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As Steve McMichael Battles ALS, Old Friends Visit With Stories To Tell | TheSportsDay As Steve McMichael Battles ALS, Old Friends Visit With Stories To Tell | TheSportsDay

As Steve McMichael battles ALS, old friends visit with stories to tell


The doorbell rings, and it feels as if the sun has broken through the clouds. The dogs rush to the front door. There’s Blue, the yapping chihuahua, and Marshmallow, the Shiba Inu with a limp. And here comes Misty McMichael with a big smile and a big hug.

A visitor has arrived, and Steve McMichael is as buoyant as someone in his situation can be.

Whoever is at the door undoubtedly will bring up his upcoming induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and if he could still smile widely and proudly, he would.

For a while, McMichael derived pleasure from Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream in his feeding tube, but he was cut off because it made him vulnerable to pneumonia. For now, he can experience flavor only in ice chips — Pedialyte, cranberry and Coca-Cola.

These days, satisfaction is scarce and pleasure is mostly a memory.

Three years into a diagnosis of ALS, McMichael, the former Chicago Bears defensive tackle, is about one year beyond when doctors said he might expire. He can’t move his legs or arms. Misty, his wife, has rushed him to the hospital at least 10 times over the last few years, always with dire fear.

He hasn’t been able to communicate verbally for about a year, but he expresses simple sentences through a speech-generating device that reads eye movements. The machine has a few phrases saved that he uses frequently.

“Ass on fire,” he makes it say often, a plea to address a recurring pain.

“More meds,” is another.

If the visitor is expected, he often won’t ask for more meds to ensure he isn’t foggy. There is a lot that McMichael can’t do anymore, but he can still connect with the people who have been important to him.

Some people ring that bell once. Some do it every so often. Some ring all the time.

They experience humanity and intimacy in a way they never have.

In the living room is a gray reclining chair.

It was bought so Steve’s sister Kathy McMichael would have a place to sleep in 2021 and 2022 before he had 24-hour medical attendants.

As well as anyone, she can soothe his pain.

She holds his hand and talks about old memories, including games she saw him play going back to high school. Sometimes they watch a YouTube compilation their sister Sharon put together with videos of him playing football at various levels, wrestling, singing and more.

Staying with him for extended periods has been easy for her. Leaving, not so much.

“When I was there, I tried to be upbeat for him,” she says. “But when I was leaving, I thought he would die and I would never see him again. I would cry all the way home on the plane and spend the next two days in bed crying.”

Kathy McMichael, right, calls big brother Steve her hero. (Courtesy of Kathy McMichael)

When Kathy was a toddler, Steve — “Stevie” she calls him — played dolls with her. She had a Barbie; he had a G.I. Joe.

“I have the fondest memories of him,” says Kathy, who is a legislative director for the Texas attorney general’s office. “People don’t realize how kind and sweet he is. He’s always been my hero.”

For most of their lives, they talked almost daily on the phone. When Kathy went through a divorce at 26 and was so upset she couldn’t eat, Steve showed up with a U-Haul to move her, set her up in a new apartment and took her out for a meal every day for a couple of weeks. “He saved me and it turned my whole life around,” Kathy says.

She was with him in February for the announcement that he would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Kathy thought he didn’t look good at the time. She couldn’t see the lovely green in his irises. She feared the worst.

Now, Kathy thinks differently. “He’s not ready to go,” she says. “We’ve talked about it. I don’t know that he ever will be. He doesn’t give up on anything. It’s not in his makeup.”

She’s looking forward to traveling to Canton, Ohio, for the induction, but if Steve can’t go, Kathy will be at her big brother’s bedside.

When Mike Singletary first visited McMichael after his ALS diagnosis, they prayed together.

“My hope was he could get healed,” Singletary says.

That isn’t happening, but the middle linebacker keeps praying with his teammate. Even now, there are blessings to be thankful for, and more to request.

Singletary tells stories, too, hoping to see that old spark in McMichael’s eyes. He talked about a 1984 game against the Raiders in which McMichael, Singletary and company knocked out quarterbacks Marc Wilson and David Humm. Next up was supposed to be punter Ray Guy — but he refused to go in.

