Thanksgiving riot shows dangers at Maryland mental hospitals

Gerry Sandusky's book tells 'a son's story of love, loss and life' from NFL sidelines

Long before his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Gerry Sandusky was a good friend to the Alzheimer's Association Greater Maryland Chapter.

Subsequent sad circumstances have made the Sparks resident's earlier connection to the group even more solid, and he will serve as the keynote speaker at the organization's Making Connections Conference at the Sheraton Baltimore North in Towson on April 25.

Four hundred health-care professionals, caregivers and those living with early stage dementia are expected to attend the all-day event sponsored by the Lutherville-based organization.

At the very least, the Baltimore Ravens play-by-play broadcaster will know of what he speaks, considering his father succumbed to the progressive brain disease in 2006.

"We have a relationship with Gerry that goes back to before his father was diagnosed," said Cass Naugle, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association Greater Maryland.

Three days before the event, Sandusky's first book, "Forgotten Sundays: A Son's Story of Love, Loss and Life from the Sidelines of the NFL," will be published.

Although the book chronicles his dad's struggle with the disease, at least one other facet of his family's journey — the unlucky coincidence of sharing the same-sounding name, except for one letter, with a notorious, convicted child molester — is a major component of Sandusky's story.

The WBAL TV Channel 11 sports director, father of two, Towson University alumnus and son of former Baltimore Colts line coach John Sandusky is happy to let the world know that his name remains unsullied while namesake Jerry Sandusky is behind bars.

The Gerry-Jerry mix-up has elevated Gerry Sandusky's ardor for being the steward of his family's name to a new level.

"I'm not going to give that up," he said. "That's something I take personally. It's my responsibility."

For Gerry Sandusky, who played on both the basketball and football teams at TU before graduating in 1983 with a business degree, watching the disease ravage his father's memory was devastating.

John Sandusky, described by his son as an "extraordinary ordinary man," was a lineman in the National Football League for seven years, primarily with the Cleveland Browns after earning First Team All-America honors at Villanova University in 1949.

He then embarked on a 36-year coaching career, 13 of which were during the heyday of the Baltimore Colts, from 1959 to 1972. He was briefly the interim head coach, replacing Don McCafferty, in his final year with the Colts. In retirement and five years after he left the NFL, John Sandusky coached high school football in Florida, where he and his family moved after he landed a job with coach Don Shula's Miami Dolphins.

It was well before that when Gerry Sandusky first cast a critical eye at his father. Super Bowl III in 1969 proved to be a landmark loss for the Colts franchise.

The team would bounce back two years later to claim another world championship in Super Bowl V. Nevertheless, after the defeat at the hands of the New York Jets, criticism abounded for the entire Colts hierarchy, including the team's assistant coaches.

"That's the first time I saw my father fail," Sandusky said. "Seeing his imperfections, and seeing him fail on such a grand stage, it was very difficult."

The younger Sandusky also had to listen to taunts and hear his father being roundly criticized in the media and elsewhere.

As it turned out, his dad's advice after living through the experience of such a monumental defeat served his son well 40 years later when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke in the fall of 2011 at Penn State.

Although Gerry Sandusky braced himself for the inevitable fallout from confusion over the names that would challenge his family, nothing could have prepared him for the onslaught of ill will that followed.

"Luckily, both my kids were in school, in a relatively contained universe," he said. "But it was tough for them to watch me go out into the world. And then I remembered what my father told me after Super Bowl III. He said, 'Look, you're going to encounter a lot of jerks, and you can't punch them all — so don't try.' Four decades later, I needed that advice."

To hear one of his Ravens broadcast partners, Stan White, tell it, Gerry Sandusky took his father's counsel to heart.

"People were really confused about the name, because the Penn State Jerry Sandusky had a son named John, which is the same name as Gerry's dad," said White, a former Baltimore Colts linebacker who played for Gerry's dad in 1972. "Even some people in the Ravens' organization thought they were related."

White added that fans would hurl insults at Gerry Sandusky from outside the broadcast booth, the worst case of which happened at M&T Bank Stadium.

"He got some of that stuff on the road, here and there, too." White said. "But the worst part was the stuff people would put on his Facebook page and Twitter account. He would talk about how much vitriol there was in there. It must have been hard for him and his family, but Gerry was very good dealing with it. As far as I could tell, he didn't let it affect his job performance at all. He's a consummate professional."

By that time, Gerry Sandusky had already been through the heartbreak of his father's struggle with Alzheimer's.

It was at his dad's 75th birthday celebration when Gerry Sandusky first discovered something was awry.

"He had just recently received word from his doctor that he couldn't coach high school football any more," he said.

Gerry Sandusky said he's not sure if his father's symptoms contributed to the end of his coaching career or if his termination hastened Alzheimer's arrival.

Either way, it was a sad beginning to his dad's demise.

"He seemed a little fuzzy at times throughout the night," Gerry Sandusky said. "Once I asked him about his time as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he drew a blank. Then he gave an answer that was way off the mark. I thought maybe he was a little overwhelmed by the party. But in hindsight, that was the night I first noticed that he was starting to slide. Other times that night, he was sharp, witty. But later I could see that the first signs were that night."

According to Naugle, onset of the disease can begin as much as a decade before symptoms surface.

"The changes Alzheimer's causes in the brain are usually not sudden," she said about a disease that affects 8 million Americans and 97,000 Marylanders. "But they are fatal and very progressive."

Sandusky knows this all too well.

"When you share a journey with someone with whom you share a name, and then he forgets everything you shared, it's painful," he said.

But through his book and speaking engagements with groups such as the Alzheimer's Association, Sandusky hopes to ease the journey of others whose loved ones are affected by the disease.

For more information about the Making Connections Conference at the Sheraton Baltimore north, call 410-561-9099.

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