FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — In the photograph, he’s tall, sleek, and powerful in his Detroit Lions uniform. He towers over the coach next to him.
You wouldn’t want the guy some referred to as “RoboCop” chasing you.
Then there’s the other photograph, the more recent one. He’s in a hospital bed, draped by tubes and monitors. His legs and feet are bloated, his face weary, his expression blank. He’s not “RoboCop” any more.
“When I went in there and saw him on the life machine, it was like it wasn’t my brother,’’ David Cofer recalled.
“I had to pull myself away to the side because I had a little breakdown to see him like that.’’
That was 2007, almost six years ago. Today, Michael Cofer exists in a tentative limbo, somewhere between the “before” and “after” photographs.
Cofer is a Knoxville native who played football at the University of Tennessee then started 104 games in a 10-year career in the NFL, all with the Lions.
He emerged from the game with his health and his financial portfolio intact. Rather, it was an insidious disease — and an incurable one — that has so dramatically impacted Cofer, his UT-educated wife Reba and two sons, one of whom is a basketball recruit pursued by the Vols and a host of others.
The Cofers live in a pleasant suburban neighborhood 30 minutes south of Atlanta. They rent, having lost the home they owned after Michael was struck ill and was unable to work.
Asked to describe a good day, Cofer, a stoic, well-spoken man, paused.
“Maybe take the boys to school,’’ he said, “or go see them play basketball. Drive to Kroger and get groceries for 45 minutes or so. That’s a good day.’’
A good day, he could have added, is one when there is enough money for groceries and the expensive fentanyl patches to combat his chronic pain.
Then, usually, a bad day or days follow.
“It takes three or four days to recover,’’ Cofer said, “just in bed, literally, because I don’t have the energy to move around.’’
That’s the curse of amyloidosis.
It’s a rare disease in which proteins become insoluble and disrupt normal function in the kidneys and other organs. Symptoms include fluid retention, fatigue and heart complications.
Treatment can include chemotherapy and possibly a marrow transplant. But there is no cure. One medical website lists a five-year survival ratio at 28 percent.
Cofer, who turned 53 last month, was diagnosed in the fall of 2007. He almost didn’t make it to that next Christmas. But he has since made five more.
“To this day,’’ he said, “all the doctors they look at me and go, ‘wow, a walking miracle.’ ’’
Sometimes keeping the household afloat from month to month seems like a near-miracle.
Michael’s condition has stabilized somewhat. Still, chronic fatigue is a fact of life. The threat of a bad stretch constantly looms.
Then there are the bills. Medicare and Michael’s NFL pension are a big help but there are gaps.
Reba, who came to UT on a basketball scholarship but left the program before playing, relies heavily on her faith for the strength to be a caregiver. But she hit a wall herself in 2011, suffering a breakdown that led to a brief stay in a psychiatric facility.
“If a husband or wife goes down,’’ Michael said, “it’s so stressful on the other one.
“You can only hold up for so long. Then when that person goes down it can be disastrous.’’
Michael and Reba do their best to keep life as normal as possible for the two boys, 18-year-old Michael Isaiah and 16-year-old Philip.
Philip is finishing his junior year at Whitewater High School. The 6-foot-8 power forward holds a scholarship offer from his parents’ alma mater. Recruiting mail arrives daily. He recently listed UT, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Alabama and Miami as his favorites.
“We don’t go by win streaks,’’ Reba said. “We go by the character of the people. (UT coach) Cuonzo (Martin) is a good man.’’
There’s nothing Mike wouldn’t give you. He’d give you his last dollar because he’d figure you needed it more than he would.
Taking care of business
Michael grew up in the Mechanicsville neighborhood of Knoxville. The Cofer household was filled with brothers and sisters. Three of his brothers signed football scholarships.
“Mike was very quiet and shy,’’ said David Cofer, the older brother. “He didn’t mingle around and he didn’t get in any trouble.’’
Michael worked to keep his grades up, already focused on making something of his life.
“I had no intention, really, of playing football,’’ he said.
At Rule High School, he played The Incredible Hulk in a play at an English teacher’s suggestion.
“My nickname back then was Herm Derm,’’ he said. “Short for Herman Munster. A lot of guys still call me that.’’
The maturing body that earned Hulk billing made playing football almost inevitable. A defensive end, he was rated the state’s No. 1 prospect for 1978-79 in the News Sentinel’s annual ranking.
Alabama, Southern Cal and a host of others showed interest. A News Sentinel photo posed Cofer and Farragut star Bill Bates together as if they were taking phone calls from recruiters.
