Henning: Parkinson's 'won't defeat' Gibson

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Something was wrong with the most physically, and often intellectually, dynamic man I've ever known.

This was at the gate at Tigertown four weeks ago, a couple of days before the Tigers broke spring camp at Lakeland, Florida.

Kirk Gibson walked slowly and in something of a shuffle from the parking lot en route to Detroit's clubhouse adjacent Marchant Stadium. He held out his hand, almost haltingly. His words did not flow in Gibson's normal crisp current of energy and efficiency.

Tuesday's announcement turned mystery to shock: Gibson has Parkinson's disease.

The guy who hit one of the most Hollywood-perfect home runs in history, who sealed with a flourish the last Tigers World Series championship in 1984, who was the single most devastating offensive college football player many of us have ever seen, is in the grip of a degenerative neurological disease.

It's possible, on a level of sports celebrity, this state and community haven't been so gut-kicked since the afternoon in November 1991 when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive.

Gibson worked Opening Day on the FSD Tigers telecast. And even if people sensed this wasn't the Kirk Gibson they remembered from his first stint on Tigers TV, there was no way to know what a later diagnosis confirmed.

It will be 40 years in September since that first meeting with Gibson. It was in the football locker room in East Lansing after Michigan State had won its first game of the season after losing the opener to Ohio State.

Gibson, who was all of 18, and who already was a starting wide receiver for the Spartans, was approached by a couple of media members. His response was brusque and borderline comical.

"No," he said. "You dogged our (tails) last week and I'm not talking."

That was pure Gibson. The fire, the resolve, the indignation. All from an 18-year-old football player.

But we hadn't seen anything yet.

It was 2½ years later, to the month, when Gibson debuted as a college baseball player. Leave it to one of the best men and coaches of a lifetime, Darryl Rogers, to have unselfishly told an All-American wide receiver:

"Kirk, why don't you go out for baseball. You don't need spring football. Might help your market value."

No kidding.

Gibson nearly quit, so cruel was the transition. But by April you could hear little on campus except the ping of his aluminum bat. He sent one Big Ten pitch after another over Kobs Field's fences and into those jungles on the Red Cedar River's shoreline.

In April 1978, he also ran during an audition for NFL scouts. He was timed, by multiple people, at 4.28 in the 40-yard dash. This, from a 20-year-old man who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 220 pounds.

He was projected then to be the first player taken overall — the No. 1 man — in the NFL draft a year later. And he probably would have been, so colossal was his senior year at Michigan State.

But by that time he had signed with the Tigers. They had stolen him with the 12th pick in the first round of the draft, where he likely would have gone No. 1 had teams not been fearful about his NFL plans.

Everyone knows what happened afterward, in Detroit, then with the Dodgers, where the 1988 National League MVP hit a World Series home run, which might as well be considered eternal.

As an athlete, he was always best when the theater was most elevated, when there was a crescendo only Gibson, with his talents and particularly with his drive, could have delivered.

"You always picture him as this virile guy with the blond hair flopping, taking a guy out at second base, or running over a guy at home, and that's what I always think of at this time," said Dan Petry, a starting pitcher and Gibson teammate during some glorious days for the Tigers. "And that's what I always think of at this time, forgetting that all of us can get sick.

"I guess I'm just always in denial at these times. But the other thing, too, you've got to remember is, this is not your normal human being. He's going to go after this thing. I know there are doctors out there who are very good. And with his personality, it leaves you with a positive feeling."

Jim Hinesly, an orthodontist from Tecumseh who knows Gibson from their football days at Michigan State, had an identical take.

"Kirk is just driven, and anyone who's been around him knows he will do whatever he has to do to beat it — that's just a given," said Hinesly, an offensive tackle who watched Gibson's exploits help carry the Spartans to a co-Big Ten championship in 1978. "He will get the best medical care. He will keep himself in great shape. And it won't defeat him. This won't defeat Gib."

Lover of nature

Here's what the world who knows Gibson as a star, as a sports dramatist, might not otherwise know about his life.

He married 30 years ago this December a splendid woman, JoAnn, in a double-ring ceremony in which Gibson's buddy and teammate, Dave Rozema, married JoAnn's sister, Sandy.

Kirk and JoAnn have three terrific sons. Dave and Sandy have three exquisite daughters. They have marriages to match. It's something to ponder about two guys who were regarded then as bon vivants.

Kirk has another distinction, more of a calling, perhaps. He loves nature. Adores water. Wildlife. Birds. Animals and plants and wetlands.

He has a big ranch in the northeast Lower Peninsula, a haven he co-owns with a couple of big league pitchers of past and present visibility: David Wells and Jake Peavy.

This is where a man's soul resides in bliss. This is his Eden. All because it enables him to interact fully, to share communion, with the majesty of nature.

This is what scares me most today, beyond the new life Parkinson's means for Kirk, JoAnn and the boys. It could mean that his time in the tree stand is lessened or impaired.

It could affect the freedom with which he walks those trails and scans those wetlands and celebrates creation for which he has a unique and awesome appreciation.

'Intellectually dynamic'

Some will wonder about that phrase written earlier: "intellectually dynamic." Oh, yes. Double yes.

Never have I known a man who processes as rapidly or speaks as clearly, or as originally, in expressing a thought. In 40 years I've never heard him use a wasteful phrase or sentence. Everything is delivered like one of those rivets from a World War II assembly line: hot, direct, sturdy.

He got his pilot's license while studying in hotel rooms during Tigers trips. He became one of the sharpest businessmen in town. His mind's scope is immeasurable. He is still all of that, of course: a fascinating man, great husband and father, a deep baseball analyst, and, just as noble, a steward of nature's resources.

Just give him a good life, please. Just back off, Parkinson's, and let this guy fight a challenge with longevity and vibrancy and with another passel of God-granted blessings. Let this remarkable man keep being just that, indefinitely.