It all started with an early morning walk that just wasn’t right, and then came difficulties clipping his finger nails.
For a man who has always been athletic and has spent the last four decades walking up and down the sidelines of football games, those were Bill Napier’s first signs that something was wrong.
Enjoying a late spring stroll with his group of walking buddies in Chatsworth, Napier’s calf muscle stopped responding. He couldn’t get any push off of his ankle and had to drag his right leg to keep up with his left. His nerves to the muscle had stopped firing.
At first, the former Murray County head coach and his doctor thought it might be a pinched nerve. Napier had been experiencing some lower back pains, and a herniated disc in his spinal column could have easily been the cause.
Dr. Mitchell Frix, who Napier has been sending his players to see for their orthopedic needs for years, sent Napier to a specialist to get an MRI done to try to isolate the cause. But the specialist was a neurologist, and instead of an MRI, Napier remembers the needles.
Needles to shock his muscles. Needles were inserted at his toes and then worked their way up his entire body all the way to his chin. The needles of the electormyography studied the reactions of his muscles.
It is the main diagnosing tool for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“When the doctor set me up on the side of the table, I almost knew exactly what he was going to say,” Napier said. “He wasn’t wanting to tell me. You could see his face get flushed and it was like he didn’t want to have to tell me. I could tell it wasn’t good. He told me he was going to diagnose me with ALS, and I knew what that meant."
There is no cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, named for the famous New York Yankees baseball player whose life was cut short by the disease. There are no proven treatments to reverse its effects.
“It just doesn’t seem fair for a guy who has spent his whole life teaching and coaching players that something like that would happen,” said former player Hugh Swilling. “He has had a tremendous influence on such a large part of the community.”
A life of impact
Originally from Tennessee, Napier has been part of the high school football coaching landscape of northwest Georgia since 1983, working with the programs at Murray County, Southeast Whitfield, Adairsville and now Dalton.
His impact on the field is shown in the numbers.
In Napier’s 16 seasons as a head coach for the Indians, Murray County was 94-78-1. His 2000 squad went 10-3, losing in the quarterfinals on the road at Shaw, which finished the season undefeated as the Class 4A state champs. In the history of the program that began in 1950, Murray County has had three seasons with double-digit wins.
Napier was part of all three.
In 1984, Napier was the offensive coordinator under head coach Tony Plavich, and the Indians finished 12-2, winning the region championship over Cedartown and losing at Marist in the Class 3A state semifinals. Both the 1999 and 2000 teams reached 10 wins with a strong-armed hurler named Joel Statham leading Napier’s offense to back-to-back wins over rival Dalton.
Friday night at Murray Field during the school’s annual Green-White intrasquad scrimmage, Napier was recognized with a plaque honoring him as the winningest coach in the history of the program. Former players, former assistant coaches and members of the community came out to stand and cheer and show the man their appreciation for his impact on all of Murray County.
His impact on his players is shown in their testimony of the complete man — his lessons, his faith and his guidance throughout life.
“Coaching was his outlet to touch people, but his faith is very important to a lot of people too,” said former player Brett Dotson, who is currently a teacher and coach at the school. “I think people see that he was a good example to live by — whether it was through coaching or how he has lived his life. I don’t know that you can measure the impact he has had. You hope when you are done teaching and coaching that people think of you the way they think of coach Napier.”
There are countless testimonies similar to the one Dotson gives from different generations of Murray County players he has impacted. Those testimonies no doubt will be heard across northwest Georgia as he continues to have an impact on those around him.
Even now, as his body is affected daily by the degenerative disease which is slowly spreading.
“He doesn’t know when his last days are, but he knows they are here sooner than any of us would like to think,” said Dalton head coach Matt Land. “The fact he chooses to spend those days and time with our players and with our staff is an inspiration to all of us. His presence is a challenge to all of us to show up and give your absolute best because he is giving us everything he has just to get out to the field.”
Facing a killer
There is nothing of logic in ALS. There is very little that is definitive about the disease other than if you get it, it kills you.
