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The fighter: Former BYU, NFL quarterback Jim McMahon aims to win the toughest challenge of his life

Published: Saturday, Oct. 5 2013 5:35 p.m. MDT

Jim McMahon and his girlfriend, Laurie Navon, pose for a portrait in Layton on Oct. 1.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Jim McMahon has never been one to back down from a challenge.

Whether it was overcoming a freakish boyhood accident that nearly ruined his vision in one eye, being a free-spirited Catholic who attended LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University and wound up with a record-shattering career that included arguably the greatest comeback victory in college football history, or helping lead the Chicago Bears to the only Super Bowl championship in franchise history, the former BYU and NFL quarterback has always tackled the obstacles he's faced in his life head-on — often times literally.

And now that he's battling the toughest challenge he's ever faced in his life, McMahon is determined to win this fight, too.

For the past couple of years, it's been well-documented that McMahon has been dealing with severe headaches, memory loss and the early stages of dementia, brought on by concussions he sustained during his NFL career.

It's a devastating health issue, one that McMahon blames for the deaths of two of his former teammates, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters, who both committed suicide.

But now, it looks like there's light at the end of that terribly dark tunnel for McMahon.

"I had a guy in New York (Dr. Scott Rosa) that figured out I had vertebrae that was cutting off my spinal fluid. It was all backing up into my brain," he said in an interview a few days ago while in town to play in a fundraising golf tournament to improve athletic facilities at Roy High School, his alma mater. "Once they adjusted those two vertebrae and all that stuff came out, I haven't had any headaches.

"It's a non-invasive procedure. He invented a machine that does all the work. I don't know what it does, whether it's air or suction, but it just moves the vertebrae enough to let the fluid get out.

"He said, 'I can't reverse the damage that's been done,' but with all that fluid in the brain, that's what causes lesions and all these problems, all these diseases," McMahon, 54, said of Dr. Rosa's diagnosis and subsequent treatment. "He said, 'I can't reverse any of that, but I can keep the pain down as far as you're concerned. I can keep your head from filling up (with spinal fluid) all the time.'"

Badly needed relief

The treatment has been a godsend for McMahon, who's always been such a notorious fun-loving character, but found himself spending many of his days in a darkened room, lying down or watching television, because the constant, chronic headaches were so painful that he simply didn't feel like doing anything else.

"The headaches were so bad he would drop to his knees," said Laurie Navon, McMahon's devoted girlfriend of the last 7 1/2 years whom he met at a charity golf event in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"Oh, yeah," McMahon said. "My head was hurting so bad I didn't want to do anything. She'd always say, 'You coming out of the room today?' And I'd say, 'No, not unless I have to go do something.'

"And when I was on a plane, it was the worst. You get compressed and with the cabin pressure, I would literally have to squeeze my head for as long as the flight lasted.

"The only time I felt good is when I was laying down," he said, "and (Dr. Rosa) said that's because when you lay down and the gravity gets off you, (the spinal fluid's) moving up to where some of it would get out. But every time I was upright, it was constantly banging in my head."

And he admitted that, at times, the crippling pain, anguish and frustration got so bad that he contemplated going to that same, terribly dark place where Seau, Duerson, Waters and too many other former players found themselves — and taking his own life.

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