“He loved it,” Singletary says. “It’s kind of like reading a bedtime story.”

One day Singletary told him how much he always appreciated him, how much he meant to him, and how he felt he could always trust him. When they were playing together, Singletary said, he always knew where McMichael was going to be.

McMichael tried to respond using his speech-generating device. He tried and tried, but he couldn’t get it to do what he wanted it to.

“He got so frustrated that he started crying,” Singletary said. “That was a tough moment.”

A world traveler, John Faidutti has been to Egypt, Russia, Thailand, China, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina and many other destinations. He has climbed Mt. Rainer and Mt. St. Helens.

But he hasn’t traveled in almost three years.

“I’m afraid of leaving because if Steve dies when I’m gone, it will kill me,” he says. “I have anxiety about that.”

Faidutti, an investor, met McMichael about 25 years ago at a party and bonded on summer afternoons at a swimming pool outside of the apartment complex where McMichael lived. When Misty gave birth to Macy 16 years ago, Faidutti was in the delivery room. Steve asked him to be her godfather and started calling him “Padrino,” Italian for godfather.

“Now you’re in the family,” Steve told him. “Once you’re in the family, you can’t get out.”

When Macy started talking, she couldn’t say “Padrino,” so she called him “Drino.” Now, everyone knows him as “Padrino” or “Drino.”

Before Steve lost the ability to speak, Padrino asked him what he could do for him in the future. “Just take care of Macy,” Steve told him.

As Steve has been progressively unable to do what a father usually does, Padrino has done more.

John Faidutti, left, has embraced his role as godfather to Macy McMichael, Steve’s daughter. (Courtesy of John Faidutti)

Macy is a shy girl, but not around Padrino. On “Macy’s day,” which happens once or twice a week, he takes her to a restaurant for food. They play video games together. He helped teach Macy to drive.

Padrino makes sure Steve knows everything that’s happening with his daughter. She’s very artistic, and she shows Padrino her creations. Padrino makes sure Steve sees them.

Padrino tied Steve’s shoes back when he wore them. He shares his Prime Video password. He’s removed Steve’s catheter. He’s changed his diapers.  Giving his friend comfort is a privilege, not a burden. “I have no problem doing whatever he needs me to do,” Padrino says.

Many times, it has seemed the pen was almost out of ink for McMichael. But then it keeps writing.

Every time he’s had a medical emergency, they ask him to blink once if he wants to go to the hospital to be treated or twice if he wants to let it be. McMichael always has blinked once.

To Padrino, McMichael repeatedly has indicated he wanted to keep living.

On McMichael’s 66th birthday last October, Padrino told him, “Let’s make it one more year.”

In his eyes, Padrino saw determination.

Ric Flair hasn’t seen McMichael in about a month and a half because he’s been traveling. He plans to visit him soon.

When he comes, Flair tries to limit his time with McMichael to about 30 minutes because he can’t take much longer.

The visual can be unsettling.

Except for McMichael’s spirit, everything about him is withered.

“It’s very difficult for me to see him like that,” Flair says. “It’s so hard. My job when I’m there is to make him smile and laugh, and make him know people care about him. I walk away thinking I’m the luckiest guy in the world not to have something like that.”

Pro wrestling great Ric Flair, right, with Misty and Steve McMichael, calls Steve “one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known.” (Courtesy of Misty McMichael)

Flair and McMichael started out as enemies. In 1996, McMichael was a commentator for WCW wrestling when Flair hit on his then-wife, Debra. McMichael, with former NFL player Kevin Greene, subsequently challenged Flair and Arn Anderson to a tag-team match. But instead of exacting revenge on Flair, McMichael took a heel turn, attacking Greene and joining forces with Flair, Anderson and Chris Benoit as “The Four Horsemen.”

“When he came on board, his personality won me over in five seconds,” Flair says. “It’s bigger than life. He’s one of the greatest guys I’ve ever known.”

To Flair, McMichael was more than a wrestling partner.

“We hung out every night, partied and drank,” he says, laughing. “You kidding me? I spent New Year’s Eve one year with him and Lawrence Taylor in Las Vegas. Tell me about it. Steve can be something else. He gets away with it because he’s Steve.”

