Jennifer Cobb has become a champion for Parkinson’s Disease and not only wants to find a cure for it but continue to spread a message of hope and support for the caregivers of these patients. Her father, Ty Cobb, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This cause hit home for her.
Jennifer Cobb was with the St. Louis Rams for four years from 1996-1999 and she always enjoyed giving back. The NFL gave her a larger platform and the connections to do more, do better and do what’s right for those who needed help.
“…When my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I thought, I can utilize the platform that the NFL has given me to step off the field and use my voice to cheer on others that are going through the same battle. Help cheer on the caregivers to give them more support, encourage, and give hope and comfort back to their loved ones.”
She founded Team Gateway to a Cure in 2016 and hasn’t looked back.
Cobb worked with the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center to bring their resources to St. Louis. Michael J. Fox’s foundation is focused on research for a cure. He raises millions of dollars a year for that. She was told by Ali’s widow, Lonnie, that his legacy was caregiver support. He wanted to give back to the caregivers behind the scenes that are the champs, the ones that don’t get recognized.
Cobb started her own 5K Run/Walk called Soul To Sole in Chicago to raise money and awareness for Parkinson’s disease. She raised over $50,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation/Team Fox in a two-year span. Her 5K Run/Walk was the only Parkinson’s fundraiser in the Illinois Metro East area. Soul to Sole got its name because her dad has such a sweet soul and Parkinson’s affects your gait, step, walk.
“There’s not a 5K out there for caregivers. There’s not a big auction or fancy dinner to raise money for caregivers. The caregivers are the ones that help them in the bed and make sure they don’t fall and make sure they get their medicine. They drive them to their doctor’s appointments, make sure their meals are cooked and healthy. They’re the ones that are cheering them on and giving hope and comfort. But where’s their support?”
Caregivers suffer from frustration, anxiety, and depression. They are now recognized as second-order patients. Team Gateway to a Cure is focusing on, not just necessarily raising funds for a cure for Parkinson’s, but more importantly, raising awareness and supporting the caregivers who are the ones behind the scenes.
Cobb was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She calls the area a mini New York due to the family atmosphere that part of Chicago cultivates.
Her father created Ty Cobb Electric in Chicago and worked tirelessly to manage a number of trucks, employees, and electricians that worked for him. He learned the trade from his father and just trial and error. Jennifer Cobb is proud of the work her father did on some of the most iconic buildings in Chicago.
One is the John Hancock Building, some of the TV and radio station buildings. He did a lot of work for Oprah Winfrey on her home, as well as the owner and the CEO of the Precious Moments Figurine Company.
“There are a lot of memories. As an adult child, a daughter who loves her father so much, I’m very proud to be able to talk about some of the things that my dad was a part of growing up and the legacy that follows him. Even to this day,” Cobb said.
She grew up in a home with two brothers and a sister who played a huge role in her life. They were her first friends, first sleepovers, first arguments, her practice in negotiation, they taught her how to manage conflict within the home and shared life experiences with her including camping and road trips.
Her brothers helped her to build her competitive spirit early on which led her to try out for her high school gymnastics team. “Hanging out with my two older brothers, climbing trees and gigging frogs and trying to be as quick and fast as they are, empowered me and motivated me to try to accomplish certain athletic skills,” Cobb said.
She didn’t have access to private lessons, but she found ways to learn gymnastic skills through practicing in her front yard and utilizing a connection with a neighbor who was a gymnastics assistant at a local gym. Her neighbor taught her what to do and not to do as a gymnast.
“Because of all of that perseverance in my junior high and grade school years on my front yard, that allowed me to land a spot on the gymnastics team my freshman, sophomore, and junior years.”
During her senior year of high school, she wanted to try something new. Cheerleading was that something new and it led her on a path to experiencing new places, earning a high achievement, and finding her true calling with philanthropy.
“I loved the camaraderie and how what I did on the
field or on the floor for basketball allowed the crowd to really engage and get
them more excited about what was [happening],” Cobb said on what she enjoyed
about cheerleading. “That’s the feedback we don’t really talk much about. That
is so energizing. It’s contagious the more the crowd is engaged in what I’m
doing and [getting excited], then I get that excitement and want to do more and
more and more.”
She recalled a moment during basketball season where she did consecutive flips from one end of the court to the other as fans were cheering. “Of course, I’m dizzy and about to pass out. Boy, I tell you, when you get that crowd screaming, yelling the numbers and getting them excited [trying] not to lose that during a timeout, Oh, it’s so fun. It just pumps you up,” she said.
