In 1984, Kerry Goode was projected by many as the University of Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner. Today, he’s fighting for his life.
by Al Blanton
“Train your mind to see the good in everything.” -Kerry Goode
Atlanta, GA— A stark juxtaposition is found in an anteroom of the Goode residence in south Atlanta. Tucked neatly in a corner is a scuffed Alabama football helmet marked with his signature. Jerseys and photos from his playing days are displayed in large format, in cases. Newspaper clippings boast of his broad-shouldered greatness. Four feet away, the same remarkable body that once tallied 297 all-purpose yards in a game, that heaved 800 pounds off the squat rack and trained stocky NFLers in the art of weightlifting and conditioning, has atrophied to a wheelchair existence. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, the framed images of Kerry Goode are worth a million verses, when compared to the reduced shell that now houses him.
For over fifty years, the human body was something Kerry had learned to rely on; indeed, this was the gift that helped him to achieve his dreams of making it to the NFL. But in 2015, Kerry realized the body’s fragility when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
At the time, Kerry was no stranger to this ruthless disease. He had witnessed firsthand the deterioration of his friend and ‘Bama teammate, Kevin Turner, had participated in an Ice Bucket Challenge to support K.T. and raise money for ALS research. A robust ex-athlete himself, Kerry never imagined at that time that the money raised would eventually go to benefit him.
Kerry Goode grew up in a football family in a football town. Though Town Creek, Alabama, population 1,201, was a diminutive dot in the northwestern corner of the state, residents had developed considerable bluster, due to the Hazlewood High School’s gridiron exploits. The Golden Bears had won state championships in ‘70 and ‘75, and the talent oozing from the program in the early 1980s had the fans thirsty for more.
Kerry’s father, Clyde Goode Jr., was the football coach at a rival school, Colbert County, and the progenitor of a pigskin-mad family. He and his wife, Vernell, had plenty of mouths to feed, as in addition to daughter Valerie, four brothers—Chris, Kerry, Pierre, and Clyde III—made for a large dinner table.
Beginning in Little League, sibling rivalry dominated the Goode household. “It was competitive,” Kerry said, describing the family dynamic. “If somebody does something good, you go out and prove you’re better than that. If Chris had three, four touchdowns, my goal was to match or beat that.”
Monetary rewards would often fuel the boys. An uncle began giving a dollar each time one of the brothers scored a touchdown, and young Kerry, who was then an offensive guard, soon found himself with no touchdowns and thus no money for the concession stand. “Chris was a running back and he was cleaning up,” Kerry said. “He scored three or four touchdowns a game. After our games, he would go to the concession stand and get hot dogs, hamburgers—eat—get soda. I’d say, ‘buy me one’ and he wouldn’t.”
So Kerry devised a plan to motivate Chris to cough up a portion of his winnings. At the line of scrimmage, Kerry would tell the defense, ‘Hey! Number 33 is getting the ball,’ and when the ball was snapped, Kerry would casually step aside and let the defender by. Chris, catching on quickly, challenged: “You’re not blocking!”
“You’re not giving me any of your money when you score!” Kerry shot back. “You could at least give me a quarter!”
After the game, the boys’ father, attempting reconciliation, met them in the stands. “I saw you guys fighting on the field,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“I asked him to share some of his profits,” Kerry explained, “and he wouldn’t!”
“Well, Son, I think you’ve got a problem. You need to work it out.”
In the end, Kerry ended up getting a quarter out of the deal. “We kind of negotiated a little settlement,” Kerry laughs.
The animosity between the brothers eventually dissipated but the competition did not, as each of them constantly looked for ways to one-up the other. After Kerry was moved to running back, the Goode brothers furnished a strong one-two punch in the Hazlewood backfield. In a lopsided 88-8 game against a hapless opponent, Kerry scored six touchdowns and Chris had five. And as the Goodes passed through Hazlewood, the team added state championships to their trophy cases in ’81, ’82, ’85, and ’88, further cementing Hazlewood’s tradition as one of the greatest programs in the history of Alabama high school sports.
