An Incurable Killer Strikes Three Ex-49ers, and An Anguished Victim Doubts It's a Coincidence
When he played backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in the early ’60s, Bob Waters never gave much thought to possible side effects from the drugs he and other players say team physicians prescribed. He was one of the first on the 49ers to use the painkiller dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) routinely, and he took cortisone for various injuries. After arriving at training camp 10 lbs. underweight one year, he bulked up quickly with anabolic steroids. Like many pro ballplayers, Waters was happy to take anything that helped him to go out on the field every week and do his job.
Two decades later, Waters, 48, wonders whether he might unwittingly have mortgaged his life. Both arms now hang lifelessly from his shoulders, and worse is to come. Waters suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Characterized by a progressive and irreversible weakness in the muscles, ALS strikes about two out of 100,000 Americans annually. It has also exacted a mysteriously high toll among former 49ers. In the past few weeks two men who played with Waters on the 1964 team—linebacker Matt Hazel-tine and running back Gary Lewis—have died from ALS. “For three of us from a team roster of 40 to come down with ALS is statistically impossible,” says Waters. “We have to find out whether something we all did, took or were exposed to gave us this disease.”
Determining the cause of ALS has baffled medical researchers. But Dr. Donald Mulder of the Mayo Clinic believes the 49ers’ cases could hold a key to understanding the disease. “This kind of cluster is very unusual,” says Mulder. “It should be investigated.” Dr. Stanley Appel, who has been treating Waters in an experimental program at Baylor University, agrees. “The simplest explanation may be coincidence,” Appel says, “but we need to know whether some common factor triggered a breakdown in the body’s immune system. Was it something sprayed on the practice field? A viral infection? Drugs? We don’t know.”
For Waters the first sign that something was terribly wrong came four years ago. The night before a football game at Western Carolina University, where he has been head coach since 1969, Waters’ right biceps began twitching uncontrollably. At first he thought the problem might have something to do with a metal plate that had been screwed into his arm during his NFL playing days. When muscle spasms and weakness gradually spread to his left arm, Waters suspected the worst. In March 1985 specialists confirmed he had ALS. “It’s the last diagnosis any doctors want to make,” says Waters. “They know they will have to admit failure because sooner or later they will lose the patient.”
Matt Hazeltine survived nearly four years after ALS was diagnosed, Gary Lewis just three weeks. For the moment Waters considers himself lucky. Though he cannot dress himself or eat without assistance, he has continued to coach the Western Carolina football team. “We had one of our best teams last year,” says Waters. “I think we’ll be even better this year.” His wife, Sheri, 43, and their children—Jeff, 24, Kim, 21, and Mica, 18—have worked hard at maintaining a normal atmosphere at the family home outside Cullowhee, N.C. “As individuals we all have our moments,” says Sheri, “but we’ve never all fallen apart at the same time.” Still, Waters is acutely aware he is running life’s equivalent of a two-minute drill. “There are so many things he wants to say,” confides Sheri, “and he’s afraid he won’t have time to say them.”
Before Hazeltine and Lewis died, Waters asked the 49ers for assistance in contacting former teammates in hope of finding some explanation for the cluster of ALS cases. According to Waters the 49ers waited five weeks to respond and seemed reluctant to help. “By that time Matt and Gary were dead and couldn’t answer anymore,” he says. “I have a hard time getting over that.” The 49ers, however, have subsequently pledged to assist Waters’ doctors in trying to solve the mystery. “We are cooperating in every way we know how,” says 49ers General Manager John McVay.
Meanwhile, Waters is slowly watching his body waste away but believes a questionnaire recently mailed to his former teammates could help him survive. “If we can find out what caused this 22 years ago, maybe we can find a cure,” Waters says. “The only other choice I have is to lie down and wait for death, and I’m not ready for that. My goal is to get well.”