The handsome face is undimmed by age, and the man moves with the grace of the wide receiver he once was.
Gail Cogdill is only 75 and has a lot more living to do, if only his heart will let him.
He and his wife, Dian, got the news earlier this year: Without a major operation, one of Spokane’s biggest football stars may die within a year. That will take $70,000, which the Cogdills don’t have. They do have a website, asking for donations.
“I looked at the doctor and I thought he was kidding me,” Cogdill recalled last week over coffee near his home in Spokane Valley. “It was worse than I thought.”
So bad, that because of a viral infection, his heart capacity had dropped to 18 percent and raised the issue to one of life and death.
It all seems so unfair for a skinny kid out of Lewis and Clark High who showed as much heart as talent while breaking records at Washington State and in the National Football League. And who showed more heart in decades of charity work for children.
Gail is too old for a transplant, so he and Dian looked at the options: a mechanical heart that comes with a $250,000 price tag and other complications, or a stem-cell transplant that costs one-fourth as much but involves leaving the country.
The choice was easy. At a cost of $70,000, they will fly to Miami, where blood will be drawn and sent to Israel, processed and sent to the Bahamas, where the Cogdills will fly for a stem-cell transplant that will repair the muscles in the heart. “It would give me another five, six, eight years,” he said.
The goal is to bring Gail’s heart capacity to 30 percent, eliminating the need for a mechanical heart. The hard part is the $70,000.
“We’ve sent the paperwork to the doctors and they will give us a call soon,” Gail said. “But we’ve depleted our funds …” His voice trailed off.
Three months ago Gail received stents, which bought him some time, but even with insurance it was a lot of money for an old football star who caught on a few decades before the money got good.
Dian has taken the lead in raising funds and starting the website.
“She keeps me going,” Gail said.
The toll of success
Cogdill was a sports hero at Washington State, an All-American in 1958 and 1959 while grabbing 64 passes for 1,256 yards and 13 touchdowns in an era when defenders could jam him all the way to the goal line.
Taken by Detroit in the sixth round of the 1960 NFL draft, Cogdill was an immediate hit. He was the league’s rookie of the year, and went on to catch 356 passes for 5,694 yards and 34 TDs by the time his career was shortened by injury in 1970.
“I always played hurt all the time,” said Cogdill, who at 190 pounds still had to move inside to block much larger men. “I was told not to play, but I did.
“Finally, I cracked my kneecap. Should have been surgery, but they taped it. It lasted eight games.”
After his playing career ended, Cogdill and his first wife raised three children while he engaged in various business interests.
In the late 1970s he divorced and had a business failure. He met Dian, a massage therapist, in 1979. They were married six years later.
A grim game
In 2002, two years after moving back to Spokane, he struggled to walk while hunting elk with his good friend, former NBA star Darrell Imhoff. Cogdill blamed his labored breathing on asthma medication.
“I remember Darrell told me, ‘That’s not asthma,’ ” he said.
Cogdill had a bad heart. He lasted less than a minute in a bicycle stress test.
“They said I needed surgery – now,” he said.
After undergoing a six-way bypass – the doctor said he would have done an eight-way if he could – Cogdill’s heart was at 55 percent, which was manageable.
But heart pills cost $600 a month, and weren’t covered by insurance. His NFL pension then was just $200 a month. In the last few years it has increased to $1,300 a month.
The physical give-and-take of football was never like this, the line of scrimmage never this blurry, the opponents – money and politics – so hard to shed.
Quarterback Peyton Manning, now with the Denver Broncos, flew to Europe last year for the stem-cell procedure for a neck injury.
No problem for a millionaire, but a big obstacle for players such as Cogdill, who are often forgotten by the league they helped build.
“We’re not starving, but we’ve spent $150,000 over and above the insurance,” he said.
The Cogdills talked to the NFL, but the league’s insurance will not cover a procedure that is not approved in the United States.
“I just want to get this done,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder why I can’t take a breath, maybe because I have all this turmoil, because I don’t have all the answers.”
What he does have is some big plans to help kids while building on decades worth of charity golf tournaments he and Imhoff organized in Idaho, Portland and the Tri-Cities. Star athletes came from around the country, mostly raising funds for Providence Hospital in Portland.
“Whatever the hospital needed, we got it,” Cogdill said.
If he gets the chance, Cogdill, along with baseball great Jim Perry, hopes to raise funds for a children’s hospital in Canton, Ohio, near the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Cogdill said he’s already working on funding. Somehow, he knows he’ll be around to see it through.
After the Cogdills wed in 1986, Dian wanted children, and that meant a vasectomy reversal. The dubious doctors gave them a 20 percent chance of success, and pushed for artificial insemination.
“God and I will take care of the rest,” Dian told them.
They have a daughter, 22, and a son who’s 20.
“I knew in my heart that it was going to happen,” Dian said. “And I feel the same way with this surgery.”
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