On a bright, cloudless afternoon a man with a bushy white beard kicks a soccer ball with a younger woman. He moves surprisingly well for a 72-year-old, but when the ball gets past him he chases and kicks it in the opposite direction of the woman, having forgotten all about his partner. The woman calls to the older man with the gentle patience of a mother to a child. "No, no, Dad," she says. "Kick it back this way. That's right. Come back to me."
But John Plankinton isn't coming back, at least not the one his daughter, Robin, has known most of her life. Alzheimer's disease has stolen the man who loved reading science magazines and cooking Asian dishes, the one who refereed soccer games in and around Menlo Park, Calif., for more than 20 years. The disease seems to tighten its grip daily, but as it does, Plankinton's friends and family hold him more firmly in their embrace.
Robin and her mother, Evie, Plankinton's wife of 51 years, have brought him to this grassy field at Burgess Park to play pickup soccer, just as he has at lunchtime twice a week for the last 25 years. "Perry Mason reruns, Chinese food and soccer," Robin says. "Those are the things that make him smile." But first among those is soccer. Evie has to keep Plankinton's cleats hidden for fear that he would put them on at any time and go wandering off in search of a game.
Seven months ago Robin told a few of the other longtime pickup players about her father's diagnosis. They had noticed some erratic behavior, and after her explanation it all made sense. "I didn't want it to ruin their experience to have my father running around out there when he's not even always aware of which team he's on," Robin says. She would have understood if they had suggested he watch but not play anymore.
But there is something about a regular pickup game, no matter the sport, that bonds its players. They might not all know every other player's last name, or what each does for a living, but the love of the game connects them. For an hour and 15 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday, the men who come to Burgess Park are a soccer family, and you don't leave family behind. It never occurred to them to play without Plankinton. They responded the way soccer players respond when something unexpected has happened in a game, but it hasn't changed anything that really matters. "The attitude," says Greg Mack, a 10-year Burgess regular, "was just, Play on."
Plankinton plays on, as his wife and daughter keep watch. On this afternoon he has a difficult time keeping up with the pace of the game, which includes several players in their 20s and 30s. But there are moments when his soccer instincts muscle his disease out of the way. A teammate sends the ball down the right wing, and Plankinton heads straight for the goal to get in position for a cross. The ball comes to him, but he's not mentally or physically quick enough to do anything with it, and it bounces off his shin. The other half-dozen times he touches the ball go much the same way, but Plankinton hears nothing but encouragement.
As Evie watches, she talks about the bittersweet nature of life with an Alzheimer's sufferer. "I try never to use the word remember around him, because I know that he probably can't," she says. After 51 years they have been robbed of what should be one of their greatest pleasures—the ability to reminisce. "But on the other hand, everything he does is like he's experiencing it for the first time."
It is like that with this game. Plankinton runs, sometimes with a purpose, sometimes with none, but always with joy. The game ends, and the other players direct him toward his wife and daughter. Does he always recognize them still? "So far," Robin says. As they head for the parking lot, Robin asks, "Did you have fun, Dad?" "Fun," he answers, smiling. Robin and Evie know that he won't have any specific memory of this game by the time they get home, but that doesn't matter. "He's happy now, and it's just about the present for us," Evie says. "About being in the moment."
What do you do when the past is a fog and the future is foreboding? You hold on to the present. You play on.
Alzheimer's disease has stolen a man who once loved reading and cooking. But being with his soccer family and playing the game he loves still makes him smile.
How else can sports help those in need of healing?
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JOHN BURGESS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED