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Canzano: 'I'm not going anywhere,' says Oregon State's Bob De Carolis

Wednesday September 19, 2012

John Canzano

Oregon Live - During Oregon State's victory over Wisconsin last week at Reser Stadium, a man approached Beavers athletic director Bob De Carolis in the donor suites, leaned close, and told him to rub coconut oil on his skin.

This scene, in various forms, has been going on since De Carolis announced his diagnosis with Parkinson's disease last year. People approach. They tell him they're praying for him, and that he looks surprisingly good, and then, some of them whisper something like, "Try coconut oil."

Well, you should know, De Carolis walked away from that conversation shaking his head at the absurdity of it. Later, he celebrated Oregon State's victory over the No. 13 team in the country by slapping backs and high-fiving players and coaches. And then, when De Carolis, 59, went home at the end of the evening, he jumped on his home computer and looked for any connection between coconut oil and his incurable disease.

"I feel silly now but there I was, researching coconut oil," he said. "Turns out there's not a shred of scientific evidence that it helps. But yeah, that kind of thing happens all the time. I keep telling people, 'I'm fine. I'm not going anywhere.' What I'm most surprised at is that a lot of people thought I was going to drop dead the day after I was diagnosed."

De Carolis is not dead.

In fact, he's sitting in downtown Portland outside a Pearl District coffee shop, drinking coffee, and texting on his phone when I walk up Tuesday. I studied him carefully as I approached. I hadn't spent much time with him since his diagnosis, and wondered as I heard the whispers about his future, how he was holding up. Aside from a slight slumping of his posture, and his left hand tucked to his side -- things you wouldn't notice if you hadn't met the man before -- what you see is nothing more than a regular guy in a polo shirt and slacks drinking coffee and texting on a sunny day.

De Carolis knows his disease has no cure. He understands that medication, motor-function work, diet and even surgery can help slow the progress of the disease that an English doctor named James Parkinson first described in 1817 as, "Shaking Palsy." He is going to elaborate means to hold this disease off, and I'll explain all that in a bit.

But first, let's put the whispers to rest: De Carolis is not seeking a successor, nor has one been hired and planted in the athletic department to help him with his duties. He'd like to finish Reser Stadium's renovation. He'd like to boost fundraising among his donor base and renovate the locker rooms, and put in a medical-treatment center for athletes. His contract runs through June 2016 and De Carolis said Tuesday that he'd probably like to stay beyond that deal.

"I'm a little slower," he said, "especially with buttons. Man, buttons are awful to deal with. But life is pretty good."

De Carolis is doing hot yoga five times a week. He's doing tai chi daily. He works on a boxing speed bag, and has taken up juggling. He's heard, too, that there's a connection between tango dancing and staving off the advancement of Parkinson's disease.

"Don't know if I'm ready to go there," he laughed.

Bet he and his wife, Sandra, tango around their home, but he just doesn't want you to think of him that way. I mean, hey, he looked up coconut oil, right? Point is, De Carolis understands that the best way to combat an awful disease that attacks your motor function is to increase your motor-function ability in the first place. In that, he's attacking his illness before it can attack him.

"Someone said early on, 'Parkinson's is never going to take a day off,'" he said, "so I'm not going to take one, either."

Six weeks ago, De Carolis began taking medication that has helped others slow the advancement of the disease. He said it's reduced his tremors. And on Tuesday, after our meeting at the coffee shop in which we talked about his future, his disease, and his advice on raising daughters, he was headed off to meet with former NBA player Brian Grant, another notable figure who is battling Parkinson's. Grant has a foundation that aims to educate the rest of us and enrich the lives of people living with Parkinson's, and De Carolis now sits on the board.

"There's just so much ignorance out there about the disease," De Carolis said. "They're eventually going to find something that helps people with this. They're gonna find something."

Last week, De Carolis called a meeting of the entire athletic department. Every coach, every sport, was called to the meeting. There was some speculation about what would be discussed, and whether De Carolis would be making some kind of announcement. But what ensued was an inspiring State of the Union address.

Football coach Mike Riley said: "Bob got up there and led the meeting. He had great energy, and there was a bounce in his step. It was good to see him up there, leading and doing what he does."

De Carolis told me over coffee that he needs help from Oregon State boosters who buy tickets and make donations. He's focused on finishing the projects he started. Fundraising has increased from $5 million several years ago to $9.8 million annually, but should be closer to $14 million, he thinks.

There's coffee with me. There's the meeting with Grant. There's a flight late Tuesday to the Bay Area where De Carolis serves on the Pacific-12 Conference rules committee. And there's this blasted disease, that makes every step along with him.

Tuesday, De Carolis smiled and talked about how good it felt to see the football team upset Wisconsin after such a disappointing season a year ago. He pointed out that 12 of OSU's 17 teams played in the postseason last year, the best since De Carolis became AD in Corvallis in 2002. "But nobody would know it because you go 3-9 in football," he said. He also talked about his three daughters, 19-year-old twins who are in college, and his oldest, who is 23, and played soccer for a spell at Michigan.

He said of the girls, "I think they go easier on me now because I have Parkinson's. It gets me passes around the house, but I'll take it."

He'll take your prayers, too. And he'll take it when you tell him how good he looks, even if De Carolis sees in your eyes that there's surprise laced in the compliment. "Nobody ever told me I looked good before I was diagnosed." But what he needs most now is for you to stand with him in every way.

He asked me, "Are people really whispering about me?"

I've heard some rumblings.

"Again, please tell them I'm fine and that I'm not going anywhere."

It's not entirely true. A few minutes later, he's up and beside me on the sidewalk, walking. He's a little more hunched than I remember him. He's slower afoot. But at the corner, where our paths diverged, De Carolis shook my hand, said goodbye, and started across the street toward his next meeting. I stood and watched him walk up the street. He looked like any other regular person, headed somewhere important, believing that every step matters.

I wished we could all walk like that.

--John Canzano