NEW ORLEANS – It's a seven-hour drive from Dallas to Baton Rouge, La., which is a long time to think. And cry. And, if you're Steve and Cynthia Kragthorpe, ultimately to laugh.
"Laughter," Steve says, "is the best medicine."
They needed medicinal laughter on that drive in July, after Steve got the jarring news from his doctor that he had Parkinson's disease. That followed the jarring news the previous year that Cynthia had multiple sclerosis. And that followed the jarring news in late 2009 that Steve had been fired as the coach at Louisville after just three seasons.
It has, by almost any measurement, been a brutal run for the Kragthorpes.
But not by their measurement. They use a different yardstick than most of us. That's why they could laugh at their ailments on that car ride, poking fun at each other and the "cool couple" the former college sweethearts had become in their 40s.
"This is just a speed bump," Kragthorpe says. "Not a mountain."
The Kragthorpes don't make mountains out of much. Ask Steve, now LSU's quarterback coach, about the family's struggles, and he'll sound like he's the luckiest guy in the world – a guy who is intent on turning his disease into a vehicle for helping people. When the BCS national championship game and the home stretch of recruiting are done, he wants to get involved in supporting others suffering from Parkinson's and MS.
"We don't look at this as a curse," Kragthorpe says. "We look at this as an opportunity. I've had a lot of opportunities to talk to my wife. We've gotten hundreds of emails and phone calls from people going through similar things. There's a guy in Virginia who Facebooked me; he was diagnosed with Parkinson's and his wife with multiple sclerosis, the same thing we're going through. That's the cool part of it. We're not in this battle alone.
"I call our situations more of a nuisance. You don't feel good, but a lot of people don't feel good. There are a lot of people with bigger problems."
When that car ride from Dallas ended, the hard part began. The one thing Kragthorpe dreaded doing was telling his parents and his three sons. He feared breaking down emotionally.
"I'll do it," Cynthia told him.
"She's tougher than I am," Steve says.
The one person Steve had to tell personally was Les Miles, his boss at LSU. This was another conversation he was not looking forward to. Steve had arrived in Baton Rouge last winter after a year away from coaching. He loved the time spent watching his sons play football, but he also loved being back in the game. He loved the LSU staff, loved the quarterbacks he coached, loved being on the practice field in spring ball. He was rejuvenated.
But during the spring, Steve began to feel unusually fatigued. There was cramping in his left arm and leg, as well as some tremors. He began to get really concerned a few weeks later, when the Kragthorpe family was going on a cruise out of New Orleans and he just didn't feel right.
"That was supposed to be the most relaxing time for me, and I felt worn down," Steve says.
So he called his doctor, who sent him to a specialist in Dallas. That's when he got the diagnosis.
He wondered how Miles would react when his new offensive coordinator told him he had a debilitating, progressive illness. He wondered whether Miles would ask him to step down from a position he was enjoying so much.
Before talking to Miles, Steve reached out to his close friend and pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Dave Stone. Their friendship predated Kragthorpe's tenure as coach of the Cardinals, but deepened during that time; the family even went with a group Stone led on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic in 2008, helping build houses and teaching children to throw spirals with a football.
Steve left multiple messages for Stone, who was speaking at a convention. When Stone checked his voicemail, he knew something was up. He called Steve back from a side room and received the stunning news about his condition.
"You don’t feel good, but a lot of people don’t feel good. There are a lot of people with bigger problems."
– Steve Kragthorpe
"I'm going to talk to Coach Miles," Steve told him. "I want you to be praying for me."
"Is he a good man?" Stone asked.
"Yes," Steve said.
"Then this will be OK," Stone told him.
The next day, Steve called his friend back and said, "He's a good man."
Kragthorpe was not asked to step down. But he did voluntarily step aside as the play-caller, out of concern that he would wake up one football Saturday and be unable to coach, leaving the team in a crisis. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa was promoted to offensive coordinator, with play-calling responsibilities, while Kragthorpe retained a prominent role in formulating game plans each week.
That surprising news was announced about a month after Kragthorpe talked to Miles. By then, Kragthorpe was at peace with the decision – at least until the games started.
Not calling plays in the season opener against Oregon was hard. But even worse was the next week, against Northwestern State (La.). That was the home opener, and when Kragthorpe came out of the tunnel onto the field for pregame warm-ups, he had a rare moment of self-pity.
"I'm mad," he recalls. "I want to call the plays. I'm thinking, 'Why is this me? Why can't I do this?' "
Just then, Steve looked to the sideline and saw a 13-year-old boy in a wheelchair, stricken with cerebral palsy. He looked at the heavens and said, "You got me. You win."
Cynthia Kragthorpe isn't into complaining. She doesn't like hearing it from others, and she doesn't like doing it herself. She is an outspoken woman who will get in the face of a reporter if she believes something unfair has been written about her husband, but she isn't into pity parties.
"If I want sympathy, I don't go to my house," Steve says with a laugh. "It ain't happening."