Not many could hang with the legendary “Nature Boy” after hours. But Flair claims to have struggled to keep pace with McMichael, who showed up every Monday for five days on the road with $15,000 in cash in his pocket, saying, “I’ve got more money than I’ve got time.”

They were bonded in the wildest of times. Now they share the most tender moments.

Flair looks forward to partying with McMichael again in Canton at McMichael’s induction.

“If they bring him up on the stage, I think that will be one of the most emotional, fulfilling moments,” he says. “It will be one of the most powerful things I will have seen.”

During his playing days, McMichael hired Michael Kinyon, a friend of teammate Kevin Butler’s, to hang mirrors at his house. Kinyon owns Michael’s Glass and also takes sideline photos for the team.

Their relationship grew, but it took time.

“I was a little afraid of the guy initially, honestly,” Kinyon says. “For an outsider like me, it probably took a year and a half of hanging around with him almost every week before I felt comfortable.”

The turning point came when he was with a group of Bears players in a private room at a golf outing and a photographer from the event came in to take pictures. McMichael charged at him and told him to leave.

“We’ve got our own photographer,” he told him, punching Kinyon in the chest, sending him stumbling and leaving a bruise.

Butler turned to Kinyon and said, “You’re in.”

After McMichael was stricken with ALS, Misty asked Kinyon to install mirrors so she could see him in his bedroom from her bedroom.

Kinyon often brings liquid CBD and THC to put in McMichael’s feeding tube. It helps with the pain and anxiety.

On a recent visit with former Bears equipment man Gary Haeger and defensive tackle Jim Osborne, they brought up a 1984 game. Quarterbacks Jim McMahon and Steve Fuller were injured, and Mike Ditka had no choice but to play Rusty Lisch.

Then McMichael set his eyes on the screen of his speech-generating device and worked diligently. Minutes passed.

And it was McMichael who dusted the cobwebs from the tale and delivered the zinger.

“Ditka cut him on the plane ride home,” he said through the machine.

Laughter, loud laughter.

Dan Hampton often brings mutual friends to visit McMichael.

In numbers, there is comfort.

They go around his bed and try to bring him cheer.

“Normally, his eyes are laden and sad,” Hampton says. “But if you tell a good story, his eyes light up.”

Lifting his spirits is one thing. Lifting his body is another.

When he still could speak, McMichael sometimes asked to be held upright to stretch. But lifting him was like lifting a 175-pound sandbag, and hardly anyone had the strength and assuredness. Hampton, who still looks like he could bull rush through a double team, would do it for close to a minute. He can’t do it anymore because McMichael, who now weighs about 150, doesn’t have enough core strength. “I’d have to squeeze him so hard to pick him up, I’d be afraid I’d break something,” Hampton said.

McMichael has called Hampton his big brother.

Steve McMichael has called former Bears teammate Dan Hampton his big brother. Hampton built a wheelchair ramp at the McMichaels’ house after Steve’s ALS diagnosis. (Courtesy of Michael Kinyon)

When McMichael arrived in Chicago to sign his first contract with the Bears, Hampton was sent to the airport to pick him up. They came together like two pieces of flint, and the fire they created burned spectacularly.

They raised hell between the tackles and then did it between sips of Crown Royal.

Hampton and McMichael became the true colonnades of Soldier Field, and the dominating Bears were built upon them. The night before Super Bowl XX, an emotionally charged McMichael threw a chair at a blackboard with such force that all four legs stuck. Then Hampton bashed a film projector to pieces.

In another era, it seemed as if they controlled everything around them. Things have changed.

After McMichael’s diagnosis, Hampton had a load of lumber delivered to the house and board by board, nail by nail, he built a wheelchair ramp from the laundry room to the garage. Former teammate Richard Dent helped.

Between them, the flame remains. You can feel it when Hampton is at McMichael’s bedside.

“I hate going,” Hampton says. “Hate it. I hate to see him in this condition. I hate being a part of this phase of his life. But after leaving the house, I always realize it means something to him. That’s all that matters.”

During their playing careers, McMichael and Hampton were part of a band called the Chicago Six, which included Walter Payton, Dave Duerson and a few Chicago Blackhawks players. In 2013, they wanted to revive the concept. At a corporate appearance, they met Johnny McFarland, a construction equipment salesman who played guitar on the side.

