Seahawks linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven will wear them for his grandmother who died when he was 8 years old. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer will wear them for his father, Marty, whose struggle continues. Guard Mike Iupati will wear them for the multiple relatives he saw struggle through old age with an awful disease.
Alzheimer's disease affects millions of people around the world, and Burr-Kirven, Iupati and Schottenheimer are just three of those millions who have seen up close how difficult that struggle can be, not just for those going through it, but for their loved ones as well.
So when NFL players, coaches and staff members around the league wear personalized cleats or shoes during Week 14 as part of the league's 'My Cause, My Cleats' initiative, Schottenheimer, Iupati and Burr-Kirven will all wear shoes supporting the Alzheimer’s Association.
"It's pretty important to me," said Iupati, who has seen multiple aunts on his dad's side of the family suffer from Alzheimer's. "I don't know why it's not a bigger cause for a lot of people. My auntie, my relatives, the older they get, it just sucks… Just them losing it, slowly but surely, they wouldn't recognize people. It's one of those things that's just sad to see."
Even as a professional athlete who is only in his early 30s, Iupati can't help but worry about what his family's history could mean for him somewhere down the road.
"I always worry about it," he said. "Sometimes if I forget something, I'm like, 'what's going on?' People should understand, people should be aware of it."
Burr-Kirven and his older brother were too young to really understand what was going on when their grandmother, Charlotte Burr, came to live when them when they were kids. Unable to live on her own any longer, Charlotte—Nanny to her grandkids—moved from Massachusetts to California to live with her daughter and her family, and it was a challenging and confusing time for young children who couldn't fully grasp what was happening to their grandmother.
"She had Alzheimer's and started deteriorating and she couldn't really live by herself anymore," Burr-Kirven said. "She lived with us for two years or so before she passed. I watched her deteriorate, go through good days and bad days, and I saw just the way the disease affects people. Knowing how she was before, then there'd be days where she didn't know who we were. Watching that disease happen to her, a knowing that it affects so many people, so many people are going through that same thing—she wasn't as severe as it can be, she was able to function. She had to live with us, but it's not like she didn't know who she was. But knowing how bad it can get and the things people go through, it's something that needs as much recognition as it can get."
Even though Burr-Kirven and his brother weren't old enough to fully grasp what Alzheimer's was, they saw up close how it changed their grandmother.
"It was little things," he said. "There'd be mood swings. It wasn't always forgetting stuff, but she would just be mad all of a sudden and you wouldn't know why. There's be things she'd forget, she wouldn't remember the movie she went to that day, things like that. But the thing that was the most jarring would be when there were days she'd be mad and just snap at us, and we were little kids, we didn't know what was going on. She was just a different person at times. Sometimes she was great, but other times she wasn't the grandmother I knew."
For Schottenheimer's family, the struggle with Alzheimer's is ongoing. Marty Schottenheimer, one of the winningest coaches in NFL history, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's not long after his coaching career came to an end. In recent years, especially as his father's condition has worsened, Brian and his family have tried to find more ways to raise money and awareness.
"We've always wanted to give back, and this is something that is near and dear to my heart because of my father being affected," he said. "It's hard to see somebody who was such a regimented person and so organized, and to see what this disease has done to him is hard to watch. So any little difference we can make would be great."
Early in his coaching career, Brian spent six seasons as an assistant under his father in Kansas City, Washington and San Diego. Those years were particularly special to Brian in part because of the time together they missed when he was younger due his father's job.
"We had a special bond. It was always a dream of mine to coach with him, No. 1 because I think he's one of the best who's ever done it," Brian Schottenheimer said. "I loved some of the things he did, the fundamentals he preached, the discipline he preached, accountability. I missed a lot of time with him as a child, when you're a kid, they're busy, they're gone—I experience the same thing with my kid now—so when you get a chance to coach with him, not only do you see him in a different light, but I was also excited to try to help him. I was excited to try to help him win a Super Bowl—we never were able to do it, but it was an awesome, awesome experience. There's a special bond already, but working with him added to that relationship."
Now, however, he has to watch his father and his family suffer through a battle with Alzheimer's, a harsh contrast to the great times they had working together at three NFL stops.
"He's hanging in there," Schottenheimer said. "He tries to stay active when he can, he doesn't travel like he used to. It's definitely getting worse."
Seeing his father's condition worsen has caused Schottenheimer to realize he needs to do more in the fight against Alzheimer's.
"His condition has kind of woken me up to say, 'Hey, I need to do more, I want to do more and I'm excited to do more,'" he said.
Schottenheimer, Burr-Kirven and Iupati's stories are just three of many personal experiences that have inspired the shoed that will be worn this weekend. Roughly 30 players will wear customized shoes this weekend, as will Seahawks president Chuck Arnold (One Love), general manager John Schneider (Ben’s Fund), head athletic trainer David Stricklin (National Athletic Trainers’ Association) and Vulcan Sports & Entertainment CEO Chris McGowan (Girls Inc.), as well as Seahawks Legend and Pro Football Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones (Ben's Fund and House of Harvest).
In addition to raising awareness with their shoes, players will also raise money through an online auction of their shoes, which is already ongoing at auctions.seahawks.com.
Left tackle Duane Brown, who will represent the American Diabetes Association with his shoes, said of the 'My Cause, My Cleats' initiative, "A lot of us, we come from all walks of life, and we all have things that are special to us, things that we care about, things that inspire us, reasons that we play, all types of things. Having 'My Cause, My Cleats' is a way to display that. Display things that are important to you, things that inspire you, things that may have affected you in your lifetime or affected those close to you, or affect our world as a whole. It's very special they do that."