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Ruth Daniel on Husband/Former Steeler Defensive Back Willie Daniel, 1961-1966

October 30, 2012

Willie Daniel (1-11-1937)

Macon High School, Macon MS-1955, Football, Track, Baseball; Mississippi State University  1955-1959, Football and Track; Pittsburgh Steelers 1961-1966 Defensive Back; Los Angeles Rams 1967-1969 Defensive Back

Married, three children, four grandchildren

From Ruth Daniel:

Willie wasn’t drafted out of college and was hired as an assistant football and head track coach in Cleveland, MS.  During that year, he called the Mississippi State football office and asked that they show some of his game films to any NFL scout who was interested. 

Pappy Lewis of the Steelers then offered Willie a plane ticket to the Steeler training camp in 1961.  He went to training camp and made the Steeler team.  He got quite a bit of publicity during his rookie year from an incident involving the father of one his high school players.

The dad was angry after a game and became physical with the coaches.  As the story goes, Willie said that “pro ball wouldn’t be any rougher than this” so he indicated an interest in playing.  Ron, as you know from being in the business, that story has been embellished! Willie also was known during that first training camp as the “high school coach that’s trying to make the team”.

Willie was very successful in the years following football.  He owned and operated a health and racquet club for years in Starkville, MS and was quite active—raising children,  coaching their sports teams, golfing, watching sports, social activities, church.  In fact, one of our neighbors used to say, “When I grow up, I want to be Willie Daniel!”

But Willie’s mental health began to deteriorate in the 1980s.  By then he had sold his business and we had moved to Jackson.  He worked for the state but retired at the end of 2001.  He was having lots of trouble doing his job and also dealing with his personality changes that were causing problems with his job.

From that time on, he continued to spiral down into the world of dementia.  This caused much sadness, frustration, and anger for him.  He lost his short term memory, couldn’t even remember his birth date or the birthdates and ages of his children or grandchildren.

We moved back to Starkville, MS because I realized that he would do much better in a smaller, more familiar setting and could be around long-term friends and also family members.  And for several years he was able to participate in activities he enjoyed (always with the help of friends or family).

The most traumatic event for him was the day we had to take his truck keys and remove his truck.  He would actually cry and beg me to get his truck back.  He never could understand why he couldn’t drive anymore and this became a daily verbal confrontation.

I realized that he couldn’t be home alone, so I began to have caregivers with him when I would be away.  I’m a CPA and do tax work on a part time basis, so I needed help with him.

By 2009, he was becoming more and more combative.  He never actually hit anyone, but he was threatening to me and to his caregivers.  My children and I made the difficult decision to move him to an Alzheimer’s facility in Columbus, MS.  He moved in October, 2009.  As you can imagine, this was the hardest decision we have ever made. 

After several months, he had deteriorated to the point that he had to be moved into a full care nursing facility in Columbus, MS.  We have since moved him to a nursing home in Starkville, MS.

Willie in incontinent, cannot sit up, has very little movement in his arms or legs, hasn’t spoken in over two years, is moved from his bed to his wheelchair with a lift, and is tube fed.

On his good days, he is very aware and follows us with his eyes.  We can get an occasional (tiny) smile.  He tears up at times, and moans if anything bothers him.

He actually looks quite healthy, skin color is good,  weight is around 182, is still very strong—has an amazing grip.

I spend time with him daily, and have caregivers that stay with him some each day.  The facility is a lovely place and they take good care of him.  But they have 60 residents, and I like to have one on one care as much as possible.  Willie’s care is covered by the NFL 88 Plan so we’re able to have the best of care.  We also have a wonderful, supportive family and good friends who visit.

The road we have traveled over these past years has been difficult to say the least.  But my heartbreak is nothing compared to what Willie has faced.  He loved his family, his life, his friends, his church with all his heart.  He lost all that far too soon.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Helen Takacs permalink
    February 3, 2013 2:35 pm

    A wonderful testimony from a wonderful pait!

    • Allen Cunningham permalink
      June 9, 2015 2:33 pm

      Hi Ruth, my husband was Doug Cunningham who just passed away in January. I am still devastated. We had him in the hospital to adjust his meds so when we needed to put him in an Alzheimer’s facility he would be ready. It was coming soon but I kept thinking I could keep him at home for a little while longer with meds adjusted . While he was there he died in his sleep with a heart attack. He would have been miserable in a facility. So when they called me from the hospital that day I was shocked. Alzheimer’s is the worst disease I know. He played for the 49ers for seven years after he played at Ole Miss. We had only been married ten and a half years. Not long enough. He was the love of my life. And by far the greatest gift that God has ever given me. I miss him every single day. My life will never be the same. Thanks for writing your article. Allen Cunningham

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