Hampton and McMichael asked him if he would be interested in a reimagined Chicago Six. McFarland, Hampton and McMichael joined forces with former Bear Otis Wilson and two other musicians, playing at local fests, fundraisers and the NFL Draft.

McMichael gave McFarland a new name — “Johnny Guitar.” He also encouraged him to take over the stage during guitar solos — McMichael would step to the side — even though everyone was there to see the former Bears.

“Make it sing, Johnny, make it sing!” he would say.

After Johnny Guitar and the other band members who were not former Bears finished their day jobs, they rehearsed at Hampton’s house. McMichael always came with an extra-large pizza, a bucket of wings and a case of Bud Light. When he found out Johnny Guitar preferred Stella Artois, he brought those.

“He’d say, ‘I know you guys are coming straight from work, so I got something,’” Johnny Guitar said. “And he refused to take money.”

Now Johnny Guitar brings his two-stick guitar to McMichael’s house, and he and the other band members perform songs for McMichael that he once took part in. They play “Baddest Team Alive” and “Ready to Roll,” two Hampton compositions about the Bears of the 1980s.

Just before Christmas, they played “Feliz Navidad” around McMichael’s bed. His nurses sang along.

When McMichael joined the Bears, Jim Osborne was the venerated elder statesman. In Jim’s mind, McMichael still is the young, boisterous life of the party.

Now they watch cowboy movies together and both doze off like two little brothers after a long day. But it’s OK. “Sometimes it’s just being there, letting him know, ‘I’m here,’” Osborne says. “And as long as I’m able to be there, I will be.”

One day, Osborne left his room so a nurse could clean his tracheotomy tube. McMichael signaled to his nurse that he wanted Jim in the room.

“I thought, ‘I don’t like seeing that, but if he wants me to watch, I will,’” Osborne says.

He did, and then it hit him.

“He was giving me a message,” Osborne says. “He was telling me if he could endure this, then I could endure anything. His willingness to hang in is an example for anyone who’s encountering something difficult.”

Osborne often visits McMichael with his wife, Wanda. Soon after McMichael’s diagnosis, McMichael told Wanda he had read her book “Away: A Children’s Book of Loss” and wanted to know if she would consider writing a book with him. He wanted it to be a story about an athletic boy who has his physical gifts taken from him. And he wanted the book to be about him, with appearances from his brother Rick McMichael, Wanda’s husband and Hampton. That’s all he told her.

Within a week, Wanda had a draft written, though she wasn’t sure how. “I truly believe God blessed me with the thoughts to create the storyline Steve wanted to relay,” she says. “I can’t take the credit because I didn’t even like literature in school.”

When she read the draft to Steve and Misty, both were in tears.

After a few tweaks, they had an inspiring story about a boy who is paralyzed after a run-in with a bully but whose spirit cannot be quelled — “The Golden Life of Little Steve.”

Broadcast executive Larry Wert once fired McMichael from his job as a television sports analyst, but he remains a welcome visitor to the McMichael house.

During his playing career, McMichael delighted in crossing lines he wasn’t supposed to cross. He duct-taped radio host Kevin Matthews to a chair and brought him outside so passersby could sign him. And he forcibly administered a fake HIV test to sportscaster Mark Giangreco after implying the two of them were lovers.

When Wert fired McMichael, it wasn’t as shocking as McMichael’s gags were.

Wert comes often, sometimes with McMichael’s former teammates. He’s been there with Butler, Hampton, McMahon, Tom Thayer and Keith Van Horne. Many other teammates have visited frequently, including Jim Covert, Gary Fencik, Mike Hartenstine, Bruce Herron, Jay Hilgenberg, Tyrone Keys, Jim Morrissey, Matt Suhey, Dent and Wilson.

Larry Wert, left, and John Vincent, right, share a laugh with Steve McMichael. (Courtesy of Larry Wert)

Because of what McMichael is going through, their arms are locked in a way they never were before. “Their loyalty has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Wert says. “They haven’t always gotten along perfectly, but they are together over this.”

During a recent visit, talk about the old days drew an unexpected reaction from McMichael.

