November 25, 2015

Sports Broadcaster Shares Family’s Alzheimer’s Struggle

Jim Nantz

Nantz greets UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn and his wife, Lana, and Joe Ford.

Nov. 25, 2015 | Looking back, his dad having a mini-stroke in 1995 while visiting him at a golf tournament was a harbinger of things to come, said CBS Sports commentator Jim Nantz.

That stroke, together with other similar episodes of mini-strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), led to an eventual diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease a few years later.

“His life changed that day and he was never the same,” Nantz told the full house at “An Evening with Jim Nantz,” hosted Nov. 23 by the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging at the Grand Ballroom of the Little Rock Marriott.

Nantz described the physical toll on his father, who died in 2008, but also the emotional toll on him, his sister and mother. The life of a caregiver is the hardest, he said.

The influence of his dad (“the most positive person I’ve known”) and seeing how the “insidious” disease impacted his family made Alzheimer’s research a personal cause. This has led to public speaking, founding the Nantz National Alzheimer’s Center in Houston and raising awareness to seek better treatment and hopefully one day a cure.

Jim Nantz

Nantz with UAMS supporters and honorary chairs of the event, Joe and Jo Ellen Ford.

“My family, we lived it,” said Nantz, the award-winning commentator known for his play-by-play work of NFL games, college basketball’s Final Four and golf’s famed Masters Tournament. “We’ve rolled up our sleeves and we’re moving in on it. We’ve dedicated the rest of our lives to fighting Alzheimer’s.”

Very few families have not been touched in some way by Alzheimer’s or dementia, said UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn, M.D., noting his family’s connection.  Asking for a show of hands of people who have had a family member diagnosed with the disease found at least one person at every table raising a hand.

“This is a medically challenging and socially devastating disease,” Rahn said. As the large Baby Boomer generation ages and diagnoses likely increase, “the consequences will be stunning if we don’t come up with a game-changing treatment.”

Jeanne Wei

Jeanne Wei, M.D., Ph.D., executive director of the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging.

Jeanne Wei, M.D., Ph.D., executive director of the Institute on Aging, noted that she, too, had a family member with Alzheimer’s. Tremendous progress is being made to better understand the factors that cause the disease, she said.

She praised the continued work of UAMS researchers including Sue Griffin, Ph.D., professor and vice chairman for research in the Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics in the UAMS College of Medicine, an internationally known Alzheimer’s researcher.

In addition to better treatment, Wei said, the Institute on Aging is focused on helping caregivers through its Schmieding Home Caregiver Program, with training sites all over the state.

“We have been able to develop a program to keep seniors at home as long as possible by helping prepare family caregivers,” Wei said. “No other state has such a program.”

Joe and Jo Ellen Ford, long-time UAMS supporters, served as honorary chairs for the evening. Joe Ford, who also is vice chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters Tournament, introduced Nantz.

Ford sat with him on stage and asked questions about his 30-year career in sports broadcasting, his father and his commitment to Alzheimer’s research.

Nantz traced his interest in sports broadcasting to being an 11-year-old, watching the Masters on TV and dreaming of joining the CBS crew. His career has now seen him as lead anchor for golf coverage and play-by-play caller for Super Bowls and Final Fours, in addition to the Masters.

“In April 1986, I did my first Masters and I was a 26-year-old kid calling the action — scared to death,” Nantz said.

A self-described “numbers guy,” Nantz noted that in 1988, he handled the play-by-play for the 50th Final Four of college basketball. His first Masters broadcast was for the 50th Masters Tournament. In February 2016, he will handle play-by-play duties for Super Bowl 50.

He later noted his father died on June 28, 2008. When he checked in at the Little Rock hotel prior to the event, he noticed his room number — 628.

“You don’t think I’m supposed to be here today?” he quipped, adding that Nov. 23 also marked his parent’s wedding anniversary.

Nantz wrote about his father in the 2008 best-selling book, Always By My Side. He called writing the book a cathartic experience and was pleased that it found an audience and support in the Alzheimer’s community. “It’s simply a son writing a love letter to his father, mother and sister,” he said.

Net proceeds from the evening will benefit the Strategies Toward Overcoming and Preventing (STOP) Alzheimer’s Fund, a UAMS-created program that raises awareness about the disease and support for Alzheimer’s disease research at the Reynolds Institute. Earlier this month, the program hosted an educational forum on the disease and progress made in finding a cure.

The presenting sponsor for the event was Westrock Coffee Co and platinum sponsor was Bear State Bank. Gold sponsors included Judy Grundfest and family, Dillard’s Inc., and Harriett and Warren Stephens. Sue Griffin, Ph.D., the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute and Marge and Tom Schueck were bronze sponsors .