Cofer and Bates both signed with UT coach Johnny Majors and played on a defense that included Reggie White and, eventually, Michael’s younger brother Joe. Oddly, the Vols had two Mike Cofers on the roster. Michael was known as “Stop” and the other, a tight end, was known as “Go.”
“It was a good experience being a hometown guy,’’ Cofer said. “It made me feel sort of like a politician. People knew me and they knew what school I went to.’’
Cofer battled injuries but had a strong senior season in 1982 when the Vols broke Alabama’s 11-year stranglehold.
Detroit drafted him in the third round and he became a fixture at end and outside linebacker for most of 10 years. He made the Pro Bowl in 1988, the year he married Reba.
Cofer had an eye for business. After a couple of years he ditched his agent and negotiated his own contract. He also invested, buying rental property and working the stock market as a day trader.
“I called it the guns and butter theory,’’ he said. “Stocks and real estate are things that are good investments. Fast cars and all that, that’s butter. It loses its value.’’
Said brother David, “He knew where every penny was. If we had to deal with money in the family, he was the one we’d deal with.’’
When a 1992 knee injury signaled the end of football, the Cofers settled in Atlanta. Michael continued day trading and real estate, along with painting and remodeling. Life was good.
‘I just wanted to go’
If life was good, then it should be shared with others.
“My husband has a very, very giving heart,’’ Reba said. “Instead of us having a huge house, we shared what our blessings were.’’
Michael built Reba’s parents a new house in Virginia. Their generosity wasn’t limited to family.
“There’s nothing Mike wouldn’t give you,’’ David Cofer said. “He’d give you his last dollar because he’d figure you needed it more than he would.
“Reba would give you anything off her back, too. That’s why her and Mike get along. They’d give you everything they’ve got.’’
That generosity, it turned out, would be remembered later.
It was in July of 2007 that Michael became ill. Fatigue first, then persistent pain in his abdomen.
He figured it might be an ulcer, but his medical journey would soon take him down the rabbit hole into a world of hurt he couldn’t have imagined.
More symptoms materialized. His body was retaining fluid. One thing led to another, one hospital to another.
By the time he got to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Cofer was in dire shape.
“His kidneys were shutting down,’’ Reba said “They couldn’t get an IV in. His blood pressure was 66 over 44. To him being 6-foot-6, that’s like dead.’’
“I was having heart attacks,’’ Michael said, “and didn’t even know it.’’
The fluid padded his weight from 250 to more than 300 pounds. He was forbidden to drink water, yet desperately thirsty.
“A nurse,’’ he recalled, “gave me some small ice cubes. That was the most wonderful thing.’’
At Emory, he got the diagnosis: amyloidosis. Treatment was going to be an ordeal.
Draining off the fluid and the chemo took their toll. A filter was implanted to prevent blood clots from stopping his heart.
“There were points in time,’’ Michael said, “where my flesh had just given up.
“I just wanted to go ... but I never did say it. I said I’m gonna keep fighting.’’
Reba made him promise to keep fighting. It tore at her to see him so lifeless. At times, she thought, he could have been in a casket as easily as the bed.
“The pillow fluffed up on each side of his head,’’ she said. “My honey looked dead.’’
Another question hung over Michael and Reba. Amylodosis has several forms. The most common is primary, which develops in the bloodstream. But they feared it might be the hereditary strain that could threaten the boys.
The doctors found the answer, but not before it had been revealed to the Cofers otherwise.
One afternoon, a couple from their church, the Faith Christian Center, dropped by the hospital with a scripture. It was Ezekiel 16:6.
“And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.’’
Reba picks up the story:
“It was less than a half hour, the corps of doctors came and they said, ‘We know where it is. It originates from the blood.’ ’’
Michael smiled at the memory:
“We knew that before they did.’’
After several months, Michael got to go home. Thus began a period of frequent ambulance runs to the emergency room, often because of severe dehydration.
“Just about every week, sometimes twice a week,’’ Cofer said. “The fire department would have to come and load me in the ambulance.’’
The nurses would flip coins to see who got the task of trying to find a suitable vein to draw blood.
“One day,’’ Reba said, “we said, ‘We need Jesus to show up and draw the blood.’ Lo and behold, he came.’’
It was an Hispanic medical tech named Jesus. From that point, the job was his.
Reba was never content to entrust her husband to the doctors alone. She listened to a higher authority.
“What God says goes,’’ she said. “Period.’’
