Just yesterday my wife and I surprised our children with a trip to the beach, the Outer Banks in North Carolina to be exact. Those who needed to know about me being out of the loop for two days, while driving, knew about it. One of those people was Dave Schofield, editor and my right-hand-man, and I joked with Dave on Thursday about how I’m sure some news will break when I’m driving south on I-95.
It did, but it wasn’t the news I wanted to see.
It wasn’t a T.J. Watt extension, it was the death of former player, and color commentator, Tunch Ilkin.
As almost all of you reading this know, Ilkin was battling ALS for several months, and most recently decided to step away from the booth to focus on his treatment for this incurable, and awful disease.
Since stepping away, a more recent public appearance was during the Steelers’ minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex where many who were in attendance were happy to see Tunch on the balcony watching over the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sadly, I know all too well what this disease looks like. I’ve written about it in this space before, and it all stems from my best friend’s battle with the disease almost six years ago. My friend, Chris, elected not to have many of the medical procedures done so many ALS patients choose to have done to help pro-long their quality of life.
You see, my friend Chris saw his own mother go through this same illness. He saw the tubes, the muscular failure and all the assistance needed which surrounds this ugly disease. He didn’t want it. He didn’t want to go down the road of so many famous athletes who are still able to live their lives, albeit without talking or moving.
I respected my friend’s decisions, and ultimately when the time came for him to meet his maker, he knew it.
But this wasn’t a sudden process. I watched my friend slowly deteriorate muscularly. I’ll never forget the first time he collapsed on the steps of his house. I thank God I was there behind him to catch him. He went from just needing someone next to him, to needing a wheelchair, to eventually not even being able to lift his hand up to manipulate a mouse pad on a laptop.
Eventually, an assisted breathing machine became a lifeline, and he was essentially helpless. But again, this deterioration happened over time. Over a year, and then some, before my friend finally breathed his last breath.
As I was driving, I thought about Tunch. I thought about my friend, Chris. I talked to my wife, who was also great friends with Chris, about Tunch, and how the timeline just seemed off. By all reports, Tunch was still able to move around, and was talking with reporters this summer.
We don’t know what happened, and, frankly, I don’t care what happened. All I know is this is going to sound callous. But I’ll say it anyway. If the Ilkin family’s last memory of their loving father was him still being able to move, talk and be vibrant, it was a positive way for Ilkin to leave this earth. If his family didn’t have to see him suffer the way so many have, that would be the only positive to come out of such a dreadful situation.
When Ilkin was elected into the Steelers Ring of Honor just over a month ago, I was really hoping to be able to see him get that letterman’s jacket, the steel ball and his name up there with so many other Steelers legends. To see him forever remembered in Steelers lore, not that he needed any of the fan fare to do that.
Ilkin will always be a part of my Steelers life, just as he was to everyone reading this who ever heard him call a game, use the Tunch-a-strator or just be a Christian advocate in and around the Pittsburgh area.
This is where I would talk about the time I met Ilkin, and how the exchange was memorable, but that never happened. But I felt like I knew him. I’m sure you reading this felt that way too. Ilkin wasn’t just a former Steelers player, nor was he just another Steelers announcer. He was a part of our lives. He brought us joy. Ilkin had a way of showing a disastrous play, and leaving you with some hope the Steelers might be able to fix the issue and be back to their winning ways before you knew it.
Who could forget his back-and-forth dialogues with the legendary Myron Cope? Those memories are the ones we choose to cherish. Those are the memories we choose to remember. Those are the memories which will last forever.
My heart breaks for the Ilkin family, for the Steelers family and all those who have lost a loved one to this disease.
Rest in peace, Tunch. You’ll be missed.