Bill Walsh reveals he has leukemia

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor

By Daniel Brown

Mercury News

Bill Walsh kept his illness from the public as long as he could. But his players all knew. They called and wrote and showed up at his doorstep, doing whatever they could to help the former 49ers coach battle leukemia.
Roger Craig, once a star running back in Walsh's innovative offense, visited the coach's home three weeks ago.
``He was laughing, cracking jokes. That's Bill. He's upbeat,'' Craig said Friday. ``This is a serious thing he has, but he's been dealing with it. He's a fighter.''
Walsh, who turns 75 on Nov. 30, disclosed his fight to the rest of the world Friday, not with a news conference, but rather the more personal touch of calling two sportswriters, Ira Miller and Lowell Cohn, who had covered him for decades. The Hall of Fame coach told them that treatment has helped him bounce back from a recent stretch in which his condition looked grave.
``When it was life-threatening, I had a lot of considerations about my wife, Geri,'' Walsh told Miller, a contributor to, in comments posted Friday. ``It appears I've gone through that threshold and it may turn out OK, at least for a while.''
Walsh coached the 49ers from 1979 to 1988, winning their first three Super Bowl championships and leaving behind a framework for two more titles. He last worked for the team in an official capacity in 2003, but he's kept his hand in the organization with behind-the-scenes support for Coach Mike Nolan.
The two talk frequently by phone, since Walsh's leukemia has kept him at his Woodside home for long stretches. The treatment has included a series of blood transfusions, which left him exhausted.
``Bill means a lot to me,'' Nolan said after the team's practice Friday. ``He's a huge supporter of what we're doing here. But it's not just us. Everybody across the NFL -- everybody -- has been affected by Bill Walsh and the things he created. You're talking right down to the practice schedules and your everyday itinerary. When I worked in Baltimore, everything Brian Billick did there as coach was because he learned it while working for Bill Walsh.''
Last week, though, there was no phone call with Nolan.
Walsh has been increasingly elusive as rumors about his condition spread, staying away from his office at Stanford, where he is a special assistant to the athletic director, and leaving messages unreturned.
``News about me has been circulating,'' Walsh said. ``The media has been aware of the possibility of this and has refrained from writing. There are too many people following the progress of this. I felt it was appropriate to confirm what's happening.''
Walsh said the first indication of the disease came in 2004, when doctors wanted to see why he was anemic. A test of his bone marrow revealed leukemia, a cancer of the blood cells that weakens the body's ability to fight off infections. It was unclear Friday what form of the disease Walsh is battling.
Walsh was absent Sunday at Monster Park for alumni day, which featured Joe Montana and Dwight Clark's re-creation of The Catch. But a friend of Walsh's told the Mercury News this week that the coach plans to be on hand for Jerry Rice's retirement ceremony Nov. 19.
``The worst phase was three to four weeks ago,'' Walsh said. ``I've come back dramatically since, and I'm better.''
In fact, he was feeling well enough this weekend to plan on attending a volleyball game at Stanford.
``He taught me all those years to be an optimist, and he'll beat it,'' said Ken Margerum, a San Jose State assistant coach whom Walsh recruited to play at Stanford in 1977.
Tom Williams, the Spartans co-defensive coordinator, said, ``Certainly when you find out a giant . . . has an illness, you are touched with your own mortality because he is larger than life. He's a giant.''
Walsh had two coaching stints at Stanford, and recently spent seven months as the Cardinal's acting athletic director. But his greatest fame came with the 49ers, where his West Coast offense propelled Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young and became the most widely copied blueprint in the history of the NFL. Walsh went 102-63-1 and won six division titles before abruptly retiring after winning the 1989 Super Bowl.
``Together, we changed the game,'' said Craig, who under Walsh became the first running back to have 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in the same season. ``Bill Walsh has touched not just people all over the NFL but all over the world. This man is much larger than football, trust me.''
Miller wrote that more than 100 former players have called Walsh, including Montana, who recently met the coach for breakfast. Craig made the trip to Walsh's home with Arizona Cardinals Coach Denny Green and former 49ers receiver Mike Wilson.
Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo and former president Carmen Policy came over for lunch, with DeBartolo making the trip from Tampa, Fla. ``We talked about the old times and laughed and teased each other,'' Walsh told Miller. ``I felt flattered Eddie would come all that way to see me.''
Despite the illness, Walsh has done his best to stay active. He served on the search committee at his alma mater, San Jose State University, when it hired Tom Bowen as its athletic director in 2004.
``This is something that comes unexpectedly,'' Bowen said, ``but hopefully he will pull through this and make a full recovery.''
Walsh was a member of the boxing team at San Jose State and had aspirations of becoming a professional heavyweight before choosing a career in football. Still, most of his friends used the same phrase -- ``He's a fighter'' -- when reached for reaction.
Walsh, in speaking of his prognosis, said, ``I'm positive but not evangelistic. I'm pragmatically doing everything my physicians recommend, and I'm working my way through it. I always felt I'll accept my fate as it unfolds.''
He added: ``If we continue with the ongoing treatment, the future could look very bright.''
Mercury News Staff Writer Laurence Miedema contributed to this report. Contact Daniel Brown at