She says it often, which can elicit a tolerant smile from her husband.
“That’s there every day,’’ he said. “Multiply that for 365 days times six years she’s been telling it.’’
Her staple through this adventure has been Psalms 41, verses 1-4. Verse 3 states:
The Lord will sustain, refresh and strengthen him on his bed of languishing; all his bed You (O Lord) will turn, change and transform in his illness.
When Michael was at Emory, fighting for his life, Reba would gather her sons, then ages 10 and 11, at night at home for prayer:
“I’d say, ‘The Lord will do what?’ One of them would say, ‘sustain, refresh and strengthen,’ and the other would say, ‘turn, change and transform.’
“So we walked in faith all the way through.’’
They walked with a helping hand from their family and church and friends. It wasn’t uncommon for a church member to drop by, lay down cash and walk out. Michael’s generosity was coming back to him:
“They’d say, ‘Cofer, you paid for our dinner when we didn’t have any money.’
“I had helped so many people in the past but I didn’t think too much about it because we’ve always been givers.’’
David Cofer and his wife Gloria, who live in Augusta, Ga., have been faithful givers, too.
“When he can’t do anything, I’m Santa Claus to his boys,’’ David said.
“He knows I’m always going to be by his side. It’s a two-hour drive from Augusta and he knows if he calls me, I’ll be there in two hours and 10 minutes.’’
The worst time
David got such a call in early 2011. Get here fast.
But this time it was Reba.
The stress of care-giving finally caught up. The first sign of erratic behavior came one night at her son’s track meet.
By the next day, Michael knew he needed help and called David and Gloria. After a night of pacing the house, Reba was out in the neighborhood. An emergency medical crew showed up, trailed by a fleet of police cars. It was quite the scene.
In Reba’s head, self-incriminating questions swirled. A spiritual depression is how she describes it now:
“You’re not a good mother, you’re not a good wife, you’re not a good nurse. You should have done this, you should have done that.’’
And she for darn sure didn’t want to get in that ambulance sitting in her driveway.
“All I saw was $1,500 on wheels,’’ she recalled with a laugh. “After we’d declared bankruptcy I didn’t want to bring another bill in this house.’’
She resisted and was ultimately taken handcuffed to a psychiatric facility.
“But the good thing about it,’’ she said, “I saved $1,500 because I rode in the police car.’’
After a few days, Reba was released but the issue wasn’t resolved. Trying to ween herself off the prescribed Prozac she suffered a relapse and went back in a facility.
Michael tried to maintain the posture to the boys that he was doing all right.
“They knew, in a sense, I wasn’t,’’ he said.
“I’m speaking positive, letting ’em know Mommy is gonna be OK when she comes home. I was pushing myself. I wasn’t sleeping. I began to hear voices. I knew what it was, the oxycodone I was on.
“That was the worst time. There was just so much going on.’’
Making it work
Reba regained her equilibrium and life goes on in the Cofer household. Michael checks in with his doctor every couple of months and hopes the good days outnumber the bad. As if he didn’t have enough discomfort, neuropathy creates the sensation of bees constantly stinging his feet. It’s because of the dramatic swelling in 2007, he believes.
Making ends meet is always a challenge. He has learned to apply for grants from NFL-backed foundations like the Gridiron Greats Assistance Foundation. But there are limitations and waiting periods.
A large cardboard box, like an appliance might come in, is filled with empty medicine bottles and boxes, a reminder of his promise to fight. It has to be fed continuously.
“You walk into CVC to get a box of the fentanyl patches and it’s like writing a check for the mortgage,’’ Reba said.
That’s why Michael tries to go cold turkey without them sometimes. The roof leaks, one of the boys needs dental work, stuff happens.
“Anything that comes up, if it’s not in the budget, it’ll set me back,’’ he said.
Several old teammates have checked in to see what help they could offer. There was some talk of setting up a fund but nothing has materialized.
“I’m not asking to be a burden to nobody,’’ Michael said.
That’s not his style. He’d always been the giver.
The grim reality of the disease precludes a happy ending. A family friend who battled amyloidosis passed away last week. But the Cofers prefer not to dwell on the ending.
Michael Jr. will soon head off to college and Philip awaits an exciting senior season of basketball and picking a school.
Their father is grateful for every day he can share with them, whether it’s a good day or a bad one.
“At times the doctors looked at me as if I wasn’t going to live too much longer,’’ Michael said. “So far, I’ve been doing pretty good. That was 2007 and it’s 2013 now.
“I’m a fighter. That’s in my genes.’’