Jennifer Cobb earned an opportunity to be a cheerleader for the St. Louis Rams in 1996, their inaugural season in that city. There was an advertisement on the airwaves of St. Louis radio calling women to audition. A couple thousand showed up to audition and compete for 40 spots.
Cobb wanted to emphasize that NFL cheerleaders are entertainers, a brand, an extension of the team. Hair and makeup are professionally done, and they have the same job on game day that the high school and collegiate cheerleaders do but with more responsibility.
Cobb had some insecurity going into the audition because she lacked the dancing skills needed for the audition. The other half of it focused on looks and communications skills. She wasn’t concerned about that because of her outgoing nature. “My perseverance and my dedication to learn the skill of dance in such a short amount of time for auditions to prepare myself, I thought, well, OK, I can do this and that’s what I did. I went behind the scenes. I did a lot of fast-forwarding of teaching.”
After she earned a spot on the roster of St. Louis Rams cheerleaders, she was blessed with the opportunity to participate in the Miss Super Fitness Championship competition in Maui, Hawaii. There were three parts to this competition: a triathlon-style portion to test endurance, a choreographed fitness routine, and bathing suit modeling on stage. Once again, there was something she struggled with. This time, it was swimming. She had to swim a mile in the ocean, go through an obstacle course on the beach, and then run a mile sprint in the sand.
“…I did not know how to swim, Anthony. Well, six weeks prior to the show, out in Maui, Hawaii, I hired a private swim coach and I hit the water about three, four times a week to coach me on how to swim. I ended up winning the championship title as Miss Super Fitness, the fittest woman in America.”
After she won the competition in 1999, the joke in the locker room was that she needed to help Dick Vermeil coach the team. That next season, the Rams won the Super Bowl.
Porter Medium: I read in your bio that your father, Ty Cobb, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and you got involved with the Michael J. Fox Foundation as a result. When did he contract the disease? How is he doing? How did working with that foundation give you the tools and experience to create your own?
Cobb: My father was diagnosed in 1999 right around the time Michael went public, it just so happens. Coincidental that they both were diagnosed at the same time. As I watched the disease debilitate my dad, it was really hard for me to watch [that happen to] a hero in my life who I’ve always looked at as indestructible, [someone] who can conquer all things, and [nothing or] no one will destroy him. Then you have this silent disease that’s taken him down. It was really hard on me as an adult child loving and caring for him, because I still look at him as if I’m 16 years old, looking up to my father and watching him now today in a wheelchair. He just suffered last week two strokes back to back and is in a state of not being able to talk. How do I get coping comfort back to him?
I had raised quite a bit of money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Michael had honored me every year in New York City at the VIP Awards for my efforts. I went to Michael after an event and I said to him, ‘you know, Michael, there had to be a way that I can bring your resources back to the city of St. Louis to bring more of the fun back into fundraising. One of the things that they did was they went back and talked amongst their group and then gave us the name Team Gateway to a Cure.
I had a good friend of mine who was with channel five. She was the sports director. Audrey Dahlgren, Her grandfather passed away from Parkinson’s. She was actually with one of the Channel 4 reporters, Doug Vaughn, covering the Stanley Cup for the Blues. Now they’re both sitting there. She’s gotten really melancholy and just really sad. Doug asked her what was going on and she shared with Doug that her grandfather passed away from Parkinson’s. He said, ‘you need to be introduced to Jennifer. She would be a great support for you.’
Her and I were introduced and together we started the 501c3, collaborated board of directors, we designed and unveiled the logo and the board of directors to the media, sent out a press release, and had an unveiling party and announced Team Gateway to a Cure.
We are now three years in the making this November. Since then, we’ve collaborated with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center to raise awareness for caregiver support. We have recently, which I’m super proud of, [entered] postproduction for a documentary film called A Race for Another Day.
It’s interesting to bring this up now. Being that we’re all quarantined and we’re facing one of the biggest medical mysteries of our time today. The documentary is about Dr. Gerry Medoff’s life. Dr. Gerry Medoff was an infectious disease doctor here in St. Louis at Washington University.
He became more famous when he invented the 21 pill cocktail for HIV. Twenty-five years ago, he was homophobic but as he cared for these patients, it changed his bedside manner. Today, if you develop the virus of HIV, you take one pill and live a normal life.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gerry Medoff developed Parkinson’s during the years and today is taking 21 pills for Parkinson’s. Where will Parkinson’s be 20 years from now? How we unraveled the greatest, biggest medical mystery of their time during the AIDS epidemic, where it is today, and how you look at the different correlations and being a part of that medical history phenomenon.
