Father’s Alzheimer’s fight colors San Diego return of NC State coach Dave Doeren – The San Diego Union-Tribune

It was 10 years ago, give or take, when North Carolina State football coach Dave Doeren noticed things seemed a bit off with his father, Bill.

That’s the unique and exasperating brutality of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s subtle, at the start. It drops a hint here and a bread crumb there. It cruelly toys with hearts and hopes.

Then it forces families to watch loved ones slowly evaporate from view, in front of their eyes.

“He started to have some memory difficulties and they weren’t sure if it was just age or, you know, premature dementia,” Doeren said. “As time went on, it became clear. He would try to say, for example, ‘Can I have that sandwich?’ He’d look at it and say, ‘Can I have that, uh … (snapping fingers repeatedly).’ You say ‘Sandwich’ and he’d go, ‘Yeah, sandwich.’

“That started happening quite a bit.”

Doeren has brought his No. 18 Wolfpack to San Diego for Tuesday’s Holiday Bowl against UCLA at Petco Park .

That leaves the winningest NC State football coach in the last half-century to wonder if his father, a Vietnam-era Navy officer stationed on Coronado when his coaching-bound son was born 50 years ago this month at Balboa Naval Hospital, understands the special circle that is being completed.

“They say when the games are on, he’ll look at the TV and see me and say, ‘That’s my boy,’ ” Doeren said. “But he doesn’t know my name.”

Slow-term memory loss, with each bit of pain and indignity, begins to feel like a festering wound ripped open daily. Sons live to make fathers proud. Fathers live to chest-puff out about sons.

To watch that incredible connection stolen in fits and starts represents a hurt than never truly goes away.

Doeren learned so much from his father, a man with the type of resolve to begin working at AMC Theaters ripping tickets and rise to become the entertainment giant’s chief operating officer.

He began sleeve-rolling of his own life in football, from Shawnee Mission, Kan., to Des Moines, Iowa. He grabbed at rungs on the college ladder at Montana, Kansas, Wisconsin, Northern Illinois and, for the last nine seasons, NC State.

Two trips to play at the University of San Diego while at Drake University brought him to his birthplace, as did a handful of recruiting trips. There was a job interview at San Diego State for a defensive backfield gig that offered the USC graduate assistant with a pregnant wife a shot at a paycheck.

Now, he’s back.

What would Doeren pay to share one more meaningful conversation with his father about the road that has led him to San Diego? Those sorts of things defy price tags.

“I think I would just tell him how much I learned from his work ethic and appreciated how he provided for me and my sister and my mom,” Doeren said.

He weighs the times he grew up in. He thinks about his own sons, ages 22, 20 and 15. Life dishes up perspective, in the best and worst of times. The roughest patches cause you to pause and reconsider.

Family amplifies it all.

“You have a lot of regret about conversations you wish you would’ve had and put off,” Doeren said during an interview Monday in the Padres clubhouse. “To see him retire and then basically not be able to remember what’s going on, that’s pretty difficult. You see some of these guys coach until they’re 80 years old. I won’t be one of those guys.

“I’m going to shut it down early enough to remember my retirement and enjoy, hopefully, my grandkids.”

In 2017, Doeren penned a Father’s Day letter to his sons. He flipped the script, charting a road map to happiness and fulfillment when they became fathers while emphasizing one critical point.

Whatever you do, boys, make sure you love it.

“There’s conversations in my era that your parents didn’t really have with their kids,” Doeren explained. “Left a lot of things unsaid, maybe, to sons back then. For me, it’s not just about being present, but having a friendship and fatherhood with the boys.”

If the 9-3 Wolfpack trip up UCLA, it will be just the second time in program history a team has reached double-digit wins. It would be NC State’s first win against UCLA, dating to two dusty losses in 1959 and ’60. It would mark the Atlantic Coast Conference’s first Holiday Bowl victory in its first visit.

There would be so much to share.

“I think he’s always been super proud of what we’ve done,” Doeren said. “It’s hard to really explain, because the last so-many years, he doesn’t really know much of what I’m doing.”

If only.