All the immense responsibilities of raising, educating and seeing five sons into young manhood had been accomplished. Don and Marsha Shinnick would soon be building a house. They wanted it to be a log cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, at Placerville, not far from where gold was discovered in the rush of '49.

But that's been subject to change. Don Shinnick, who played 13 highly successful seasons with the Baltimore Colts, has been beset with a progressive, rare brain disease -- Frontal Lobe Dementia -- that has affected his mental function. Wife, Marsha, is at his side, protector and guide, a caregiver of exemplary status.

"The boys love their dad so much," she says. "His personality is the same. He's even sweeter, if that's possible, through all of this. We are deeply blessed in that regard."

Marsha noticed subtle changes in Don six years ago. In 1997, doctors diagnosed in Shinnick an illness that was first discovered and named only 11 years earlier by Swedish researchers.

"It's a gradual change, nothing drastic," she says. "He knows that he played and coached football. That's long-term. Short-term, like what happened yesterday, is gone."

It's different, she says, from Alzheimer's disease, although some symptoms are similar. Of 10,000 cases studied in the United States, only 30 patients were found to have Frontal Lobe Dementia.

Once a year, Don goes for testing at the University of California Medical Center in Davis to determine how much function remains or to measure what has been lost.

Marsha and Don gave up their dream of Placerville (much too remote for what they were facing) and moved to Riverbank, Calif., outside Modesto, which affords closer proximity to hospital assistance.

"He has become passive and doesn't have the ability to make decisions," Marsha says.

"What saddens me in one respect is he's not playing golf, something he enjoyed and was capable of playing quite well. He had a part-time job at a golf course, and the staff loved having him. But he was unable to remember."

Could the genesis of the illness be football-related, as it may have been for two Colts teammates, Bill Pellington, who died of the effects of Alzheimer's, and Art Spinney, who suffered from depression and severe headaches before dying of a heart problem?

"We were told the condition was not related to football, but who knows?" Marsha says. "He's confused at times over some of the simplest of things, like which team is which when we are watching a game on television."

Shinnick, now 64, was a 232-pound linebacker, drafted second in 1957 out of UCLA, and was an immediate starter for the Colts. When he retired in 1970, he held the NFL record for career interceptions by a linebacker, 37, and the total still hasn't been eclipsed.

He played on three championship teams in Baltimore and coached as an assistant in two winning Super Bowls with the Oakland Raiders. He was also in charge of linebackers for the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Cardinals and New England Patriots.

His fervent religious beliefs were such that he led the pre- and post-game prayers in the locker room. Profanity never spoiled his ability to express himself, and, in a facetious way, if he happened to be disgusted with an official and pressed to complain he might call him a "quack."

The night the Colts clinched the 1959 Western Conference championship in San Francisco, all curfew rules were lifted. Players were out celebrating in one of America's most festive cities. But not Shinnick and friend Raymond Berry. They were in their rooms, trying to rest tired bodies while watching television and devouring bags of fresh fruit they had brought at a street-side stand.

Four of the Shinnick boys were football players in college, and now son Pete, 34, is the highly successful coach at Azusa Pacific University. Plans were for Don to become an assistant to his son, but that, unfortunately, wasn't able to happen.

Marsha and Don were in Baltimore last year for the 40th anniversary banquet of the Colts winning their first world championship, and she says Tom Matte, an ex-teammate of Don's, frequently calls to inquire of his well-being.

"They were special times in Baltimore," she says. "And after all these years, people still care about the Colts. I hear from Pert Mutscheller, such an angel, and another dear, Mary DeCarlo," she adds, referring to the wives of former Colts Jim Mutscheller and Art DeCarlo.

The Shinnicks, who met at a Campus Crusade for Christ in college, demonstrate a strong belief in their faith, which they practice at the Evangelical Covenant in Riverbank.

For Marsha Shinnick, strong to the strain of what every new day brings, with more decisions to make for both of them, there's no complaining or asking how this could happen to Don. She deals with the reality as best as she can, and that's what brings admiration from those aware of how she carries herself. A profile of quiet endurance and much love.

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