So when Cynthia started experiencing pain and stiffness in her limbs, neck and back, she didn't tell her husband much about it. When she dropped drinking glasses or stumbled while walking, she minimized it. When her face began to tingle, she kept it to herself.
She finally went to a doctor in August 2009, before Steve started his pressure-packed third season at Louisville. A lesion was discovered on her brain, and doctors told her she probably had MS.
But Cynthia told her husband nothing, knowing how much stress he already was facing with his job on the line.
"She lets me know the good stuff," Steve says. "She keeps away the bad stuff."
That October, she visited the Mayo Clinic, telling Steve it simply was a chance for doctors to evaluate an irregular heartbeat she'd been diagnosed with for quite some time. The Mayo Clinic doctors also believed she had MS, but didn't want to make a final diagnosis at that point.
Cynthia returned home and kept the news from Steve. A make-or-break season was dissolving after a 2-5 start. "For Sale" signs had been planted in the family yard. Steve's critics easily were overheard at son Brad's high school football games. The atmosphere was toxic, and she couldn't stand adding her news to the professional burden her husband was facing.
When the season finally ended at 4-8, a third consecutive season without a bowl bid at a school that had been riding high under Bobby Petrino, Kragthorpe was fired by his good friend Tom Jurich, Louisville's athletic director. They'd known each other a long time, but mixing friendship and business can be difficult. The two have not spoken since, but Steve won't criticize anyone for what happened.
"The only unenjoyable part of Louisville is that we didn't get to stay," he says. "Everything happens for a reason."
Kragthorpe wasted no time in moving his family back to Tulsa, where they had enjoyed four seasons before moving to Louisville. Cynthia kept seeing doctors, and this time took Steve with her. Finally, after Steve had accepted a job as offensive coordinator at Texas A&M and moved to College Station, Cynthia officially was diagnosed with MS.
In order to take the medication she needed to combat the disease, Cynthia had to undergo heart surgery. This was more than Steve could bear – moving to College Station, starting a new job, his wife facing major surgery and recovery and taking on a serious illness. He resigned at Texas A&M during the summer to spend the year with her.
"It's awesome how God orchestrates everything," Steve says, standing in the Superdome during BCS national championship game media day Friday. "If I'd been at Texas A&M, I wouldn't be here. I'd be unemployed."
By the Kragthorpes' way of thinking, the fall of 2010 turned out to be a gift. In addition to helping Cynthia, Steve got to watch his sons play football, nervously devouring bags of sunflower seeds in the stands. He went on trips to watch Texas play Oklahoma and Florida play Tennessee, enjoying the view from the stands.
"I figured out if you've got popcorn and a Coke, you're clairvoyant," he says. "You see everything. And if you have a beer, you see everything."
But as much fun as instant expertise was, it couldn't replace the joy of coaching. Kragthorpe knew he wanted to get back in the game.
When Miles called with a good offer, Kragthorpe jumped at it. The idea of working at a big-time program without the big-time pressure of being the boss was exciting and relaxing at the same time.
"I saw what happened at Louisville," Stone says. "I think God just knew what was best for him. It's like night and day for him.
"It's so different seeing him able to chill out and relax. He is much more at peace."
With his youngest son, Nik, Kragthorpe moved into an apartment in Baton Rouge to get started on the season and to get Nik started as a quarterback at University High. The rest of the family joined them after school was out in Tulsa. Then Steve's physical problems began, and again altered the Kragthorpe life script. But he never missed a day's work during this season, never asked for any time off.
"He just plods along, very upbeat," Stone says. "He has no negativity."
The muscles around his left eye twitch, and his left hand will tremble, so he tends to keep it behind him or in a pocket. Even on the good days, the impact of Parkinson's is visible on Steve Kragthorpe.
But there doesn't seem to be much impact internally. This season has been a blast.
After LSU won the SEC championship over Georgia on Dec. 3, the Tigers' travel party flew home around midnight. At 3 a.m., Kragthorpe woke up saying, "I'm either dreaming, or we just won 13 straight games."
Kragthorpe deserves a lot of credit for the run for his work with LSU's quarterbacks. After starter Jordan Jefferson was suspended for his role in an August bar brawl, Kragthorpe got backup Jarrett Lee ready to play at a winning level right away against high-caliber competition. If Lee doesn't play well in the season opener against Oregon, the Tigers lose the game and aren't in the position they currently enjoy.
Then Kragthorpe helped smooth the transition back to Jefferson as not just the starter but the guy playing the overwhelming majority of the time.
If LSU closes the deal Monday night against Alabama, it will be one of the greatest championship runs in college football history. And Steve Kragthorpe's journey through physical and emotional pain will be one of the best stories to come out of it.
But even if LSU loses, there is one man who will have no regrets and no complaints. These are not hard times to Steve Kragthorpe. These are good times.
"We're just following His plan," he says. "It's not exactly the plan we had, but it's been great."
Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
• Tim Tebow playing for more than his playoff life vs. Steelers
• How Sidney Crosby's lost year changed hockey
• Venus Williams goes vegan; sister Serena joins in solidarity
• Y! Sports Shop: Gear up for BCS national title game with Alabama and LSU jerseys