As a 20-year-old pastoral intern, Emmett Diggs liked nothing more than to be in a boxing gym, dishing out the punches and taking his share in return. He even won the Virginia Golden Gloves welterweight championship in 1961. But he was asked to give up fighting when some members of his congregation objected. Since the ministry was his true calling, it wasn't a hard decision for him, but the competitive young Diggs missed the heavy-hitting give-and-take and competition of boxing. As the years went by, Diggs channeled his competitive nature into tennis instead; he even got his United States Professional Tennis Association certification as a teaching pro when he was 62. But when, at age 75, he found he wasn't able to move as well as usual, he wondered what the problem might be.
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After seeing a neurologist, Emmett was told he likely had Parkinson's but that he couldn’t be officially diagnosed as having it because he didn’t yet meet enough of the clinical criteria. But his tennis game continued to decline until finally he told his tennis pals—the Big Dogs, as they had dubbed themselves—that he couldn't play any longer.
Emmett decided to content himself with gardening until one day he found that while doing some weeding on his hands and knees, he couldn't get up without assistance. What was he to do with himself now?
It was as dark a period as Emmett had experienced. Lord, I don’t know how to deal with Parkinson’s, he prayed. I’m not a tennis player anymore. Not a happy man, either. What am I going to do?
One morning soon thereafter, Emmett's wife, Patty, shared with him a newspaper story about a man with Parkinson’s who practiced a physical discipline called Rock Steady Boxing (RSB), which combines elements of shadow boxing with functional fitness and strength training.
Emmett was no longer up to the footwork that boxing usually called for, but with RSB, which is a noncontact discipline, that was not an issue. Instead, he'd be stretching, hitting bags, using weights, doing push-ups, and yes, practicing footwork drills.
The local program director was a big man named John, a mixed martial arts fighter. When they first met, John handed Emmett some boxing gloves and took him over to a heavy bag. Just putting on the gloves brought wonderful memories back for Emmett and when John said, "Hit the bag," Emmett did as he was told. It felt great," Emmett said, "solid, as if the bag were hitting back."
Soon, Emmett joined a regular RSB class of about a dozen people. Like him, they were dealing with Parkinson's, though the specific challenges the disease presented varied from person person. They were all impressed, though, with Emmett's boxing skills. And over time, the class became something of a support group in which they could share their frustrations, their hopes and aspirations.
"I had thought Parkinson’s disease was going to take away everything that mattered to me," Emmett has written. "I should’ve known the good Lord wouldn’t let that happen. Thanks to his persistent helper Patty, he brought my first love back into my life in a way I never could have imagined. Boxing has given me not only a fun way to stay active and fight Parkinson’s but also a new group of guys who are in my corner, just as I’m in theirs."
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