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Dick Harmon: Former BYU QB Jim McMahon's brain in hands of inventor of the MRI

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 13 2012 6:00 a.m. MST

Let's pray he makes the right read now that it really counts.

Jim McMahon keeps giving updates to his fans that he’s begun treatments to ward off pain and the early onset of dementia after a career filled with blows to his head and brain.

Hope for the former BYU and Chicago Bears quarterback is in the hands of renowned New York doctor Raymond Damadian this week. Damadian invented the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1989.

McMahon told reporters in Chicago his doctor has a stand-up MRI machine and that he has “some type of blockage” in the neck area, where the cerebral fluid is blocked and is backing up into the brain.

“Just diagnosing that, once this is resolved, that should take care of a lot of my problems,” McMahon said. The treatments began Nov. 11. “My memory should come back. I am very excited,” McMahon told the Joliet Herald News.

The treatment is non-invasive and will center on shifting the vertebrae. “When people get brain injuries or trauma, you have to look at the whole spine, not just the brain,” said McMahon, who was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in September, a story that centered on his memory issues.

McMahon is a character for sure. His antics, his playmaking, his leadership in helping the Chicago Bears win a Super Bowl remain part of football legend.

I wish him well.

McMahon is truly an enigma. He’s got that outrageous side, and he’s got a gentle, compassionate, almost Robin Hood aspect to his character.

I remember back in the early 1980s, KOVO’s Larson Bennett invited me to cohost a radio show in Provo, and our first guest was to be McMahon. We got a hold of him and invited him to join us after football practice via phone.

Fifteen minutes into the program, McMahon pulled up in his green Plymouth Duster, walked into the station and spent more than half an hour graciously answering questions and giving his opinions. We were a little stunned. The station was located in the boonies and this was before the days of GPS, and our show was nothing really, no reputation, no track record and no history or marketing, and a phone call would have sufficed.

Behind the scenes over the years, McMahon took on a personal battle to lift the burden of a downtrodden family in Pleasant Grove. It never got much publicity, but he saved that family.

A few weeks ago, McMahon was the guest speaker at the 36th annual University of St. Francis Brown and Gold Banquet at the Patrick J. Sullivan Recreation Center in Chicago.

Organizers, knowing his reputation for flamboyance and outrageousness, and the fact he’s been front and center in an NFL Players Association battle to gain attention and perhaps compensation for head trauma injuries by players, didn’t know what to expect.

Someone said, on a scale of 1 to 10, they hoped McMahon would be a 2 or 3.

He delivered a 10, according to a report in the Chicago Herald-News. He was funny, entertaining and held the audience spellbound with his stories of playing with the Bears and his college days. McMahon signed hundreds of autographs that night, and a live auction for a round of golf with him at Rich Harvest Farms brought in $5,000 to the athletic budget.

Such is the power of charity. That was the night McMahon did what he usually has done on the field. Just delivered.

McMahon had 18 surgeries during his NFL and college career, and he told the audience, “I pretty much glow in the dark.”

He told of his battles with Chicago head coach Mike Ditka, how he’d like to have had Ditka as a teammate. A defensive coach, Ditka tried to call plays for the offense, and McMahon had fun with how that simply failed and he’d have to switch plays.

Because of an injury, McMahon missed a few practices leading up to that famous game at Minnesota during Chicago’s 1985 championship season. Before that game, McMahon found his hero, Joe Namath, who was doing the broadcast sitting in the stands at a Bears practice. Namath asked why he wasn’t on the field, and McMahon told him, “Why? I’ve been here four years and nothing is going to change. Besides, he (Ditka) told me I’m not going to play, I didn’t practice.”

During games, McMahon was always in Ditka’s ears on the sidelines, asking him to put him in, and that night he felt good in warmups and started in with Ditka to play him.

Down 17-9 in the third quarter, Ditka finally put McMahon in the game, and the coach called a screen pass. McMahon tried to run the play but saw a blitz, and a linebacker picked up the targeted running back. McMahon explained that on that play he stumbled taking the snap. When he regained his balance, he threw the ball to Willie Gault, who was 10 yards behind his man and easily scored a 70-yard touchdown.

“Mike wanted to know what I called. I told him a screen, but Willie was open so I threw it to him,” said McMahon.

His next offensive play was a 25-yard touchdown to Dennis McKinnon, and it also wasn’t Ditka’s called play . But when the Viking free safety jumped to cover the Bears' tight end, it left McKinnon open, and McMahon quickly made the read and throw. “Mike was upset again.”

In a loss to Miami the next week, Ditka told McMahon he wasn’t going to play because he missed practice on Wednesday. “We aren’t going to have another Minnesota,” said Ditka. “Why not, that turned out pretty good,” McMahon told his boss.

As it turned out, McMahon did come in the game with the Bears trailing. On multiple occasions, he switched Ditka’s pass plays to runs for Walter Payton, who was going for a record for 100-yard games. Payton gained chunks of 10 and 15 yards and got the record. Chicago lost, Ditka was mad but the offensive players loved it. So did Payton.

That in a nutshell is Jim McMahon.

Who knows if he’ll heal from his head injuries and if this New York doctor can turn things around.

Who knows if BYU will ever get McMahon his degree so he can be in its Hall of Fame, or waive the requirement for the guy.

But I wish him the best and good luck.

Forever, there will be only one Jim McMahon.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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