My father has never really liked talking about his legacy, which has ample grounds for bragging. But I like talking about it. I talk about it often with him and my mother, supplying precious memories that provide a spark and connection. Both of my parents have dementia, and I remind them about their amazing lives, including how they met and experienced love at first sight more than half a century ago in Miami. The perfect love story – he a professional football player – her a natural beauty from Miami Beach.
Dad – Dick Haley to the rest of the world – was one of those small-town high school football stars people knew was destined to go pro. He grew up in Midway, PA, about 20 miles west of Pittsburgh, where he earned the nickname “Haley’s Comet” on the field.
Most of the big East Coast colleges from Penn State down to Florida State wanted him, and many offered him full scholarships. Even Columbia and Duke tried to get him, and Duke almost did. But when it came down to it, Dick didn’t want to be far from home. So he went to the University of Pittsburgh, and has claimed that he went back home for dinner every night of his freshman year.
In his senior year at Pitt, Dick led the Panthers in rushing and scoring. After graduating in 1959, he joined the National Football League as a ninth-round draft pick of the Washington Redskins. He played two seasons with the team before being traded to the Minnesota Vikings and then to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played safety for the Steelers from 1961 to ’64.
Those closest to Dick know his greatest contributions were made behind the scenes after he took his helmet off for good. He was instrumental in players that catapulted Pittsburgh to nine AFC Central Division Titles, four AFC Championships and four Super Bowl Crowns. His 1974 draft consisted of four future Hall of Famers in linebacker Jack Lambert, center Mike Webster, and wide receivers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. No other NFL team has ever drafted that many Hall of Famers in one year; very few have even signed two in the same year. During his tenure, he also drafted two other Hall of Famers linebacker Jack Ham (1971 draft) and running back Franco Harris (1972 draft).
My father was on the front line of recruiting for the Steelers from 1971 to ’91 (after which he moved on to the same position with the New York Jets for more than a decade). In the early days, he quickly proved himself as an innovator with an unmatched eye for talent. He’s told me of being the first to habitually start traveling the entire country scouting talent, and he brought in a workout protocol and a corresponding rating system that became widely adopted by other recruiters.
Widely regarded as a recruiting legend, my father still keeps his four Super Bowl rings in a safe deposit box at the bank. It’s typical of how he’s always preferred not to draw attention to his accomplishments.
In fact, so much of what I’ve heard from him only came through candid conversations we had when we went to the track together when I was young. I never really liked exercising at the track, but I went enthusiastically because I cherished the talks we had there, especially about football, a world I’ve found thrilling from early on.
Today, I reminisce with my father similar to those days on the track – talking about his family and friends, his career, his travels, and his life. Stories he often can’t recall on his own, but that almost never fail to elicit a smile when he hears them. It’s one of the toughest, most emotional, rewarding, and important aspects of caring for an aging loved one with dementia. It helps maintain the interpersonal connection and their connection to a life that grows ever more distant.
I was in the midst of a successful career when my parents received their dementia diagnoses just one year apart from each other. My father was accepted into the NFL’s 88 Plan, a reimbursement program for former players suffering from dementia.
At first, I tried to provide the attention and assistance they needed around my full-time job. But it quickly became clear that wasn’t possible. As I interviewed potential caregivers, it didn’t take long to realize certain things were lacking from their services.
In particular, my parents have long been accustomed to an active, engaged, comfortable lifestyle, and I was unable to find anyone with impeccable care qualifications who understood how to help them maintain the way of life that brings them pleasure and gives them a sense of purpose.
Determined to see them continue to find joy in their life, and feeling a strong desire to take care of my parents, and even sensing that this was something I was meant to do, I became a Certified Geriatric Care Manager. Over the course of caring for them, I’ve talked to a number of other former NFL players with dementia and their families. Many experienced the same surprising frustration that I did—that care providers weren’t able to understand their lifestyle goals and quality of life needs.
I believe strongly that caring for an aging loved one—with or without the serious condition of cognitive decline—is about more than making sure their bills get paid on time, that they eat three quality meals every day, that they take their medicine, and so on. It’s also about helping them continue to flourish in the life they built with full independence and superior quality of life.
Preserving life is one thing. But preserving quality of life should be the ultimate goal. And this is how I came to found Marquee Concierge Care.
Thank you for reading,
Callie Haley Huffman