For many, Broyles' legacy had nothing to do with sports

By: Nate Olson
Published: Friday, August 18, 2017
Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles signs a copy of "Coach Broyles' Playbook for Alzheimer's Caregivers" on Tuesday, July 18, 2006, at the Walmart on Cantrell Road in Little Rock.
Photo by Benjamin Krain
Arkansas athletics director Frank Broyles signs a copy of "Coach Broyles' Playbook for Alzheimer's Caregivers" on Tuesday, July 18, 2006, at the Walmart on Cantrell Road in Little Rock.

There he was, one of the state’s most powerful men sharing the most personal and vulnerable moment of his life.

Many in the downtown Little Rock banquet hall were wiping away tears by the end of the night. At that gala, Frank Broyles revealed the struggles he faced caring for his wife Barbara, who had recently died of Alzheimer’s disease.

Broyles glowed when speaking of his high school sweetheart. The two met when Barbara was 15 years old in Broyles' hometown of Decatur, Ga. The couple's first date was Jan., 24, 1941. When Broyles went on to play three sports at Georgia Tech, Barbara was by his side. The couple married on May 5, 1945, and Barbara was named Homecoming queen that fall.

The Broyles were featured on the cover of Atlanta Journal Magazine on Sept. 29, 1946.

Through the ups and downs of college football coaching and administration the Broyles enjoyed wedded bliss and raised a happy family together. However, when Barbara was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1999, things got tough. The disease, as it does, started to steal Barbara’s thoughts and memories, and she began a steady decline.

Broyles’ once gentile partner was combative, frustrated and scared. Nights were the worst. Broyles had help, but he kept Barbara at home and cared for her as much as he could.

Some of his critics may have been less harsh if they had known what Broyles faced at home. Or they would have wondered why he didn’t retire.

He had a deep love and passion for his wife and the university, and so he battled on loving Barbara and learning about how to care for her while dealing with the heavy burden that comes with running a major college athletics department in his late 70s.

He told his story to a group of Alzheimer’s supporters and donors at the gala because he wanted caregivers to know they weren’t alone. That was the beginning of Broyles’ partnership and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association. There were many more speeches and even a handbook he authored, "Coach Broyles' Playbook for Alzheimer's Caregivers."

I had met and interviewed Broyles over the years as a cub reporter and like others, found him to be personable and pleasant to deal with. That night, I visited with him briefly after the speech along with my wife, Sheena, and one of the chapter’s staff. Sheena thanked him for sharing his story, and he shook her hand, smiled and said, “I was happy to do it.”

That was Broyles.

I recalled that moment Monday when Broyles, 92, succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. The guy achieved more in a lifetime than most of us could in three. He was an all-SEC performer in three sports at Tech, a wildly successful college football coach and he was one of the most powerful athletics directors in NCAA history.

His list of accomplishments is long, however, the impact he made as a supporter for Alzheimer’s disease may be one of his crowning achievements. That he took time out of a rigorous schedule to write a book to help people around the world take care of their loved ones is powerful. The book was published in 11 languages and distributed to more than 1 million people.

“Frank Broyles boldly started the dialogue about Alzheimer's disease during his own journey caring for his wife Barbara,” said Susan Neyman, Alzheimer’s Association Arkansas Chapter executive director. “This was at a time when not many people talked about the disease. He took what he knew, coaching, and applied it to caregiving in the writing of the playbook for Alzheimer's caregivers. The playbook has been a game-changer for the literally thousands of families who have used this resource. His legacy will continue through this publication for as long as people are dealing with the disease.”

Although Broyles is now gone, his legacy will live on with the Broyles Foundation, which is committed to fighting a disease that affects 55,000 Arkansans. It is expected to affect 58,000 by 2020 and 67,000 by 2025.

Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in Arkansas. Nearly one in three seniors who dies in Arkansas each year has Alzheimer’s or another dementia, and the disease kills more people over the age of 65 than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Country music star and Arkansas native Glen Campbell died from the disease the week before Broyles. Their giant profiles will help generate more awareness for the cruel disease.

Broyles and his commitment to caregivers and finding a cure will be remembered for many years to come.

“Not only was he bold leading in opening a dialogue about Alzheimer's but he also left a legacy of leadership instilled in his children who continue to carry the mantle for Alzheimer's caregivers,” Neyman said. “His daughter, Betsy Broyles Arnold, and his granddaughter, Molly Arnold, head up the Broyles Foundation. Their compassion for caregivers dealing with Alzheimer's disease is a true reflection of Coach Broyles' character and legacy carried out through their work.”

Nate Olson is a contributor to WholeHogSports

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