SALT LAKE CITY — Jim McMahon's girlfriend says he sometimes picks up his car keys but forgets his destination. He walks into a room and wonders why. He told sports radio host Dan Patrick he once got lost on the way home.
No one could have imagined it would turn out like this. We picture the defiant, unapologetic McMahon, who brought BYU back from a 20-point deficit to win the 1980 Holiday Bowl. We remember him as the only person who thought the Cougars could win in the final four minutes, LaVell Edwards included.
We recall the post-BYU McMahon, who mooned a news chopper, rocked a Mohawk and scribbled the NFL commissioner's name on his headband.
That guy is gone?
He's in there somewhere.
Reports say he has early-onset dementia.
"My memory's pretty much gone," he told the Chicago Tribune.
So he writes lists of things he must recall.
Girlfriend Laurie Navon told Sports Illustrated that McMahon sometimes wakes disoriented, thinking she rearranged the furniture in the night. Last time I spoke with him was two years ago at a fundraising golf event in Provo. He wore a bucket hat, multicolored shorts and an earring. When BYU honored him at LaVell Edwards Stadium a dozen years earlier, he appeared in an ankle-length leather coat. Both were vintage McMahon. I also talked to him at the 1997 Super Bowl media day.
Each of those times he wore the ubiquitous wraparound shades, opaque and unreadable as flint.
As long as I've covered him, McMahon never lost that persona of confidence and cockiness, combined with a little P.T. Barnum. Judging by the fact he admits his memory is fading tells me he still approaches things as he always did: unafraid and head-on. There is much to admire in that.
But even he admits he's not so tough anymore, thanks to those concussions in the NFL. He has joined 2,400 other former NFL players who are suing the league for allegedly not alerting players to the dangers of head injuries.
Some memory problems might have been his fault, though he says he doesn't necessarily think so. McMahon was known for celebrating touchdowns by head-butting teammates. In an interview last month with WFLD-TV in Chicago, he ended his head-butting reverie by trailing off "…I can't remember the rest of it."
Of course he can't. He listens to phone messages from friends but forgets who called.
Nowadays he doesn't need to worry about overbearing commissioners or nosy reporters as much as recalling his social security number or the name of an ex-teammate. "When your brain starts messing with you," he told ESPN, "you don't know what to do."
This is distressing news to BYU fans, even those that chafed at McMahon's characterization of the school. He set 70 NCAA passing records and led the Chicago Bears to the 1986 NFL title. His most memorable play, though, came when he threw his last-second pass to Clay Brown to claim BYU's first bowl win. I remember Southern Methodist band members, gathering to march onto the field, but instead slouching off into the night. I recall Brown coming up with the ball and the looks of disbelief among BYU fans and even Edwards.
I was there as a journalist, not a fan, and though I sensed I'd seen something historic, I thought there would be a lot more of those to come. But I've still never seen a comeback like it.
That day at the Provo golf tournament, two years ago, McMahon seemed a little sketchy on details of his famous Holiday Bowl pass, though he claims his long-term memory is good. I just wrote it off as him wanting to conclude the interview. Now I'm not so sure. Either way, I'm thinking of telling him next time I see him what he meant to BYU football. I could point out how he brought toughness and attitude to the program. I might even tell him that night in San Diego was among the most memorable moments in my career.
By then he might not remember that night so long ago. But Jimmy Mac should know, I always will.
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