“He couldn’t speak, but there was no question he was laughing, really laughing,” Wert says. “And it was rewarding.”

It made Misty tear up. “Her support has been amazing,” he says. “She keeps the environment uplifting and fun, with a positive energy. I don’t know how she does it.”

Jim McMahon tries small talk, even when he knows there will not be responses.

It can be awkward.

It can feel empty.

“It breaks your heart,” McMahon says. “He was a larger-than-life character. And he always had my back. He was a great teammate. To see a guy who was that big and strong wilt away is tough. It reminds me of when Walter (Payton) was sick.”

McMahon can’t watch football anymore. It bores him. But he watched a Texas game with McMichael last fall. Anything for his friend.

McMichael continues to surprise him.

“I thought maybe after he heard he was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, he’d be happy and just let go,” McMahon says. “But the guy’s always been a fighter and I know he wants to be there for his induction. There’s going to be a big party in Canton, and I’m looking forward to it.”

In a scene that once was beyond imagination, the rebel quarterback gently kisses the forehead of the wild defensive tackle they called Ming the Merciless.

A little over one year ago, John Vincent leaned into McMichael and told him how much he meant to him. It was emotional.

McMichael still could talk a little then. His final words to Vincent were, “Tell your story.”

It inspired the singer.

As a boy on the Southwest side of Chicago, Vincent had obsessive-compulsive disorder and was bullied. He felt anger, confusion and a lack of confidence.

Even though he could sing like Frank Sinatra, Vincent doubted himself. He had suicidal thoughts.

Then he met McMichael, who started calling him “Faux Frank” and brought him into his circle with other Bears players. McMichael introduced him to Ditka, who hired him to sing at his restaurant, employed him for 20 years and became a surrogate father.

“Steve made me feel safe,” Vincent says. “He changed my life.”

Vincent became the kind of person others can lean on, and he now tells his story to youth groups with an anti-bullying message.

McMichael once lifted Vincent in the air when Vincent weighed 440 pounds. The singer has lost 114 pounds and wants to lose another 80. He believes he is capable partly because of confidence Vincent never had before he met McMichael.

“You see him in that bed, and I miss seeing Steve the way he was,” he says. “But he’s still Steve in his head. I say, “Shame on you, John.’ It’s still Steve, and I have to talk to him like I talked to Mongo.”

Tom Thayer would like to forget his indoctrination with the Bears in the summer of 1985.

“The first couple weeks of camp was absolute hell,” Thayer says. “Absolute hell. Ming would come out to practice with game-day attire, sleeves rolled up, just bringing it. He would say, ‘Hey, Tommy, you’d better strap it up today. I’m coming off the ball. I ain’t playing no brother-in-law.’ And then he’d go all out.”

As time passed, he saw another side, and McMichael became a mentor. McMichael told him how to block more efficiently and pushed him to his highest highs in the weight room.

“The more I got to know him, the more I loved him, appreciated him and respected him,” Thayer says.

Steve McMichael made life hell for Tom Thayer when he joined the Bears, but they became lifelong friends. (Courtesy of Misty McMichael)

For a long time, McMichael was resistant to using the speech-generating device. Thayer, Kathy and others talked to him about how important it was that he use it.

On a recent visit, Misty told Thayer that Steve wanted to show him something.

McMichael had used his speech-generating device.

“Tommy,” it said, “I love you.”

There are unexpected gifts.

One of McMichael’s favorite shirts was a Tommy Bahama that features Ditka’s likeness and has a patriotic theme. He knew he would never wear it again, so he wanted Hampton to have it.

Kathy attended the Bears’ 44-0 victory over the Cowboys in 1985, so her brother gave her his game ball from that day.

A figurine set from his wrestling days was given to the son of Brandon Hiatt, who hosts a podcast with Misty.

Wanda was given a signed jersey, which says she will hold dear forever.

He gave his last Steve McMichael ESPN bobblehead to a writer.

Everyone walks away with something, even if it isn’t anything they can touch or hold.

“You always left a better man than you went,” Singletary says.

All come to give.

They leave having received.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; photos: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport; Peter Brouillet / Getty Images; Brian Cassella /Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images; courtesy of Misty McMichael and John Faidutti)

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