In some patients, it slowly progresses through the person’s system until paralysis occurs and the body eventually shuts down. In others, it spreads like a wildfire and quickly consumes the person’s body, but not his mind.
“They can’t tell you anything really,” Napier said. “They can’t tell you what causes it and they don’t know what to do for it. They don’t say these words, but if you get it, there is nothing you can do for it. I just try to stay active. I can tell a difference if I get out of my physical routine. It seems to hurt you faster if you aren’t active.”
According to the ALS Association (alsa.org) — a national organization established in 1985 — the disease causes the motor neurons from the brain to the muscles of the body to stop working.
There are no known pre-existing conditions that could cause the disease, and approximately 5,600 people are diagnosed with the disease in the United States each year. The odds of getting it are 1-in-50,000, although this is the second time in recent years Dalton High School’s football program has been touched by it in some way.
Former Catamounts standout Danny Dantzler, who was part of Dalton’s 1967 Class 2A state title team and went on to play at the University of Georgia — his son Watts will be a senior offensive lineman for the Bulldogs this season — died of ALS in 2009. The elder Dantzler also was the first varsity football coach at Christian Heritage School.
The average life expectancy after being diagnosed with ALS is two to five years. Only 10 percent of patients will live more than five years after diagnosis.
The brain sends messages and impulses to the muscles to make them respond. ALS sends those calls from the brain straight to voicemail and causes the physical functioning to cease. The further away a muscle is from the brain, the more prominent the effect.
It is because of this that the first indication for patients occurs in the extremities — the hands, the feet and the lower leg muscles. The muscle twitching from the misfiring of the neurons is why Napier couldn’t clip his finger nails anymore. It is why simply walking is a huge challenge.
“I couldn’t push up on my foot,” Napier said of that day last May when he was on his morning walk. “I just kept walking and had to walk flat footed and lead with my heel on the ground.”
Eventually, the disease spreads throughout the body, causing the loss of the ability to speak and finally stopping the muscles that control breathing. With no cure and only one federally approved treatment — which extends life by just a few months — ALS is, sadly, an efficient killer.
Napier wears leg braces below the knee now to help him maintain his balance to be able to stand upright. They have helped, but there were still challenges last football season. The press box where some of the Dalton assistant coaches sit during games is reached by taking a spiral staircase to the top. Napier said making it to the top wasn’t much of a challenge because there is a handrail he can use to help him on the trek.
But as the season went on, he noticed his body changing. More steps became a bigger challenge. It is the reason he knows that there are 93 steps up the stadium to the press box at Cass High School.
“I remember going to Northwest, and I was to the point where I needed a rail to get up the bleachers, and I couldn’t remember if they had rails,” Napier said. “They had them and I got up the bleachers, but when you get to the top, there is this really big step to get into the press box. I could get my foot up there but couldn’t step up and (offensive line coach) Bill (Mayo) just pushed my butt right up.”
After a couple of incidents at spring practice — falling off of a stool when he tried to get up a little too quickly for his muscles to handle and hitting the turf when Mayo backed into him during a drill — Napier has had to take other precautions for this season.
He stands next to a vehicle purchased by the team’s booster club during practice, able to hold on to the sides to maintain his balance. The school got a special waiver from the Georgia High School Association to allow Napier to watch games and communicate with his staff from a lift in the end zone during this season.
As his muscles degenerate, it is more difficult to do things he once took for granted. Going up steps and inclines aren’t hard, but coming down can be a challenge. Falls are obviously bad, but Napier said falling on his posterior isn’t a problem, especially on the Dalton turf practice field, which provides a bit of a cushion.
“Those kids fall on it every play, and they are all right,” Napier said. “I can take those falls.”
But other falls are harder to take.
“There were times where it was the first time this happened or that happened that you notice,” he said. “I had my first fall, and that one wasn’t so bad, and then I had my first bad fall.”
Napier and his wife of 36 years, Pam, were hosting another couple for dinner, and Napier was coming back from the kitchen to the living room. His knees, which he had problems with before his diagnosis, buckled and he fell. The difference in this fall was that he didn’t land on his back or his side.
