A great block or a missed one, flattening a defender or a false-start flag — those aren’t always the biggest concerns in J.R. Sweezy’s life these days.
The Seattle Seahawks’ starting right guard, suddenly a stalwart on an otherwise unsettled offensive line, has an even bigger bedrock back in North Carolina. The man in question is a septuagenarian Seahawks fan who watches Sweezy’s games on television, makes the huge guard laugh and taught him the value of hard work in life.
So what that when Sweezy returns to Mooresville, North Carolina, (population about 32,000, 25 miles north of Charlotte) to see Gene Wilhelm, his maternal grandfather doesn’t recognize him, doesn’t remember what J.R. does for a living.
“Every once in a while he’ll be like, ‘Is that that guy who plays football?’” Sweezy said Monday after Seattle’s latest preseason practice.
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“But it’s good, you know? He still knows.
“I’m not in North Carolina too often, unfortunately. I’d love to see him more. I see him two or three times a year, which is unfortunate with the situation that he’s in.”
His grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease nine years ago. For the past couple years, he’s been in the advanced stages of the disease the National Institute of Health chillingly defines as the “irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.” At least 5 million Americans are believed to have symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
It’s some of those 5 million — including beloved “Pepaw Gene” in Mooresville — the 6-foot-5, 298-pound Sweezy and his wife are trying to help this week. Sweezy will be at the Seahawks’ hotel in La Jolla, California, Saturday morning preparing for their third exhibition game that afternoon against San Diego. At the same time Gissell Sweezy will be teaming with the Alzheimer’s Association Washington State Chapter at this year’s Seattle Walk to End Alzheimer’s at Seattle University Park.
It’s an extension of fund- and awareness raising the Sweezys have been doing in North Carolina. Susan Sweezy, J.R.’s mom and Wilhelm’s daughter, created a T-shirt in 2013 emblazoned with “It Ain’t Easy Being Sweezy” and a caricature of No. 64 in a Seahawks home blue uniform. It was an ode to her son — Justin Ross is the name she gave him — going from a seventh-round draft choice and 225th overall pick in 2012 as a defensive lineman at North Carolina State to a starting guard on Seattle’s offense that same year, then a Super Bowl champion the following season.
It was also to honor her dad. She sold out her printing at $15 each, raising $1,500 for Alzheimer’s Association research.
“It was kind of coincidence,” J.R. Sweezy said of joining Saturday’s event at Seattle University. “We decided we wanted to take it to more a national level. We sought out the right people, and it just so happened it was the biggest event about to happen here for the entire year. So it just worked out, which is kind of cool.
“My wife, Gissell, took control of it. She got people to rally behind it. We’ve got a huge group coming out, and we would love for all the 12s to come out and join her.”
Sweezy now knows what anyone whose family has been affected by Alzheimer’s knows.
“I’ve seen what it does to families, and how hard it is,” he said of Alzheimer’s. “I just want to help as much as you can.
“I talk to my parents all the time. It’s really been hard on my mom. It’s really been hard on the family. But we are trying to make the best of it.
“He’s always in a good mood. He may not always make sense when he’s talking but we love talking to him.
“He’s still the same ol’ ‘Pepaw Gene’ that he was back in the day.”
Sweezy laughed. It was a thoughtful, proud chuckle.
“We have fun.”
Sweezy described with more pride how his grandpa founded Port City Electric Co. in Mooresville and built it into a local institution.
“He was a great influence. He was a great business man,” Sweezy said. “He taught me a lot about finances and how hard work will get you what want you want if you stick to it and really grind and not quit. That’s how he lived his life.
“He preached that to me until the day he couldn’t.”
Wilhelm has been living the past couple years with an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. Until recently, he’d been in an assisted living facility, but recently he moved into Sweezy’s parents’ home.
“He’s in a wheelchair now. He can’t get around,” Sweezy said. “So, yeah, they let him come home.
“It’s progressively gotten worse in the last year. Before he was walking around and kind of knew every now and then what was going on. But now it’s progressively gotten worse. He’s bedridden. And, uh, he’s, uh…”
The big offensive lineman sighed.
“Like I said, he’s still ‘Pepaw Gene’ at the end of the day,” Sweezy said. “He’s a little all over the place, but we enjoy talking to him.”
Sweezy inhaled. And he smiled another earnest smile.
“He makes us laugh. And we have a good time whenever he’s around,” he said. “He’s a great man. And we love him to death.
“We are just so happy that we can help in any way we can to try to help better those with the disease, and hopefully find a cure someday.”
After his grandfather’s diagnosis, the Sweezys learned there may be a family history of Alzheimer’s, in his great-great-grandparents.
“Way back then they didn’t know. They thought they were just old,” he said. “But now they think it ran in the family a couple generations, a few times.”
Is he worried that, heaven forbid, this thus-far incurable disease may catch up to him?
“You know, God has a plan,” Sweezy said. “If that’s my fate, I’ll deal with it. But there’s no point in worrying about it now.
“And if that is my fate, that’s why I am trying to raise awareness now, so maybe I won’t have to deal with it as harshly as my grandfather has. And maybe make it a little better one day.”