Crusade for ailing former NFL players fuels Ironman Mike Adamle

Oct 10 2009 - 11:20pm

At a recent Bears fan convention, Mike Adamle was standing next to a fellow former Bear watching highlights from their playing days when he noticed a tear running down his friend's cheek.

"I asked him why he was crying," Adamle recalled. "And he said, 'Because I'm no longer that person up there.' Once you're done, you're done. A depression can set in. And it can be tragic."

That memory will be one of many fueling Adamle on Saturday in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, when he competes in the prestigious, punishing Ironman World Championship.

Starting at 7 a.m. and finishing sometime before midnight, Adamle and the field of 1,800 will swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and finish with a 26.2-mile run. It is tiring enough writing that sentence, let alone covering that ground in one day.

The most youthful, vibrant sportscaster in Chicago hopes to raise pledges and awareness for Gridiron Greats, the non-profit organization that helps retired NFL players in dire need. Mostly, Adamle hopes to inspire any of his sick or sedentary contemporaries with the value of the journey more than the time it takes to reach the final destination.

He needed 14 hours to complete the Hawaiian course 11 years ago. His goal this time: Show his former NFL peers and everyone else that 60, the age Adamle turned last Sunday, is the new 40.

If a 60-year-old who suffers from epilepsy and has overcome depression can muster the mental toughness to conquer a challenge this grueling, they can combat whatever forces are working against them in their own lives.

"I wouldn't prescribe this to everybody but it's about saying you have to have goals even if it's lifting your grandchild over your head," said Adamle, whose six-year NFL career concluded after the 1976 season with the Bears. "If me doing this can help somebody reach their goals, it's worthwhile. It's not about me, it's about trying to be helpful."

It's about a guy allergic to fear and fatigue once again testing his limits. Adamle has jumped out of an airplane. Sat in a shark tank. Ridden a bull. Once during a World Wrestling Entertainment event, Adamle slapped pro wrestler Randy Orton -- who's 31 years younger -- just because the spirit moved him.

And when Adamle's spirit gets moving, it becomes a steamroller to inhibition.

"With Mike, no mountain is too high and no river too wide," said Mike Ditka, one of the founders of Gridiron Greats. "Iron Mike," felt touched by the gesture Ironman Mike made for the cause.

"If you don't like Mike Adamle, you don't like ice cream," Ditka said. "It's an incredible thing he's doing. I think it's tougher mentally than physically. But Mike realizes that in life the only thing you can control is your attitude."

It was back before Adamle's 49th birthday that the former Northwestern All-America realized he needed to regain control of a failing body that had started to wrest away from him. He couldn't run around the block without grimacing. He had difficulty making a fist.

"The pain was debilitating and football was knocking on my door saying, 'OK, big boy, it's time to pay up,' "' Adamle said.

Many ex-players hear the same knock and ignore it. Adamle opened the door to a reinvigorated life.

"I knew the only way I could get out of this condition was to work out the way I used to work out," Adamle said.

To prepare for Saturday's race, eight months ago Adamle began working out an average of four hours a day around his responsibilities as a sports anchor at WMAQ-Ch. 5 and other projects. He cycled with a former teammate of Lance Armstrong. He swam diligently despite being what he calls "a sinker."

He pounded the pavement for hours at a time, letting the soundtrack of his life steer his thoughts more than music many runners use to pass the time.

"People say to me, 'How come you don't wear an iPod?' and I just say I think about relatives and friends living and dead," Adamle said. "There is a big spiritual component to this."

Saturday, the words from a training buddy also will help carry Adamle through 140 miles of what many might consider drudgery.

"The best advice I got was, 'Mike, just let your inner kid out,"' Adamle said. "And what kid wouldn't want to run, swim or bike in Hawaii?"

Certainly not the kid celebrating his 60th birthday.

 

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