Jim Mueller writes his plan for Butler High boys’ soccer practices – what he wants to say, detailed descriptions of the drills to run – into a large notebook, which he references throughout practice.
On the sidelines during games, Mueller takes notes in a pocket-sized notebook about everything from how the referees are calling the game to what formation to run.
Mueller, whose Butler team has gone from the bottom of the Southwestern 4A to a No. 15 ranking in the state 4A poll, may be the most organized soccer coach in the area.
That’s because Mueller, 43, has to be. He has young-onset Alzheimer’s.
Diagnosed at 36, he is one of 5.4 million Americans with the disease. Only 4 percent are under age 65.
Mueller knew something was wrong eight years ago when he started forgetting things, like where he parked his car. Once, he got lost on his way home.
He attributed his forgetfulness to stress, but it worsened.
“What got me nervous was I couldn’t remember that I set a date with you to meet,” he said. “I was missing my kids’ practices, and it was not like I did it on purpose.
“I was just forgetting.”
In 2005, an inner-ear infection sent him to the hospital. Scans there showed he had suffered mild strokes.
He continued to struggle with dizziness and saw several doctors over the next year.
Then a neurologist took a PET scan of his brain and compared it to that of a 65-year-old with Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.
It was nearly identical.
“It was a shock, you know, because you don’t think someone younger could get that,” he said. “You think of gray hair and your grandparents when you think of Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, it’s not that way.”
Mueller had to quit his job as a sheet-metal worker on downtown Chicago high-rises. He went from making $90,000 that year to losing his house, his cars and the family’s savings.
“We lost everything,” Mueller said. “I can actually say I’m a man who lost everything but his faith.”
That faith brought Mueller, his wife, Michelle, 56, and their three daughters, Jamie, 19, Erin, 17, and Katie, 14, to Pineville in June.
The family gets by on disability and Social Security, and Michelle is studying theology at MorningStar University in Fort Mill, hoping to teach or do short-term ministry work.
Also in their apartment: A dog, a parrot and a sign over the door that reads: “Life is fragile, handle with prayer.”
Mueller’s disease isn’t evident, except for when he sometimes loses track of what he’s saying. But he says he can’t remember his birthday or what he ate for breakfast, or if he even ate breakfast.
He reads daily and plays brain games to try to stay sharp. He has to rest before soccer practices or games to be fully alert.
When he gets tired or it gets late, he drifts off into what Michelle jokingly calls “Jimboland.”
“Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease,” Michelle said. “It robs you of your dignity.”
In need of a chance
Mueller was upfront about his Alzheimer’s when he interviewed with Butler athletics director Courtney Paschal and principal Will Leach, via a video chat from Illinois.
He had started coaching after his diagnosis, first with his daughters’ softball team, then high school varsity basketball, volleyball and soccer.
He was looking for a chance in Charlotte, and found one in Butler’s soccer opening.
Paschal asked specific questions about the future of the soccer program, and she liked Mueller’s answers. After calling his references, she offered him the job without a face-to-face meeting.
“Everybody I spoke to just talked about the quality human being he was and his love for the kids and the effort he put into coaching and making sure the right thing was done on and off the field,” Paschal said.
Mueller doesn’t teach at the school and his only pay is the standard stipend for soccer coaches in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – $2,877.60 for this season for a non-faculty coach. Mueller treats the position like his full-time job.
Butler, which plays at home against Myers Park on Wednesday, finished next-to-last in the Southwestern 4A last year. This year, the Bulldogs are 10-3-1 (5-2 in the conference) and in third place.
They beat Ardrey Kell for the first time and have been ranked as high as No. 3 in the state.
Mueller preaches effort and encourages from the sideline. He wants his team to have the confidence that they can beat anyone.
The word “Believe” is printed on the back of the team’s T-shirts.
“We’ve always had the mindset of Butler soccer, we’re awful,” said senior Christian Braswell. “Coach came in and pretty much made us switch our thinking about that.”
Last week he addressed his disease with his team. Before a practice, he showed a video of a Chicago television news story done soon after he was diagnosed.
After the video, the players said they don’t notice the disease, other than the few times he forgot names.
“If I didn’t know coach had Alzheimer’s, I wouldn’t be able to tell,” said senior Alex Givens. “I’ve never seen it like it was in the video.”
Alzheimer’s runs in Mueller’s family. His grandmother had it. So did his mother, though she was never diagnosed.
Mueller remembers his mother, at about age 40, having a wall full of Post-it Notes to remind her of simple tasks.
He has the notes, too. Notes reminding him of meetings, or to brush his teeth and floss, even digital sticky notes on his computer to remind him of tasks.
Medication controls his symptoms, but he’s at the highest dose and knows that eventually the medication will stop working.
Mueller and his wife both said they can tell he’s getting worse.
“Eventually I’m going to lose. It’s a fact,” Mueller said. “I’m still winning. I’m fighting. I’m winning the battle right now.”
Butler, and soccer, are part of the victory.
“I’m supposed to be at Butler,” Mueller said. “It seems like it was meant to be, you know. Everything’s happening for a reason this year.
“If I wasn’t given these opportunities to do what I’m doing now, coaching, I’d probably be in a home somewhere.
“This is what keeps me going, and I believe that.”
Inscoe: 704-358-5923; Twitter: @CoreyInscoe