That movie will unravel that not only co-producing the movie, but the other flipside to the disease is the caregiver. So what does a race for another day look like in the eyes of someone battling Parkinson’s? They don’t have a cure. They take their 21 pills, but a caregiver gives them hope and comfort for another day of life until the disease gets a cure or is managed through medication.
Now, today, I’m very happy to share with you, Anthony, that we now have a pill that you take that actually reverses the damage that Parkinson’s has done to the brain. This is a medical breakthrough that was just unraveled a few months ago.
Now with the platform that I’ve been given to talk to not only you but also other people in the media, different publications, podcasts, I’m able to talk and tell people to go to your neurologist, talk to them, ask them questions about the new medicine that’s out there to reverse the damage the brain has undergone from the Parkinson’s disease.
Through our talks, eventually, I’ll be starting my own podcast with my board of directors. We want to share stories of how caregivers get through their day, another day with their loved ones. At the end of the day, we all grow much better within each other’s lives when we trauma bond.
An example of trauma bonding is my dad going to the YMCA when he used to work out. After he was done and took a shower, He went over to that big table with all the fellows, grabs a cup of coffee, maybe a doughnut. I don’t know. They sit and they hear stories and trauma bond and talk to each other.
What do you think they’re sharing with each other? They’re sharing with each other how they get through their day. Sometimes they listen to each other’s stories more than they do the doctor in the doctor’s office, what he’s telling them to do. So there’s something very, very significant with going back to the good old fashioned sharing stories.
I mean, if we look at our lives today from a social media perspective when you wake up Anthony, what’s the first thing you do when you post a picture, post something on your social media? You open up your social media in the morning, you look at the comments. Those comments are stories that people are sharing with you. There’s something very healing and very rewarding when we trauma bond and share our stories with each other. There’s growth, comfort, and hope. So if I can be that hope and comfort for others, caregivers that are going through the exact same thing I’m going through.
It’s not just Parkinson’s, it could be anything. I mean, you can have somebody going through cancer or Alzheimer’s. You could be a single parent with a child who has a learning disability. You could be a grandparent caring for grandkids.
I mean, caregiver comes in many different packages. So I think it’s really, really important to talk about it now that we’re all quarantined. What can a caregiver do for themselves and how can their hope and comfort get back to their loved one? What that looks like. So when I’m asked to speak at a lot of these caregiver conferences, a lot of the questions come from the millennials, because they’re very philanthropic. They just don’t know how to give back. They want to. They’re very, very kind. They just don’t know how.
So I help them master that. Then you have adult children caring for their parents like you and me. Our age that we care for our mom and dad if they have something going on. What does it look like when you have an emotional history of resentment? Let’s say you are asked to step up and take care of your father and you’re a father yourself caring for young kids and you’ve got emotional resentment. Well, why should I take care of him? He never showed up for my football games, none of my practices and now he’s sick and he expects me to drop [everything]. My mom wants me to take care of her. Well, where was she?
She never made it to one of my ballet recitals. I’m battling cancer, raising kids, I’m a single mom and now she wants me to care for her. So what does that look like when you have emotional history that’s very resentful and very hurtful. How do you get past that and look forward to the future and love your loved one that is battling something very debilitating such as Parkinson’s?
Porter Medium: What have been some of your proudest moments in doing this work?
Cobb: Yeah, that’s a great question. Of course, the documentary movie, which I’m really proud of. Another is I’m in the early stages of starting a book. The book is basically trauma bonding and sharing stories. Each chapter will be designated to a public figure sharing their stories, not just Parkinson’s, but other brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s, concussions, Multiple Sclerosis, A.L.S., Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s disease. There’s just a lot of brain diseases out there that we don’t really talk about. The most important is the son or the daughter ‒ through their eyes what their story is caring for their loved one. For instance, my story [with] loving my father. What did I know about Parkinson’s before he was diagnosed and how did it change my life?
Joe Buck, Jack Buck passed away of Parkinson’s. He’s a son loving his father. There are stories that he’d like to share. Laila Ali and her father. Tim Tebow, his father has Parkinson’s. [Wayne] Gretzky, Walter Gretzky was diagnosed a few years ago. I think at the end of the day, every single one of those people that I just said to you are exactly the same people we are. They’re going through the same struggles as a caregiver.
