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(Tribune photo by Rand Middleton) Former Willmar Cardinal standout football lineman Scott Wierschem posed on Thursday in the back yard of his home between Spicer and New London.

Ex-football star Wierschem dealing with disability

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Scott Wierschem is a proud man. He sits straight and tall. There is defiance, yet sadness in his eyes.

When he walks, he uses a cane. His speech is halting. One needs to listen closely.

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Scott's body began to go haywire while in his mid-40s. The muscles that allowed him to be a football standout were deserting him.

He's now 51 saddled with a disease without a name. Maybe, someday, there will be a diagnosis and it will be called, suggests his younger sister Vicki Wierschem Henle, "Scott Wierschem" disease.

He has a neuro-physical disorder that slurs his speech, weakened his core strength and makes simple tasks, like eating, work. In his car, he has a medical document that states, essentially, "I'm not drunk, I have a disability."

He's been told by physicians that it's not ALS (Lou Gehrig disease) and it's not Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, or the result of a stroke. Over years of testing by neurologists and specialists in St. Cloud and Rochester, nothing definitive has been found.

Several physicians have suggested Kennedy Disease (named after a physician not the slain president), an inherited motor neuron disease that affects males and is triggered by a defective chromosome.

Nothing is wrong with his thought process. But the cerebellum, which controls muscular movement, has deteriorated. General Ataxia describes his symptoms: a lack of muscular coordination due to an underlying condition.

"My muscles get tired and my speech is more slurred the later it is in the day," he said.

Recognizing his athletic accomplishments in football and wrestling, the 1978 graduate was inducted into the Cardinal Pride Hall of Fame in 2003. He started two years at guard.

St. Cloud State University brought the Willmar athlete in on a full scholarship. He played on the line for four years, starting the last three.

A six-footer, he was on the short side, but unusually fast for a Division II offensive lineman. "I'd block low, at the knees," he said of his style along the line of scrimmage. "I suppose my helmet took a lot of hits."

Did he ever leave the field dazed with concussion symptoms? "You get hit hard so many times, back in those days, you just shook your head (free of stars) and kept going," he recalls.

He did go to the sidelines once. It happened in a game against UM-Duluth when he returned to the Huskies' huddle with a bloody face and bone protruding from the bridge of his nose. Teammates shooed him to the sidelines.

Today, there's growing awareness and concern for long-term effects of concussions. The high school league has a position statement on its website. Concussions even figure into outcomes of the newest Madden NFL Football video game.

Medicine recognizes Repetitive Brain Injury Syndrome. Unlike being knocked out or dizzy, there may be no visible sign of injury with repetitive blows of moderate intensity during routine blocks and tackles.

No one seems sure if football has anything to do with what has happened to Wierschem.

He was a well-regarded correctional officer, hostage negotiator and warden at prisons in Rush City and Sauk Centre during a 25-year career. Since retiring, he had to work part-time at odd jobs. When he ran a fruit and vegetable stand in Sauk Centre, he hung a sign that said, "My speech is bad, but the fruit is good."

He lives on his pension and medical assistance through the state.

He works two hours a week at the West Central Tribune collating advertising circulars. This small amount of income is enough to qualify him for the Minnesota Assistance for Disabled Workers.

"I'm very thankful for this job," he said. "Nobody wants to hire someone who has these difficulties."

He lives in Spicer. He rents to college students who get a discount if they help him with personal tasks. A state and county program provides a homemaker once a week.

He said he's benefited greatly from physical therapy at Rice Rehabilitation, but his insurance pays for only so many visits.

Wierschem, who never married, went through his lowest period earlier in his illness. The first symptoms were stumbles and falls. He felt embarrassed to be out in public. People wondered what was wrong with the burly ex-football player. He was tired of trying to explain.

Vicki said that she and her brothers, Lee and Kent, became concerned with his state of mind.

"He'd get depressed," said Vicki. "What has kept him involved is following the athletics of his nieces and nephews at high schools in Willmar, New London-Spicer and Faribault, and then at college.

Vicki said her husband, David, and Scott's former teammate on the Cardinals, Brett Aamot, have been important friends throughout Scott's struggles.

"They keep his life as normal as possible with trips, outings and their joking," said Vicki.

A lifetime outdoorsman, hunting lifts his spirits. Bill Taunton Sr, and Tom Taunton bring him over to South Dakota for pheasant hunts. He can't walk the fields, but sits on a four-wheeler. He hunted deer, unsuccessfully, this fall at the special hunt for the disabled at Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

Vicki, a special education teacher in the Willmar district, said the family holds no "Pity Parties" for her brother.

She's pretty certain Scott is better able to deal with the setbacks because of his background as an athlete and a competitive spirit.

His physical abilities will continue to deteriorate. He eats mostly soft food.

"You know," he says, "I fully expect what will happen in the end is that I will choke to death on my own food."

That possibility scares Scott and those close to him.

His sister, who works with young people who face an uphill fight every day, remains upbeat.

"This is life changing for Scott, but it's not a death sentence," she said. "We need to assure that this former Cardinal maintains a lifestyle of activity and normalcy."

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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