Ex-Penn State and Lafayette assistant hoops coach perseveres through disorder

Posted: November 19, 2012

Coaches like to soak in other coaches' practices. That's why Pat Brogan sat for a couple of hours recently on the Palestra floor watching the Penn Quakers work out.

"Recognize anything?" Penn coach Jerome Allen walked over and asked Brogan.

"Everything," Brogan told him.

The men are branches from the same tree, although Brogan's limb now sustains a team of middle school girls in upstate Hazleton.

"It's not calculus for seventh- and eighth-grade girls - it's plain math," Brogan said. "But I'm saying the same things. 'Don't dribble a loose ball, pick it up.' . . . 'Catch to score.' . . . When someone drives baseline, it's, 'Drive to score, not to explore.' The girls have no idea what I'm saying."

Brogan once was an assistant coach at Lafayette. His boss, Fran O'Hanlon, was an assistant at Penn when Allen played for the Quakers. Brogan later was an assistant at Penn State. Smart money says he'd be a college head coach today or maybe working in the NBA, except life took him on a different path.

"No bad days," Brogan said, catching a bite to eat on Penn's campus just before the practice. "Just good days and 'almost-good' days."

The almost-good ones would break more than a few of us. It's been just over 11 years since a hit-and-run driver knocked Brogan from his bicycle in Easton, causing an affliction named dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that causes muscles to continually spasm.

"The times where it gets tough are when I can't control my body," Brogan said Thursday. "The past couple of weeks have been pretty difficult."

He'll be in a hospital Monday morning, to get his batteries replaced, "about every 11 months," he said. He means that literally. He has neurostimulators implanted in his chest and wired to his brain to help control muscle spasticity. The batteries tend to die out on him as the months go on.

Brogan could feel all that, but you wouldn't have known it to talk to him, just that he had a couple of fingers pressed against the side of his head as he talked. A real triumph: Brogan competed in two triathlons each of the last two years. (Unfinished business; he was training for a triathlon when he got hit by the car.) He did the swimming portion of the last one in the ocean, even though his condition prevents him from using his legs to swim. And when he ran he bounced a tennis ball because he had learned on his own that the act of bouncing that ball kept him from falling or spasming. (People do sometimes think he's being a hot dog and try to steal the ball.)

The pain, Brogan told me years ago, can be like having hammers continually pounding the back of his neck. That was on a good day. On a bad one, "a blowtorch going into my spine." It's usually better these days, although the weeks before the battery change remind him of the old pain. ("Some of the hurt is physical, some mental, some spiritual," he wrote in 2003.)

He had driven down from Hazleton himself. He was going to the Quakers' practice and then to a Sixers game, where an old friend was an assistant for the visiting team.

What's Brogan's typical day?

"I swim in the morning, three-quarters of a mile or a half-mile, sometimes a mile - an hour in the pool every day," Brogan said. "I teach two cyber-school courses, sociology and U.S. history, high school courses. Most of the kids are from Hazleton. I'm also a part-time real estate agent, although the market is terrible. Then I try spending half an hour to an hour on the bike, depending on what kind of day I'm having. Then I'll prep this time of year for my girls' practice, and do any real estate calls, if I have any."

He dabbled in acting in the Hazleton area after he found public speaking helped bypass his symptoms. Basketball, however, is his life's vocation. His hoops team, just getting started for a new season, sounds as if it's fun to play for, since Brogan substitutes in waves, he said, sending in subs literally at every whistle, driving referees crazy.

"We press, we trap, we try to make a layup," Brogan said.

He's a smart man and doesn't deny the feelings of depression and anger that an incurable brain disorder can cause.

Earlier this year, Brogan began writing a blog - it's at http://patbrogan13.wordpress.com - and he recently wrote, "I've read all the Dale Carnegie, Chicken Soups for the Soul, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and countless tapes, but what hit me after watching for the umpteenth time, Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman - who happens to be my celebrity look-alike according to an iPhone app - said, 'Either get busy living or get busy dying.' "

Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus.

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