I think it’s really important that again, that we share our stories because that hope, that comfort that comes from the shared stories, there’s something so healing with that. That support group that you can get through the book. Also, through a movie, the documentary. That’s why documentaries are so incredibly popular right now, especially if you connect with what the documentary is talking about. You relate to it, it’s relatable. There’s a lot of growth and a lot of healing that comes from that.
Porter Medium: What more did you learn about degenerative diseases in being a part of this project?
Cobb: Oh, boy. Well, I learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about Parkinson’s. I do know that it starts in the gut. There are two different types of Parkinson’s isms they call them. It’s kind of like diabetes. There are type one and type two. Type one, it genetically affects your body. You’re born with it. Type two is overweight. It’s too much weight. It’s putting pressure on the pancreas. It can’t do its job to produce insulin.
Same thing with Parkinson’s. Michael J. Fox was diagnosed in his 40s. So there’s a genetic link when you’re diagnosed at a young age. That’s why it’s important. A lot of insurance companies now pay for their genetic testing to see if your genetic trait is close to having Parkinson’s. Most times it’s more shown in men than it is women. Both my brothers suffer from restless leg syndrome which is a twitching of the leg.
Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are very similar. Alzheimer’s, You don’t see anything physically, but it affects the brain mentally and emotionally. In Parkinson’s, you see it physically, as you can see [with] Michael, on television if you’ve seen him. There’s a lot of dyskinesia. That’s what the twitching of the head, the bobbling of the head. There’s a lot of tremors [with] their arms and the legs, they move quickly. There’s a lot of shuffling of the steps when you’re walking. Your voice projection is very soft, and those are physical signs. Mentally, they’re very sharp.
My dad has no memory loss at all. He’s as sharp as a tack. So there are some fallacies with Parkinson’s. Because you see something physically, we attach it to all their muscles [and think] they must be really not with it. That’s not the case. So with that being said, a lot of the research scientists are now crossing over with medication.
What is used for Alzheimer’s, [doctors] are also trying it out in laboratory for Parkinson’s, kind of like with COVID-19. They’re using the medicine that they use for other illnesses, and they’re crossing it over. The great thing with that is that millions and billions of dollars in research that were spent to get that medicine where it’s at and you can now cross it over. The other thing that I found is there’s now a pill that reverses the damage that Parkinson’s does to the brain, which is really positive. The other side to the disease is it’s environmental [aspect].
So, for instance, the champ, He wasn’t genetically predisposed to having the illness, but the stress and the trauma to the brain could have triggered it. So you could be a carrier of Parkinson’s and have it, but never show any signs of it. Because of stress, trauma or something environmental, for example, my dad has a memory that he was fishing on a lake and the farmer was spraying his field with insecticides. Then very shortly after that, he came down with a very, very severe stomach bug. Being that Parkinson’s starts in the gut, that manifests up to the brain.
That right there, environmental, could have been just enough. That could have been the trigger. He is predisposed to having it. Now, my two brothers do not have any Parkinson’s, but because they both carry the gene if they’re under stress.
Yeah, I’m not saying it could and maybe not. I don’t know. Science is a lot of guessing games and ruling a lot out. That’s why we look at the Michael J. Fox Foundation. They have a lot of resources. He has this thing called Fox Insight where if you go on his website and you fill out a questionnaire, they can use your data to help find a cure because more data is more power.
So that was really interesting to learn after speaking with many, many doctors that study Parkinson’s and talking to many research scientists. One being Dr. David Perlmutter, here in St. Louis. I spoke to him many, many times and he speaks all over the world. He’s just very insightful and very knowledgeable about the disease. He’s getting ready to start another study and got a couple of million-dollar grants to start it. So we’re very, very close to a cure. I really believe that within my father’s lifetime that he will see a cure.
Porter Medium: What do you hope viewers of the documentary take away from it?
Cobb: I’m hoping that they take away that there is hope and comfort out there. You don’t have to go through this alone, even though your loved one has this debilitative disease. Even though we don’t have a cure, that it’s really, really important that you rally around other caregivers and not be the hero or think that you have to be the rescuer in the home and do it all because you’re not God Jr. There are other members of the family that can step up and help.
That’s one of the things that I love to talk about. Share ideas about how you can be a great caregiver, even if it’s from a distance. There are a million ways to be a really good reporter. There are a million ways to be a really good mom. There are a million ways to be a really good caregiver. Trust me, if you ask me one question and give me a scenario, I guarantee you I will find a way.