Kerry got his first taste of college life when he traveled with his older brother on recruiting visits to Auburn. “I went to so many Auburn games before I ever set foot on Alabama’s campus,” Kerry recalled.
Though it seemed Chris was leaning toward a career at Auburn, fate would take the Goodes in a different direction. Auburn, already loaded at running back with hosses Bo Jackson and Brent Fullwood, offered to bring Chris in as a walk-on. Perhaps Auburn failed to do the mathematics, for if Chris signed, the whole Goode clan–including their talented cousin, Antonio Langham–would have followed like dominoes. Instead, Chris ended up accepting a scholarship to the University of North Alabama.
Interest in Chris eventually filtered down to his younger brothers, and by the fall of ’82, Kerry had caught the eye of the grizzled chief in Tuscaloosa, Paul “Bear” Bryant. On Sunday, January 23, 1983, Clyde and Vernell slumped in the low-sitting couch in Bryant’s office as their son Kerry sat in a chair beside them. “So he asked the question, ‘Have you made a decision? Where are you going?’” Kerry recalls Bryant saying. “I wasn’t really ready to tell anybody where I was going…I still wanted to continue the recruiting process and go to Wyoming, even though I had no intentions of going there. I wanted to take advantage [of the trip]. I said, ‘I’m not ready to make that commitment yet.’”
Four days later, Bear Bryant died.
Bryant’s replacement, Ray Perkins, decided to honor Kerry’s scholarship, and in the fall of’83, Kerry walked onto campus as a student athlete at the University of Alabama. For Kerry, things couldn’t seem to get any sweeter—that is, until Chris transferred in from UNA that fall.
A big dreamer, Kerry held lofty expectations for his college football career: make All-SEC, All-American, and win the Heisman. Every year growing up, Kerry watched comedian Bob Hope parade his All-American team across the stage, and he had imagined being selected to that esteemed lot. At the time of Kerry’s arrival onto campus, Alabama, in all of its storied history, had yet to claim a Heisman, and folks maintained that since Alabama football was a team sport, a team game, that no Alabama player would ever win the Heisman. “I’m like, uhhh, not so sure about that,” Kerry said. “It hadn’t been done here, but who’s to say you can’t be the first?”
Perkins’ differed fundamentally from Bryant in his offensive philosophy, favoring a pro-style offense over Bryant’s wishbone, but, like Bryant, Perkins was hardnosed, old school, and demanding. His freshman season, Kerry rushed for 693 yards on 103 carries, an average of 6.7 yards per rush.
But Kerry had higher aspirations. He’d bottled up the vivid memory of the first time he ever set foot in the weight room at Alabama and used it as a source of motivation. “They put 425 on the squat rack,” he remembers. “I took it off, maxing out, and I go down, go down, go down, and keep going down. I bottom out on the rack and couldn’t come up. The guys were laughing. From that day forward, I said, ‘Hey, you guys are laughing today, but you’ll never laugh at me again on the squat rack.”
Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Kerry hit the weights and tacked on 18 pounds of beef. He endured the savagery of the dreaded “Lower Gym,” a hell-like venue underneath Coleman Coliseum where mat drills and agilities were performed in 90-degree heat. While others might have shied away, Kerry exulted in the challenge. When people said he couldn’t, Kerry wanted to prove that he could. “My failures, I like to turn them around,” he said. “When it’s a little tough and you’re catching your last breath, you can still go a little harder, a little longer.”
By the start of the 1984 season, Kerry arrived bigger, faster, and stronger, and was poised for a breakout year. The Crimson Tide’s first game was a rematch against Boston College and quarterback Doug Flutie, who had shredded the Tide in Massachusetts the year previous. During the pregame telecast, former Arkansas head coach Frank Broyles told announcer Keith Jackson, “But what Ray Perkins has got going for him is a lot of good football players, particularly at backfield are two outstanding running backs, Moore and Goode.”