He fell straight down. On his knees. On the hard tile floor of his kitchen. Real tiles and not the faux linoleum.
His rear end landed on his ankles, fully sitting down on his Achilles tendons.
“My knees really didn’t like that,” Napier said. “Out of the falls that I have had, that was the only one that spooked me. It was bone on bone, and for the next two or three days, I had my wife help me with just about everything.”
Breaking the news
When Napier was diagnosed, he was all alone. Pam was on vacation with son Billy and Billy’s wife Ali and their 2-year-old daughter Annie. His sons Matt and Kurt live and coach in the Columbus area at Callaway High School. His daughter Whitney is a senior at Georgia.
He called Pam as soon as he left the doctor’s office.
“I was talking to her, and so my son and daughter-in-law found out about it at the same time because she had the phone on speaker,” Napier said. “All three of them found out at one time. They came home and she and I went together the next day and got a good education.”
Next came the task of telling people. He never told his mother, who passed away last year. He didn’t want to burden her, and if there is one thing about this whole process, Napier has seemed to be more worried about how it affects other people rather than how it affects himself.
After telling the rest of his family, he met with Land and the senior coaching staff at Dalton. He began to tell those he felt closest to outside of his family, but he didn’t want it to be a distraction during the football season, so the circle of knowledge was a tight-knit one.
“My goal was to get through the end of the season and then tell my church and then tell the team,” he said. “The week after we lost to Alexander (in the Class 4A playoffs to end the season), I told my church on Wednesday night and the team on Thursday morning.”
Word started getting out.
“I had heard through the grapevine, but he called me up and told me and some of his other players who he has remained close to,” said Swilling, who was an all-state quarterback at Murray County in 1989. “I was definitely shocked, and it is something you hate to hear, but I am so impressed with the way that he is handling it. It tears you up.”
That was a sentiment expressed by nearly all who played under him and coached with him — shock, disbelief.
“It was devastating,” said former offensive tackle Mark Gibson, who is now president of the Murray County Touchdown Club. “I don’t know how to put it into words. You are just heartbroken. He is someone you always looked up to and to see him have to deal with it — he is always positive, and when you are talking to him, he wants to know about you. He never even mentions it.”
Since word of the diagnosis spread, those he has had an impact on have let him know. It has been emotional for him to hear from those former players whom he looks upon as part of his family.
“When I told my church, there were two former players who came all the way down from Knoxville (Tenn.) just to be there,” Napier said as tears clouded his vision. “I wasn’t expecting to see them, and one of them didn’t have a father ... When he tells you that I was like his dad, it just ...”
That is the kind of impact the man has had.
“My wife and I were at a home of friends the other night eating dinner, and he asked me how I am doing mentally,” Napier said. “I told him I was doing fine, and he told me he had a lot of trouble with this and cried like a baby telling me how much he loved me.”
There is very little in Napier that is concerned about himself. He is more concerned with his wife. He knows this is difficult for those closest to him.
“You are hurting for your kids and your wife more than you are hurting for yourself. Think about how my wife has to deal with this,” he said. “Today before I left the house, she buttoned this button, buttoned that button and tightened my belt when I got ready and then walked me out to my truck. I don’t see any advantage spending a lot of time on how it is affecting me. I am an optimistic person by nature, and I have never had any trouble having a good attitude about it.”
He still coaches and doesn’t plan on giving that up anytime soon. He will still have an impact, and that impact will continue to grow.
He will continue to teach lessons, continue to send out texts of Scripture and inspiration to those he knows and loves. And all of the players he coached and reached will spread his legacy throughout the area. They will teach their children the lessons he taught them. He preaches discipline and seeking perfection, and he turns teenagers and boys into men.
How do you judge a man’s impact?
“He has become closer to the Lord because of this,” said Dalton assistant coach Steve Sparks, who has worked with Napier since 2001. “Everyone in his family has, and all of us on the coaching staff with him have. Everyone who played for him has been impacted by him. We have all come closer to the Lord because of him.
“How can you argue against that?”