Playing it Cool

High blood pressure no game for Montana

Photo with no caption
By Stefan Cooper
Sports Editor
Blount Today

KNOXVILLE - The price paid for 15 NFL seasons is evident as he enters.

Joe Montana moves slowly, almost carefully, as he sits to conduct another in a series of interviews with area media at the downtown Hilton on Tuesday.

Joe Cool is 51 now. The three-time Super Bowl MVP turns with his torso to make eye contact, the result of surgery two years ago to fuse the spine in his neck.

The twinkling baby blues that charmed America out of its socks a decade ago are still there. The right one, though, droops
occasionally, the product of nerve damage sustained during a Hall of Fame career that included four Super Bowl titles, eight Pro Bowl selections and two league most valuable player awards.

There’s the elbow injury that hastened his exit from San Francisco, the left knee soon to be replaced, the 12 surgeries, the six (documented) concussions.

Montana weathered it all and never flinched.

Then came "the silent killer," something all the toughness in the world can do nothing about. In 2002, the king of the comebacks was diagnosed with hypertension.

"I was surprised," Montana said. "I really didn’t think a lot about it because I didn’t have any symptoms before I went in. When you feel OK and you don’t have any symptoms, you don’t think about it."

A routine checkup four years ago revealed Montana’s blood pressure was "sky high." Later the same day, he saw a cardiologist, where it was revealed one of Montana’s arteries was partially blocked.

Medication has since brought the former 49ers high blood pressure under control. Grateful for the reprieve, Montana soon joined forces with cardiologist and preventive health expert James Rippe. Together, the pair launched BP Success Zone, a national education campaign to raise awareness of hypertension and promote testing.

Montana’s wife, Jennifer, has signed on with the program to emphasize the importance of family support in keeping hypertension under control.

Montana’s celebrity has helped raise awareness of hypertension as few others could, Rippe said. If it can strike a former NFL quarterback, one whose grace under pressure was much-renowned, the fact no one is immune is more likely to hit home.

"How could Joe Montana get high blood pressure?" Rippe said. "The answer is, ‘I don’t know.’

"It really underscores anybody can get high blood pressure. It’s one of the main reasons Joe is such an excellent spokesperson for this campaign."

That Montana felt no symptoms is why hypertension is commonly referred to as the silent killer, he added.

"If he hadn’t gotten into an on-going discussion with his doctor, he would never have fixed this," Rippe said.

Tuesday’s stop in Knoxville is part of a trek that has taken Montana and Rippe to 68 cities the last five years, with another
130 locales reached by satellite tour. Interest has never waned, Rippe said.

"Five years down the road, there’s still enormous interest about this problem," he said.

A leading authority on preventive cardiology, Rippe has written extensively on health and fitness, including such works as "Fit Over Forty," "The Healthy Heart for Dummies" and "The Healthy Heart Cookbook for Dummies."

Montana, who was forced to alter his diet to control his blood pressure, wrote the forward for Rippe’s latest work. The give and take between them while promoting the BP Success Zone program has helped lessen Montana’s persona as a famous athlete and made him more of an everyman, Rippe said.

"Joe and I have become good friends," he said. "Joe is a good guy. What you see here is what you get. He’s very passionate about this, and Joe is a very honest guy."

Literature distributed Tuesday cites compelling statistics for the program’s necessity, Rippe said:

  • An estimated 72 million, or nearly one in three adult Americans, suffer from high blood pressure.
  • Approximately 67 percent of people with high blood pressure do not have it under control.
  • High blood pressure is listed as a primary or contributing cause of death in approximately one in nine deaths per year.
  • Over 50 percent of Tennessee residents aged 55-64 have been told by a healthcare professional they have hypertension.
  • Approximately 40 percent of people taking hypertension medication still don’t have their high blood pressure under control.

In spite of warnings, hypertension remains a wide-reaching health issue that is little discussed, Montana said.
"You don’t hear about high blood pressure because they have a means to control it," he said.

Football brought Montana fame, but it wasn’t his first love. He’d been an All-State basketball player in high school. He turned down a scholarship to North Carolina State when Notre Dame came forward with an offer to play football.

With the toll football has taken on his body, Montana was asked if he ever regretted not signing with the Wolfpack. He’s still involved with the game, serving as coach of sons Nathaniel and Nicholas’ AAU team.

"I might not have been sitting here (if basketball had been the choice)," he said, "but I would have had a lot of fun."

Had Montana’s hypertension not been diagnosed, Rippe said, the what-ifs could have been infinitely more serious.

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