Kerry didn’t disappoint. By the third quarter, Kerry had three touchdowns, including a 99-yard kick-off return where he blew by the slow-footed Eagles like a freight train passing a hobo.
But in the middle of the third with ‘Bama leading 31-21, quarterback Mike Shula pitched the ball to Kerry on a toss-sweep, and what seemed like a run-of-the-mill play turned out to be catastrophic. After the play concluded, Kerry rolled on the turf, grasping his right knee as a hush fell over the crowd at Legion Field and trainers attended to him. “Goode is holding his knee,” Broyles said. “We hope it’s nothing serious.”
Seconds later, Kerry hopped off the turf and trotted to the sideline on his own accord, the crowd erupting in thunderous applause. “Kerry Goode is up now and walking off the field…and scarcely limping,” Jackson said in his robotic Georgian timbre.
“Alabama coaches cannot say enough nice things about Kerry Goode, and his attitude, how hard he works,” Broyles added.
Momentarily, everything seemed to be copacetic. The Tide was leading by 10 and Kerry appeared to be on the mend. But Alabama would not score again, and Kerry would never be the same again. Boston College would emerge with a 38-31 victory behind the brilliant play of Flutie, and Kerry would have knee surgery the following week. Such is the pendulous nature of football.
Kerry would rehab this knee for the rest of his career. In those days, without modern amenities, coming back full-speed from knee injuries was an effort almost herculean. After missing the rest of the 1984 season, Kerry returned in 1985, only to have a second injury stifle his comeback.
For the rest of his time at Alabama, Kerry saw spot-duty, platooning behind running back Bobby Humphrey—certainly not what he anticipated for his college career. But he kept a positive attitude despite the circumstances. “My mental attitude was good,” Kerry says reflectively. “I wasn’t physically where I wanted to be. There was no problem playing behind Bobby at that time. Once I got to where I thought I was healthy enough, I wanted to compete for the job.”
Eventually, new head coach Bill Curry shifted Kerry to the fullback slot, a move that would ultimately help him to get drafted. “I showed I could block and catch, as well as run tailback,” Kerry said. “You never know. What you see as a negative turns out to be a positive.”
Realizing his NFL Dreams
Kerry was drafted in the 7th round of the 1988 NFL Draft by his old coach, Ray Perkins, who was then the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though selecting Kerry was indeed a gamble, in the mind of Perkins, Kerry’s potential offset the possibility of a grim end.
His NFL career beginning with promise, in 1988, Kerry started five games for the Bucs and rushed for 231 yards on 63 carries. But he never carried the ball again. In the offseason, Kerry was traded to the Broncos and then shipped to Miami, where he concluded his career after only one game.
Kerry returned to Tuscaloosa in 1990 and went back to school to finish his degree. He also took a job with the University athletic department during this time and pondered his options.
All of his life, Kerry had dreamed of following his father’s path and becoming a coach. That dream was realized in 1992.
Dan Reeves, who had led Denver to three Super Bowl appearances, was fired by the Broncos after a 6-10 campaign. Quickly installed as the head coach of the New York Giants, Reeves took most of his Denver staff, including Al Miller, a strength and conditioning coach, to New York.
At the time, Kerry was working at the Birmingham Airport. One day, he casually phoned Coach Miller to congratulate him on getting the job in New York. After an exchange of pleasantries, Kerry was struck by what happened next.
“Did somebody call you?” Miller inquired. “Did Coach Reeves call you?”
“No,” Kerry said, puzzled.
“Well give me your number and don’t move away from that phone,” Miller said. “Coach Reeves is going to call you back.”
Soon Dan Reeves called and said, “I’d like to offer you a job.”
“Doing what, Coach?”
“Coaching for us. When can you fly up here and talk about it?”
“Coach, I’ve been with you…I’ll take the job right now.”
While in his short stint with the Broncos, Kerry had intimated to Al Miller that he wanted to go into coaching and to “keep him in mind” if any jobs came open in the future. Four years later, Miller remembered that conversation.
“It was God-ordained,” Kerry says.
