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Rhodes works his way back

Ray Rhodes admits that before his stroke he spent too much time with the team and not enough taking care of his health.
Ray Rhodes admits that before his stroke he spent too much time with the team and not enough taking care of his health. (AP Photo)

DETROIT -- The sun hadn't yet come up one early September morning when Ray Rhodes awoke at his suburban Seattle home feeling like he never had before.

''I wake up and I can't focus. I can't see," Rhodes said. ''I try to get out of bed and I fall down. I stayed on my knees because I couldn't stand up. I didn't want to wake my wife, so I crawled out of the bedroom. I went down into the family room and turned on the TV and I was seeing six or seven heads on there [the TV screen] and so I turned the TV off. I'm sitting there and later my wife came down and said, 'Why are you sitting down here in the dark? Why isn't the TV on? Why aren't the lights on?' I just said I'm here resting. I'm sitting there and I'm real quiet. I shut my eyes again for a while, then turned the TV back on, and I'm trying to focus. I'm sitting there buying time. But nothing got better.

''Finally I told my wife, something's wrong. I can't see and I don't have any balance. My daughter is a nurse and my wife got on the phone and told her what was going on and she told my wife, 'Dad's having a stroke.' She got me in the car and rushed me to the hospital.

''I get to the ER and they want to bring out a wheelchair and I . . . I wanted to John Wayne it. I ain't going on no wheelchair. My wife was holding me up and there wasn't much I could do. Finally, I allowed it. That was hard because you lose your manhood. You're helpless."

It's been a long way back since that day, and his presence as the defensive mastermind of the Seahawks is still in the background. The defensive coordinator duties were given to John Marshall, his linebackers coach, though Rhodes has maintained a presence at meetings and advises Marshall and players.

This is a proud man, who was once head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers and is considered a solid motivator and defensive schemer.

As tough as anyone, he had the respect of his players and anyone who ever came in touch with him.

But as the years went by, Rhodes, now 55, didn't respect himself. He let himself go. Worked too many hours as coaches are wont to do. Didn't eat right. Stopped exercising. Blood pressure rose. Too much stress. Got caught up in the NFL head coaching lifestyle, which is basically no life outside of football.

Looking back, there were warning signs, he just chose to ignore them.

''Probably 15-20 years of warning signs," said Rhodes, who has five Super Bowl rings from his years as an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers. ''You feel something and it goes away in a couple of hours and you don't think twice about it. When I was younger I'd sleep one, two, three hours and then work all day. You can do that when you're younger, but eventually that catches up to you and you pay the price for it, sometime."

It's been hard to just let go and admit he's not the same person anymore. He said he's finally come to grips with it and he said that he's received a lot of inspiration from Tedy Bruschi's story.

''I kept up with the Tedy Bruschi story, especially after it happened to me," said Rhodes. ''I was keeping track of what was going on with him. When I heard that Tedy had a chance to come back, he was really an inspiration to me because here's a young man who had a stroke and came back and actually played.

''As time was passing by with me I was feeling more and more confident that I'd recover and be able to get back and the whole nine yards. The things that Tedy was able to do this year was really an inspiration to me. I was happy to see him come back as well as he did and the things he accomplished. I'm going to make sure when all of this is over that I give him a call and compare notes with him. I know that every stroke is a little different. I would still love to just talk to him."

He admits he was even stubborn not long after being released from the hospital. He remembers the car ride home with his wife. His vision wasn't yet clear. He saw multiple cars coming at him, and his wife needed to reassure him there was only one car at a time passing them.

He went to neurologists, trying to cheat on memory tests and vision tests. He tried to convince the doctors that a ''toe to heel" test wasn't the proper way to evaluate his balance and equilibrium. ''Just let me walk my normal way," he'd tell them. Eventually Rhodes's vision returned. His walking got better and steadier.

Yet he still wasn't able to rid himself of that mentality, that he had to get to the office and work on his defense, which had, at the start of the season, eight new starters, including promising rookie in Lofa Tatupu.

''I was in denial for a long time," admitted Rhodes, who got a scare Nov. 4 when some stroke symptoms recurred briefly, forcing an overnight hospital stay. ''I get home and I'm going through all of these emotional things because you're wondering when [the vision is] going to clear up. You're mad at everybody. You don't want anyone to do anything for you."

Two weeks after the stroke, he was sitting in his second-floor office at the Seahawks' Kirkland, Wash., practice facility, watching practice from his window. He would make suggestions to Marshall after viewing practice and disciplined himself enough to leave the facility early, go home, and get his proper rest.

Over time, he's increased his time with the team. He's watching practice on the field now. Since the Dec. 11 game against San Francisco, he's watched from the coaches booth, though Marshall has called the defenses. Rhodes has been able to offer his input, just not on the play-by-play. He got a little too emotional after Carolina scored a touchdown in the NFC Championship game and started screaming in the booth, only to settle down when Marshall threatened to throw him out of the press box.

''Doctors told me I'm doing fine," he said. ''I need to make sure that I continue to take my time and don't try to overdue things and take care of myself. I do have to get my rest and eat properly."

He's made the trip to the Super Bowl because he knows he couldn't miss this for the world.

''As a coach, I've been doing this a long time. I've had my experiences in the Super Bowl. I'm very fortunate, especially with all I've been through this year to be a part of this," Rhodes said. ''In my absence, John Marshall has done an outstanding job. I'm very excited for John. I'm very excited for the defensive staff and all the guys who have chipped in together to keep this thing going."

Rhodes's future is uncertain and he admits that when the Super Bowl is over ''it's going to boil down to me making a wise decision at some point on what I can or can't do," he said. ''I'm going to be real smart about it. I'm not going to rush back. I'm not going to do that. I've been fortunate to be in the game for this long. It wouldn't be smart of me to rush back and do something I'm not ready to do."

Advice that he knows he should have followed long ago.

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