Stress Always a Test For League Coaches

Randy Walker tragedy at Northwestern leaves Big Ten mentors considering their health while counting their blessings. Joe Paterno, for one, is thankful that good luck and good genes have helped him endure for more than five decades in the high-pressure profession.

CHICAGO — One of the few surprising revelations to emerge from a largely news-free Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon was this stunner: Joe Paterno climbed Mount Nittany in the off-season.

“I hadn't climbed it in 30 years,” the 79-year-old Penn State coach said. “But my kids teased me into going up there for a family climb. When I got to the top, I was all right. But coming down was really tough. I had a little problem with my leg.”

For the record, Mount Nittany is 650 feet high. The shortest path to the summit is roughly 10 football fields long. That Paterno suffered only a bit of inflammation in his right leg during his mile-long hike is a testament to the importance of moderate exercise — for years, he walked to the football office from his home in College Heights — and healthy genes.

Good health can be hard to maintain in the coaching business. The death of Northwestern's Randy Walker of an apparent heart at age 52 underscored the physical toll that coaching can exact. Although there's no way to link Walker's ailment to his job — he missed part of the 2004 season while recovering from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle — coaches agree that theirs is a high-stress profession.

Minnesota's Glen Mason summed up the feelings of some coaches when, during the off-season, he dismissed a doctor's recommendation that he take a stress test as part of an overdue physical. “I take a stress test every day,” Mason told the doctor.

An avid runner, Mason resisted the test in part because he assumed his health was good. Although Walker's death prompted him to move up the date of his physical, he doesn't expect it to prompt lasting changes in coaches' lifestyles, least of all his own.

“I think most of us drive down the street too fast,” he said. “When we see an accident, we drive slow for about 20 minutes, then we drive fast again.”

Sometimes, it's impossible to know how a particular health problem might have been prevented. Last December Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner had a benign tumor removed from his brain. That's hardly a classic stress-related ailment.

Paterno, who has never missed a game for health reasons in 40 years as Penn State's head coach, attributed his good fortune to factors beyond his control. Citing the death of running guru Jim Fixx of a heart attack at age 52, Paterno said that genes are the key to longevity.

“The Greeks had a saying: 'The glory belongs to our ancestors.' You can only do so much,” he said. “[Fixx] wrote a book and was a great jogger, and he dropped dead. He was in great shape. He wrote a book about jogging and the whole bit and he drops dead from running. We don't have that much control when the good Lord decides what he wants to do.”

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