As strength and conditioning coach for the New York Giants, Kerry worked with veteran players like Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms, and Rodney Hampton. But Kerry especially enjoyed working with free agents and rookies, helping guys to achieve their dreams. He says the toughest part of the job was seeing players cut, guys that might have had the ability, but for one reason or the other, were let go. “With every loss comes that, ‘Are we fired yet?’” Kerry said. “It’s a very intense occupation…very cutthroat.”
Kerry served as strength coach for four seasons with the Giants and later worked under Dick Vermeil during his stint with the St. Louis Rams. Before the 1997 season, Kerry commented on Vermeil’s indefatigable work ethic in an article for The New York Times. “He is personable, emotional, very determined; he cares and he is a hard worker,” Kerry said of Vermeil. “He comes in at 5 A.M. sometimes and then I drive by here at 11 at night and he’s still here. I worry about that. I hope he doesn’t get back into that same old grind and mold of a workaholic.”
He did. Kerry slept on a cot in the Rams office in two of the first six nights he was in St. Louis.
After two seasons with the Rams, Kerry shifted gears and took a unique opportunity with the upstart XFL, a league spearheaded by World Wrestling Entertainment president Vince McMahon. A business major in college, Kerry became intrigued with the economics of football. “I started thinking about becoming a GM,” he says. “Let’s go on that side and see what it’s all about.”
In 1999, Kerry accepted a community relations position with the Birmingham Thunderbolts.
“One of my brilliant moves,” Kerry says jokingly, lowering his head.
Kerry used his NFL contacts as a sounding board for ideas and advice, and would, in turn, implement those ideas into his job with the Thunderbolts. But the XFL crashed and burned after only one season, and Kerry was soon looking for gainful employment. He moved to Atlanta and began work with Ryder corporation, selling transportation packages for those who drove the long haul: 18-wheelers, tractor trailers, and the like. “It turned out to be something I enjoyed doing,” he says.
It wasn’t the NFL, but Kerry was still helping others to get places.
A New Normal
Life tromped on like this for a while, and Kerry enjoyed the frills of suburbia. He reconnected with a longtime friend, Tanja, and they built a life together as husband and wife. Things were rocking along.
But Kerry began to sense something was wrong in 2012 when he began to experience hand cramps and spasms. His friends worried that he was having a heart attack, but he assured them that whatever it was, was minor. Kerry went to the doctor anyway, and was relieved when the tests came back negative.
Around the same time, Kerry lost his youngest brother, Clyde III, to leukemia. Like Kerry and the rest of his older siblings, Clyde played football at Alabama, and the loss of him at age 43 was a tremendous blow to the family. “It was rough on my mother,” Kerry said. “But I don’t know anyone who wants to lose a child.”
Over the next few months, Kerry’s condition continued to get progressively worse. “Every time I would sneeze—spaz. Cough—spaz,” he said. “When I could get ready to take a sneeze or a cough, I would instantly grab myself just to hold it in because it hurt so bad.”
Kerry and Tanja made an appointment with doctors across several branches of medicine. When the tests came back negative again, they finally arrived at a neurologist. Kerry told the doctor of his grocery list of symptoms, and he could read from her face that this was serious. “You could look at her eyes,” he said. “She already knew what it was. It’s not a look you want to see as a patient.”
After a battery of tests, the neurologist phoned and asked Kerry to come into her office. “I thought, ‘this could not be good because otherwise you’d tell me over the phone,” Kerry said. He went to the office the next day and the doctor confirmed the terrible news: Kerry had ALS.
After the initial terror set in, Kerry steeled himself and began to educate himself on the disease. He sought treatment at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta. His mind shifted from “Why me?” to “Why not me?” And instead of retreating into the tomb of despair, he decided to become a voice of inspiration.
In September of 2015, Kerry founded the Goode Foundation to support ALS research and assist families with mounting bills. “Sitting in the waiting room you see people from all walks of life,” Kerry said. “If you’re coming from Georgia or Alabama, you’re spending a lot of money. You’ve got to have a hotel room, gas, food, and spend the night or go back—however you do it, it’s going to cost you.”
