It’s been not quite a year since Steve Kragthorpe first started noticing some tremors in his left arm and other signs that he just wasn’t feeling right.
Since then, he’s coached two quarterbacks through a situation that became a controversy despite his best efforts, played a key role in the best regular season in LSU football history and then launched a new project with the most gifted QB to wear a Tiger uniform since JaMarcus Russell.
All along, the 47-year-old Montana native grappled with his body changing and adapting to the daily attack Parkinson’s disease unleashes as it begins to take root.
Tremors are the most common symptom. But there are also problems with balance and walking, muscle aches and pains, loss of fine or small movements. There are functional problems that can lead to more serious problems such as low blood pressure, anxiety and hypertension, dementia, depression and memory loss.
For now, Kragthorpe is managing the disease as well as can be imagined.
He’s fit, physically active and, perhaps as important as anything else, Kragthorpe is busy.
Whether it’s football, his wife Cynthia or his three sons – all football players, two in college and one at University High – Parkinson’s has not prevented the LSU quarterbacks coach from staying busy living.
“I’m on good medicine and have been able to manage it very well,” Kragthorpe said recently. “When I’m on the field it’s the best medicine there is. It takes my mind off of it.
“I’m best when I stay active. Some days are a challenge, but as long as I’m in a routine, I can manage things pretty well.”
There have been setbacks and rough days.
In the days leading up to the BCS National Championship Game last January, Kragthorpe revealed there had been times when he hit the wall after the long days customary for coaches at the Division I level.
Tigers coach Greg Studrawa, the man who stepped in as the offensive coordinator when Kragthorpe was diagnosed last summer, said watching Kragthorpe was motivational.
“All of us get tired and want to go home and go to bed, but then you look at Steve in the back of the room and see how he’s struggling just to do normal every-day things at times and you think ‘What the hell am I complaining about?’ ” Studrawa said. “Knowing how hard he has to work just to have a somewhat normal life pushes me to want to to do all I can to help him and every other coach on this staff.”
It was after the BCS game when Kragthorpe had to adjust his lifestyle again.
With the season over, his sometimes grinding routine ended. In the place of practices and film study and meetings, Kragthorpe evolved into a voracious recruiter – making a point to see as many quarterbacks as he could.
That meant more travel than was prescribed, but Kragthorpe wasn’t about to slow down. Not with a job to do.
“I kind of knew as the season went on that I was managing things well,” Kragthorpe said. “The biggest factor for me was during recruiting was when I was in 12 cities in 13 days and flying all the time and sleeping in different beds.
“That took me out of the routine I need to be in. You know what to expect. Change is hard for everybody, but it’s harder for somebody like me.”
But not impossible, so Kragthorpe adjusted again once National Signing Day came and went.
Between Feb. 1 and the start of spring practice at the end of that month, he re-established a routine that carried over into the month of drills leading into the spring game.
That stretch was important for Kragthorpe because he and quarterback Zach Mettenberger got their first extensive experience with Mettenberger as the No. 1 signal-caller.
It wasn’t like they were strangers, but there’s only finite time a third-string QB gets with a position coach during the season. That changed as soon the Tigers got off the bus in Baton Rouge on Jan. 10.
“I wanted to be around Coach Krag as much as I could as soon as we got back,” Mettenberger said. “He’s definitely been around the block a few times and knows how to get quarterbacks ready for the highest level. I know for me to play my best, I have to be a good student under him.”
Kragthorpe embraced his new role – not just with Mettenberger, but also with new backup Stephen Rivers and No. 3 quarterback Jerrard Randall.
He pushed all three to work harder than they ever had before and found his own form of therapy along the way.
“Staying active is what helps me the most,” Kragthorpe said. “Being back in spring practice helped me do that. The biggest symptom I have is resting tremors in my left arm. I do a lot worse when I’m just sitting at home watching TV.”
Now that the offseason is in place with summer camp a ways off, Kragthorpe has time to reassess how he can combat Parkinson’s best as he moves forward with a disease that does not have a cure.
The only option is to manage the effects as effectively as possible, and coming up with a plan was tough to do on the run – especially in a high-intensity job like Kragthorpe has.
So with some down time, Kragthorpe and his wife have mapped out a strategy.
Cynthia is well-versed in living with challenges. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years ago and has also battled heart problems.
“The biggest thing is diet and exercise,” Kragthorpe said. “I was doing really well until spring practice got going. I have to make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and if I do that, I can manage this thing.”