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The Story Changes, While the Message Endures: “I Have Parkinson’s Disease,” ESPN Founder Bill Rasmussen

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Rasmussen, the sports fan-turned-broadcaster and entrepreneur, had the out-of-the-box idea for a 24-hour cable sports network, ESPN. It forever changed the landscape of sports media. In 1978, Rasmussen, a former sports broadcaster and public relations executive, and his son Scott started investigating the just-emerging technology of satellite delivery of television. Naturally, their idea focused on a sports network. ESPN took to the air on Sept. 7, 1979. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Rasmussen, 86, shares news about another chapter in his remarkable life.

The story of how ESPN began is one I’m extremely comfortable telling – even wrote a book about it, and since the 1980s I’ve been telling the company’s story at colleges and universities, corporate events around the country and even right here in Bristol.

It’s a story I’ve told countless times recalling people, events, facts and figures with ease, but now I have a new chapter to add to the story – a chapter I don’t really know how to relay yet. This Front Row post is my first step in trying to figure that out.

Here it is: I have Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that affects the brain, resulting in a progressive loss of coordination and movement. I was diagnosed in 2014 and this is the first time I’m sharing my diagnosis publicly. When the doctor looked me in the eye that day and said, “The MRI results confirm what I suspected – you have Parkinson’s,” I didn’t react immediately and he continued, “We can manage this, but as the disease advances it will affect you and here’s what we’re going to do . . .”

I didn’t feel anything different in my daily life and saw no reason to discuss the topic outside of normal family discussions about health matters. As the months and years passed though, I did indeed start to notice little differences in my physical abilities and learned more about PD – that’s when I made the decision to share my story with fans, athletes, teams, sports, businesses and hopefully stir the collective, creative geniuses among us to successfully attack this progressive brain disease.

First and foremost – I’m doing well. For a guy pushing 87, and with the help of medicine that helps treat my symptoms, I still get around quite well and continue to travel the country telling the ESPN/life lessons stories as I have for decades. I live in Seattle now with my amazing daughter, Lynn, a Registered Nurse and her incredible family, who have been on this journey with me and without whom this Parkinson’s mystery would be a lot harder to tackle.

Now, by expanding the circle, by sharing my experiences, my hope is that I can help others who are impacted by Parkinson’s and we’ll all learn more together.

ESPN has proven how powerful strength in numbers can be: From only a few viewers on cable television opening night in 1979 to access to the entire population of the globe in 2019! Today, a cure for Parkinson’s remains elusive, but by raising awareness, I hope thousands will bring new interest, new talent, new research and new dollars to bear on this insidious disease.

It is estimated that there are between 600,000 to one million people living with Parkinson’s in the United States and about 60,000 are diagnosed each year.

Bill Rasmussen is featured on the cover of Connecticut Magazine in September of 1979. (ESPN)

I’m a positive guy . . . I always look at the positive side of people, projects, ideas, etc. For some reason, Parkinson’s is kind of an orphaned malady – people don’t like to talk about it, as if it were taboo. Well, 40 years ago, people didn’t want to talk about a 24-hour sports network either as if competing with “The Big Three” broadcast networks was taboo. We never stopped asking questions, solving problems and selling the dream. A lot of really good people did believe and we see the results of that effort today.

Let’s tackle Parkinson’s with the same enthusiastic effort. I’ll be talking a lot about PD in the weeks and months ahead – not as a victim, but as living, breathing proof that when you or a loved one hears the dreaded words, “You have Parkinson’s disease,” life is not over – it’s just the beginning of a new chapter.

There’s a lot of information available – just type Parkinson’s in your browser and start reading. Here’s a quick introduction to the five stages of Parkinson’s.

Another intro piece – Parkinson’s 101 – can be found on the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s site.

Things are changing for me: The shaking hands have arrived along with walking a little slower. Unexpected balance issues in crowds have led me to alter my airport routine. Per doctor’s orders, I now ride a wheelchair from check-in to aircraft. You might think that’s embarrassing, but not me – no long TSA lines anymore!

I’m adjusting to other things of course: My fingers are not flexible enough for me to tie a tie anymore (oh well). And I no longer drive (that saves aggravation and $$).

On July 10, 2019 Bill Rasmussen practices his pitching near his home in Seattle. “Feels great and no issue reaching the plate,” Rasmussen reported following the session in preparation for his Sept. 8 first pitch honors at Fenway Park. (Sarah Van Hollebeke)

Enough of the “can’t do!” I CAN still walk, talk, think and . . . throw a baseball. I’ve been doing that for over 75 years growing up in Chicago, then at DePauw University and in the United States Air Force; as well as a couple of ceremonial “first pitches” at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia for our 30th anniversary and last August at T-Mobile Park in Seattle for a Mariners’ game.

Now as part of the 40th Anniversary edition of Sunday Night Baseball, Sept. 8, I’m thrilled to be doing First Pitch honors along with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro at Fenway Park when the Red Sox entertain the New York Yankees. This is all part of a series of visits I’ll make with ESPN employees in Charlotte, New York, Bristol and Los Angeles that same week.

So that’s my new story. People with PD CAN live active, healthy lives by adding physical fitness, awareness, good nutrition habits, a strong positive attitude and more to their daily routine.

I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts about all of this via espnfounder.com, on Twitter @Bill_ESPN and on Facebook.

ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen (L) visits with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro. (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)
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