Reflecting on his ministry, Kerry said, “If that’s what God has allowed me to have and for me to help find a cure, throw your name on it. That’s why we did it. I hope that it would help me, but if it doesn’t, that it’ll help someone else. And find a cure for this thing.”
For Kerry, once-effortless movements have become painstaking. Now his day is set to the laborious soundtrack of a CPAP mask. Tanja helps with bathing, dressing, and eating; this day she scoops chicken fingers from a paper plate on a TV tray into his mouth. “I must make sure she’s acknowledged for all she means and does for me,” Kerry says. Texting and e-mailing, activities he used to manage with ease, have become cumbersome undertakings. He moves with the assistance of machines: moving from the couch to the kitchen requires a motorized wheelchair, and scaling the staircase requires a lift. But Kerry doesn’t try to think too much about his own prognosis, nor the descending milestones along the way. What could happen to him. Survival and a gratitude for just one more day hangs at the forefront of his thoughts as he receives 24-hour care.
One day with Kerry Goode will help you to realize that ALS may strip him of his physical faculties, it may eventually take away his ability to function, but it cannot wound his spirit. It cannot take away his ability to praise. It cannot strip him of his ability to worship. It cannot limit his capacity to love. And it cannot paralyze the impact of a life well lived.
Kerry may be inflicted with a ruthless disease, but perhaps there is no greater malady than the disease of a bad attitude. It may sound cliché, but Kerry still holds to the mantra told to him by his father, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”—but he adds, “and put a lot of sugar in it.” He stays grounded because he realizes the extent of his blessings and not the measure of his troubles. He tries not to put anything off; when things come up that he wants to do, he does it. He tries to get the most out of his 24-hour commodity, the gift of time. He doesn’t waste precious energy on trivial arguments or worry about things that won’t ever materialize.
He inspires others to believe that when it’s a little tough and you’re catching your last breath, you can still go a little harder, a little longer.
But mostly, he doesn’t live in fear.
Several weeks ago, Kerry wrote a poignant post on his Facebook page that spoke to the spirit of fear.
For almost 30 years, I played or coached the game that so many of you love….Football. Over the years my greatest fear was having an injury which resulted in me leaving the field paralyzed. Today my fears are becoming reality.
As ALS progresses through my body, I’m left with minimal use of my arms and legs. Although I’m no longer afraid, I still wrestle with the idea of having 24-hour care.
I also know that many are paralyzed by fear. Fear of losing a loved one. Fear of losing your job. Fear of losing everything you’ve acquired through your journey. Some are even paralyzed with the fear of losing the upcoming game. Whatever fear has you frozen, you must realize you are not alone.
Fear is something that does not discriminate. Man, woman, child, or adult. At some point in our lives, we all have to come face to face with it, and you, my friend, are no exception.
Fear is a spirit. And it is a spirit that does not come from God.
Just as the spirit casts a shadow of excitement over the stadiums of your favorite team, so does evil over the things we don’t trust God with.
On a daily basis, everyone makes a very important choice, ‘will they live in faith or fear.’
Statistics have proven that a vast majority of the things we fear never become reality.
Have you seen a toddler climb upon something and the adult almost kills himself trying to stop the toddler from jumping off the dresser? The child jumps because he’s fearless. The adult tries to stop them because life experiences have taught them fear.
Don’t let your circumstances in life paralyze you into doing nothing. Stop doubting yourself and staying in a position of fear, where you don’t belong. 2 Timothy 1 says, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
…the choice is yours.
In attempting to describe the life of this extraordinary individual, the pens of authors could never suffice, for what type of spirit must reside within a man who looks tragedy in the face—and smiles?
Such is the life of Kerry Goode from Town Creek, Alabama.
There may be a stark difference between the body that once rumbled to greatness on the football field and the one that houses Kerry now, but his smile—still bright and happy—remains. HA
To support Kerry and his fight against ALS, please visit: www.goodefoundation.org.
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