Can’t keep a good man down
After diagnosis, DePauw’s Riggle determined to fight
CARY, N.C. -- Something wasn’t right.
Scott Riggle, the head men’s and women’s tennis coach at DePauw, couldn’t get the fingers on his left hand to work as fast or efficiently as those on his right while washing his hair in the shower. He had to actually concentrate on taking keys out of his left pocket and using them to unlock a car door. He’d never had to do that before.
And his service toss ... he’d always wondered why in the world anyone would have trouble with something so simple. No more. All of a sudden, the simple lobs in the air were going everywhere. Was it old age? He was just 44. While giving a lesson to a doctor’s daughter, Riggle asked him if his symptoms were anything to worry about.
Go get yourself checked out, he was told. An MRI was performed. “They did find a brain, which I was happy about,” Riggle joked.
After ruling out every other possibility, a pinched nerve in his neck maybe, Riggle was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease.
“I think this is the perfect disease for a tennis player or coach,” Riggle said. “You have to grind it out. You have to stay positive. You have to stay mentally tough. You have to deal with adversity. All the lessons you learn in tennis through playing and coaching apply to this disease.”
The date comes to him instantly, as fast if not faster than a birthday or anniversary -- Sept. 14, 2010. His life had just changed in ways that he could not begin to fathom, and his first thoughts concerned his wife, Jenny, and their two children.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh, my God, my wife,’ ” Riggle admitted. “She’s 10 years younger. I just felt terrible for her, because she didn’t sign up for this. This disease is as much a spouse’s, if not more, as it is the patient’s.
“My second thought was my kids, who were nine and five at the time. I wanted to throw the football in the yard with my son, Jack, and I wanted to walk my daughter Sophie down the aisle. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
His tennis teams next popped into mind. Hadn’t he always preached mental toughness and dealing with adversity? This was no longer a tennis lesson. It was as serious a life lesson as any of his players were likely to receive. Riggle could give up or he could fight.
Riggle was going to fight.
“Coaches don’t get an opportunity very often to practice what we preach,” Riggle said. “This is a good opportunity, I think, to show kids how to deal with adversity and set a good example. I try to stay positive and have a light tone. I try to use humor.”
The veteran coach is currently under the care of Parkinson’s specialist Dr. Eric Ahlskog at the famed Mayo Clinic. Still in the early stages of the disease, Riggle sometimes experiences minor symptoms that aren’t so much life changing as they are simply annoying. With plenty of rest and medicine, those tend to go away.
It’s the new symptoms that get his attention.
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“The sad thing is when you get a new symptom that you hadn’t had,” Riggle said. “If all of a sudden I’m shaking when I reach for a cup, that’s sad for a day or two because it reminds you that it’s a progressive disease. You think, ‘Oh, great, here comes the next stage.’ You can’t dwell on those sad times. It’s alright to be sad for a day or two, but you can’t let it overwhelm you. You kind of incorporate it into your routine.
“You make adjustments, kind of like tennis. If somebody starts hitting their forehand deeper and they win a game or two, then you make an adjustment and keep it away from that forehand that they hit so well.”
Every year on New Year’s Eve, Riggle hosts an adult tennis tournament in Greencastle, Ind. Three months after his diagnosis, wristbands showed up at the event with “Team Riggle” wristbands. If the small tokens of support encouraged him, they also gave him an idea to pay it forward. While he figures the Team Riggle Foundation won’t generate the kind of attention that fellow PD patient Michael J. Fox has brought to the disease, he does have his goals.
He wants to help the Mayo Clinic. He sees support groups for the spouses of those with Parkinson’s, and somewhere along the line a center for young onset patients.
“If we can help a little bit and maybe inspire some young player – whether it’s on my team or another team – to go into research and maybe find a cure, then maybe this can turn into a positive,” Riggle concluded.