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Living legend

Bill Walsh, sapped of his energy from a battle with leukemia, reflects on a Hall of Fame career as the love and admiration pour in. His coaching legacy and family tree of football are secure.

December 22, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

PALO ALTO — Six weeks ago, Bill Walsh was near death. He couldn't eat and barely had the strength to speak. Leukemia had ravaged his body and left him hospitalized at Stanford University Medical Center, where doctors urgently filled him with chemotherapy drugs to fight the cancer and antibiotics to control his raging infections.

Walsh, 75, who coached the San Francisco 49ers to three Super Bowl championships from 1979 through '89, has been battling the disease since being diagnosed in 2004. It is an illness he disclosed only last month.

In early November, he was convinced his life was close to an end.

"I was really down," he said. "The doctors were talking in terms of days or weeks."

But his cancer is unpredictable, and he has stabilized and improved in recent weeks. He still spends three days a week at the hospital receiving intravenous treatments, and wears a catheter implanted in his forearm for injections. He is pale and not as sturdy as he was a few years ago, yet he hasn't allowed the disease to dominate his life.

In a wide-ranging discussion with The Times this week on the Stanford campus where he still maintains an office, Walsh talked about his legendary career, his triumphs and regrets, his feelings about today's NFL, how a fellow Hall of Fame coach tried to keep him out of the league, and the difficulty of confronting his own mortality.

Asked if he fears dying, Walsh said he doesn't, "but the last thing you want when you're dying is to be suffering. I've discussed that with my physicians.... I just don't want to cling to some form of life."

The disease and treatment have sapped Walsh's energy, so much so that when he stands he often seeks something to lean against. And while his voice is weaker than in the past, his mental energy is undiminished.

His greatest worry throughout the ordeal, he said, has been the well-being of his wife, Geri, who suffered a major stroke seven years ago. In recent weeks, Walsh and their children, Craig and Elizabeth, have planned out the details of her care in case he's not around. More than anything, that has helped put his mind at ease.

"Once that was resolved," Walsh said, "then I sort of resolved in my mind to whatever happens is certainly acceptable to me. I've lived a good life. A lot of wear and tear, a lot of disappointment in my life, but now that it's in my last cycle, I feel OK about it."

On his best days, he holds out hope he'll one day return to the golf course or spend some time at his beach house near Monterey. On most days, he's simply happy to be alive.

"Twenty-five years ago I wouldn't be here now," he said. "It's because of advances in medicine and specialization in what I have. And there are people in the hospital who are worse than I am. They struggle, and I struggle. But the final point is right now I'm feeling better. I feel sort of normal right now. I don't remember what normal was, it's been so long ago, but right now I'm functioning OK."

The interview was conducted in a conference room in the Stanford athletic department, a place Walsh knows well. Twice the school's head football coach, Walsh served as interim athletic director last year. He also had significant say in this week's hiring of Jim Harbaugh as new coach.

In fact, as Harbaugh entered the auditorium at his introductory news conference, the only hand he shook was that of Walsh. Later, Harbaugh confided that since receiving a congratulatory voice mail from him, "I've tried to figure out some way that I could get that message off of my phone and onto a tape that I could keep for the rest of my life."

Everyone, it seems, is holding fast to their own personal Walsh moment or memory. He has received countless phone calls, cards, letters and words of kindness from people he touched over the years. Those have come from all over the country, and particularly the Bay Area, where Walsh also worked as an assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders and California, and played quarterback for Hayward High, San Mateo Junior College and San Jose State.

In the NFL, what was once a Walsh coaching tree of disciples is now closer to a forest. Among those who worked under him: Mike Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, George Seifert, Dennis Green, Ray Rhodes, Brian Billick and Jon Gruden. A coaches who's who. But his reach extends well beyond that.

"You can go through this league and almost every corner of every team is touched by Bill Walsh," said Eddie DeBartolo, former 49ers owner. "I'm talking about head coaches to coordinators to sons to cousins. I tried to sit down and do his family tree of football once and I just quit. No one, and I mean no one, has put a mark and touched pro football in the way that Bill Walsh has. Calling him an icon isn't even doing him justice."

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