MILLEDGEVILLE – The numbers had always been within reach for Don Marchman.
His mind pasted them on pages in a mental scrapbook covering 40 years of coaching high school football.
He could tell you the score of a game in Americus, the jersey number of a running back in Sandersville, the yardage his defense gave up on a frozen field in Macon.
He could recall names, too. Never a fan of computers, his brain kept a perennial roster, stored like a Rolodex he could flip through with his fingers.
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A linebacker’s father in Waynesboro. An offensive coordinator in Albany. The past president of the booster club in Gordon.
Now, those numbers have started falling like incomplete passes along the sidelines. Names have scattered like a broken-field run.
Over lunch one day, a friend asked about the season opener in a few weeks for John Milledge Academy, where Don is an assistant coach.
He struggled to remember the date and the opponent. He told his friend it was a home game, then later checked his schedule. It is on the road, a 50-mile trip down U.S. 441 through the tall pines.
“People are looking at me like ‘What’s wrong with you, Coach? You can’t remember squat,’’’ Don said. “They want to know why I can’t remember the name of their son I coached four years ago.”
Most of the time, he does not tell them he has been diagnosed with dementia. He does not admit the clock is ticking, that in another five years his memory may be wiped away like a play diagrammed on some dry-erase board in the locker room.
“I used to could rattle it off, knew the answers like the back of my hand,” he said. “Now, it’s so frustrating. Football has been my life. All those memories. All those kids I coached, and I’m trying to remember their names.
“I get these looks. It’s embarrassing. Sometimes I get so angry at myself because I can’t remember,” he said. “I don’t tell people because it’s awkward. I don’t want them to think I’m looking for sympathy. I just want them to understand that I’m not going to get it sometimes.”
Don turned 65 in March. That’s usually a mile marker of Medicare and Social Security, the gateway to the golden years of silver hair.
Instead of aging gracefully, he has lumbered into forgetfulness. Six months ago, he went to Emory after a decline in his memory and thinking skills. He was told he had a mild cognitive impairment and executive functioning disorder, walking the tight rope of dementia.
The doctor showed Don a scan of his brain. He pointed to several spots, gathering like clouds on a weather map.
“He called them amyloids,” said Don. “He told me they were my enemy.”
In a way, Don might have seen it coming. His mother and a few aunts had Alzheimer’s. He suspects his maternal grandparents did, too. His grandfather was a policeman in Crawfordville who “walked around town like Barney Fife” and ended up in a nursing home.
“My grandmother got to where she didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat,” he said. “We just didn’t know that much about it (dementia) at the time. Their generation never went to the doctor.”
Don realizes this football season likely will be his last. For now, he can still drive his truck on the 26-mile trip to practice every afternoon from his home in Gray.
But he doesn’t know how much his memory will be on its heels by next year. He is no longer teaching, just helping with the varsity and C-teams this fall, then coaching track in the spring.
“These kids help keep me young,” he said. “And the other coaches tell me not to worry about this or worry about that. They just want me here.”
Milledgeville is his hometown. He played football at Baldwin High. His coaching resume is 40 years long, 11 schools wide and covers Middle and south Georgia like a kudzu vine.
He has made stops as both an assistant and head coach at Gordon-Ivey (Gordon), River North (Macon), Chapel Hill (Macon), Edmund Burke (Waynesboro), Southland (Americus), John Milledge (Milledgeville), Deerfield (Albany), GMC (Milledgeville), Brentwood (Sandersville), Windsor (Macon) and Tattnall (Macon).
This is his third stint at John Milledge, where he is on the staff of one of his former players, J.T. Wall, a former fullback for the Georgia Bulldogs and Pittsburgh Steelers. He thought he had retired three years ago until former Tattnall Square Coach Barney Hester twisted his arm and hired him on the Trojan staff. Wall talked him out of retirement again last year.
In October, he will celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary to his wife, Janet. They were married during his first season of coaching. They met when she was a special education teacher at Central State Hospital. He was working there part-time, driving a bus to help pay his way through Georgia College. After the wedding at Hardwick Baptist Church, he had to hurry off to football practice. There wasn’t much of a honeymoon.
His daughter, Lindsay, is a nurse practitioner in Milledgeville and was the first to notice her dad’s early memory difficulties. He would often stumble with names and hesitate with dates. He now walks around with notes and reminders in his pockets. He keeps lists in a briefcase he calls his “suitcase of life.”
“It’s hard to accept that I can’t do what I’ve always done, but I’m coming to grips with it,” he said. “At first, I was in denial. Shoot, everybody starts having memory problems when they get older. I thought I was going to breeze through it. Now I just have to admit to myself: ‘Buddy, this thing is for real.’’’
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