Like my kids. How can I be a good caregiver to grandpa when lives in Hawaii half of the year to manage his Parkinson’s and then Chicago, the other half? Well, the other six months he’s in Hawaii, make time during the week. Thank goodness for technology. Let’s face time.
Why don’t we read a story, do a puzzle, make a meal, and grandpa can sit and watch. Or better yet, just sit and talk. Slow down because old people move slower now and just talk to him. Ask him about memories growing up as a kid. Don’t talk about the disease. Don’t talk about medicine. Don’t talk about doctors. Just talk about Ty. Ty doesn’t want to talk about the disease. He wants to talk about himself.
He wants to talk about things that he loves to do, things that he enjoys, not the medication. How are you feeling? When’s your next doctor’s appointment? That’s the last thing they want to talk about. So what does that look like? It’s just slowing down and engaging and having a good conversation with your loved one.
Porter Medium: When can people expect a release date?
Cobb: Yes. So it’s in post-production. I know that the trailer’s on the website and once the movie poster is released, that’s kind of like a logo to a company. So it’s official. Now we have the funding that we have raised and we’re trying to raise a little bit more. Once we get to that level, the movie will be released. At the same time, the book will be released. So a lot of times when movies are released, you like to do both of them at the same time because you got a media platform that you can talk about both like we are today. You’ll see it aired a lot of the different festivals.
You’ll see it at the Cannon Film Festival, medical festivals, the Oscars, Sundance, and just all the festival circuit to get it really out there and talked about. So if anyone would like to donate in memory of a loved one or in honor of a loved one [go to] the website www.teamgatewaytoacure.org. You can find out more information. Anybody that donates funds to the movie will be recognized in the credits at the end. So it’s a really nice way to honor your loved one.
Porter Medium: In your interview with Jane Monzures and Audrey Dahlgren, I liked the discussion about caregivers and giving them guidance and services on how to navigate their mental health and other things. How important do you believe it is that caregivers get those resources so that they be their best selves for themselves and the person they are taking care of?
Cobb: It is very important again. Insurance companies are now looking at caregivers as the second patient.
Hospitals are putting in support groups because they know they need to be supported and especially if you’re a low-income senior. That’s where the Family Caregiver Act comes in. The president signed that, and it is giving financial support to low-income seniors that may not be able to pay for their medicine or be able to drive to a medical facility for treatment. That’s one of the things that the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center, the Barrow Neurological Institute in Pheonix, Arizona, pride themselves on. They will have transportation out to the home to bring the caregivers back to the institute.
The inside of that facility is really cool. It looks like the inside of a home. It looks like a bedroom, bathroom, and a kitchen because that’s where it happens. That’s where the caregiver is loving and caring for their loved one. So the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center focuses on caregivers. So they train a coach and they teach the caregivers how to care for their loved ones. Most times falls happen in a home. They need to be taught how to help and how to self soothe.
With all that being said, that’s what the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center focuses on is the caregiver support. The whole picture of what it’s like to be a caregiver in the home. Many of the older population are not going to nursing homes. They’re staying in their homes and having assistance that comes to the home a couple of times a week to help with certain jobs and responsibilities.
But for the most part, the loved one is the one that’s stepping up and doing a lot of the work. So they need to have that assistance to help get them through their day. The one that’s going through the Parkinson’s disease. So the more that [the caregiver] is taught, the more knowledge that they know about what’s going on inside the body or the brain, the better support, the better advocate they can be on the other side.
Porter Medium: This discussion brought to mind what’s happening now with the coronavirus and how doctors and nurses are working double-triple time to get patients healed all while taking hits to their mental health as well. How important is it for people not in their line of work to check in regularly on those individuals?
Cobb: Even if you know of somebody that is close to you, you may be on the same street or, you know a friend that has someone that’s older that might be battling a disease such as Parkinson’s. Offer to bring a meal, offer to check on them and give them a phone call.
If they have technology in the house, reach out to them on video just to connect. In fact, if it’s not the older population, it is another loved one. What better time than right now? You have some quarantine time. Really great ways to reach out to people, whether it’s through technology or through the Internet. E-mail or mail a letter or note, something. Grandkids can draw pictures. Send them to the grandparents or other loved ones in the family.
There are many ways that you can reach out to your loved one. You know, even if it’s going over and hanging out for an hour or two, what do they like to do? I know my dad, Ty, he loves playing cards. He loves board games. He loves puzzles. He actually likes just watching a movie. Very simple things like that. Just take a walk outside 15, 20 minutes just to connect. I mean, like I said earlier, there are a million ways and it doesn’t have to be expensive and complicated.