The Homeless Husky: Ex-UW, NFL Linebacker Tim Meamber

In the first in a series of stories, the former football player speaks about his struggles with possible CTE, drug addiction and living in a van.
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Day is fast turning to night and rain is coming down hard when Tim Meamber climbs out of his 2006 blue Ford van outside a Denny's restaurant and shakes your hand. 

His grip is genuine and firm, but this momentary show of strength hardly acts as a metaphor for the world in which this middle-aged man resides.

Meamber's vehicle is not only his mode of transportation, but his home. It holds his dog Mona, all of his worldly possessions, bedding, a five-pound propane tank and a cooler. Cigarettes litter the front console.

Thirty-five years ago, he was a University of Washington graduate with a speech communications degree, one of four Husky football co-captains, a first-team All-Pac-10 linebacker and a third-round NFL draft pick for the Minnesota Vikings.

Today, Meamber is a homeless person. He parks and sleeps in and around Arlington, Washington, a rural Snohomish County town of 18,000 just off Interstate 5. He survives as best he can.

"Sometimes I like it tough," he says in a raspy voice that can turn into an inaudible growl. "Sometimes it gets too tough. Those winter nights."

Meamber, 57, subsists on a monthly $1,000 disability check and medicare. He frequents local food banks for his meals. He takes showers at the Pilot Travel Center near the freeway by telling them that he's a truck driver and paying the $12 or he bathes for free in the Stillaguamish River.

Meamber picked the bedroom community of Arlington as a soft landing spot rather than urban Seattle, 40 miles south, because "the shelters are full in Seattle. Where are you going to go?"

Homeless for four years, he's plummeted into this crude and untethered existence following decades of drug abuse and the likely onset of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and Parkinson's disease. One of these medical conditions is a neurodegenerative disease caused by head injuries, the other a nervous system disorder spurred by cell breakdown and possibly exposure to toxins.

His ailments not only affect his speech and leave him twitching, they obscure the well-read and college-educated individual that he is and sometimes make the unknowing uncomfortable around him.

"Tim's got a good mind," said Jimmy Rodgers, a former UW teammate, strong safety and fellow 1984 team co-captain who lives in Seattle. "He's smart, he's football smart."

Meamber was a prominent member of the 1984 Washington football team that went 11-1, beat Oklahoma 28-17 in the Orange Bowl, finished No. 2 in the polls and relied on a still legendary defense that was full of NFL prospects and dubbed the "Purple Reign."

A product of Yreka, California, he once was married with a daughter and sold real estate. He invented and patented a snack food called Half Pops, a business involving half-cooked popcorn that still thrives without him. He did good things with his life.

Yet Meamber couldn't resist the lure of illicit drugs, practically any substance other than heroin. Post-pro football, he dove headlong into the dark and dangerous underbelly of addiction, disappearing for long stretches of time. 

"I liked cocaine," he said. "But they shot Pablo Escobar and prices are way up and the quality is way down. There really isn't anything out there anymore. I don't miss it. I don't need it."

Meamber tells stories of nearly being murdered twice during drug deals gone bad and almost dying four times from overdosing. He's repeatedly entered drug rehabilitation. He still has the occasional slip-up.

In the midst of this craziness, Meamber was arrested for seeking out and beating up someone who stole his car and totaled it. There were drug house brawls. His football mentality guided him.

"The faint-of-heart people don't play linebacker," said Joe Krakoski, a former UW teammate and linebacker, and a Virginia resident. "It's like playing on the freeway. He took that attitude into the drug world."

A fearsome football player who wore No. 42, Meamber played the game violently from a very young age in California until he suffered a career-ending knee injury during his rookie season with the Vikings. He appeared in four NFL games in 1985 and it was over.

"It's like getting pushed off a cliff," said Krakoski, who played eight games for the Washington Redskins in 1985 before he was done. "We both went out with knees. I thought I'd play five years in the NFL. Tim probably thought he'd play longer. Then you get dumped on your head. If you don't have a reliable support system or catch-all of some kind, anything goes."

Meamber was diagnosed with the strong probability of having CTE decades after his football career ended. He received an NFL settlement of $250,000, a third of the amount the league has provided to others. Meamber was told that he didn't follow the medical protocol necessary to obtain the larger payout. Either way, he squandered the money.

(Watch Tim Meamber play against Oklahoma in this first-half 1985 Orange Bowl video, wearing No. 42. in the white jersey.)

When sleeping in his truck in parking lots or freeway rest areas, Meamber regularly gets rousted  by Arlington police and the Washington State Patrol. Some of these law-enforcement types know him by his first name now. It's not clear whether any of them have made the football connection. 

Most people don't know him. The deterioration in Meamber's speech once led a teenager working at a nearby fast-food restaurant to call the police and report that he had a drunk customer on the premises. The police arrived to find a sober Meamber eating a taco.

"They never take me to jail," the ex-Husky linebacker said. "They know I'm not the enemy."

While he's without a conventional place to live, Meamber isn't totally alone as he navigates each day in the Arlington area. Krakoski and Rodgers regularly speak to him by cell phone and keep tabs on his activities.

Meamber also met Paula Kooistra, a Mount Vernon dental patient care coordinator, who was volunteering at a nearby Smokey Point coffee stand. She' took an interest in getting him off the street and is trying to help him find affordable housing and obtain new dentures.

"I'm his best friend," Kooistra said. "He's a great guy. He's got the biggest heart."

Meamber recently had  surgery scheduled at a Seattle hospital to address an ankle replacement that wasn't done correctly and gives him great discomfort. However, the procedure was abruptly canceled because his medical insurance wouldn't cover it. 

Nothing comes easy for the former Huskies linebacker these days. In Arlington, he's an hour and decades from where he once was a college football star. He wants to be a productive member of society again but he's not sure how to make that happen. He's slowly writing a book about his strange journey. 

He's aware that CTE can be an early death sentence. He tries to act tough, which always has been part of his mental makeup. Yet when the conversation ends, he's in tears because somebody cared enough about him to hear his story. 

"There's a lot of stuff going on in my head," Meamber said. "I don't know what the agenda is. My doctors say I might have five or six years left."