Former New York Jets running back Hank Bjorklund’s life changed forever in 2015, when he began experiencing health issues related to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease associated with former football players.
A lifelong athlete, Bjorklund has turned to writing and performing poetry and music as a way to keep his mind sharp and his spirits up.
Bjorklund prided himself on staying fit and healthy throughout his life. Only five months before he began developing health issues, his doctor told him he was in remarkable shape for a man of his age.
“There was a young cardiologist supervising my physical, and at the end of it she told me, ‘You’re average,’” Bjorklund recalled. “I was incredulous. I said, ‘Average?’ and she said, ‘Yes, average for a 20-year old.’”
The former professional football player also played for North Shore High School in his youth. Bjorklund played three seasons with the Jets from 1972 to 1974. After leaving football, he studied law at Hofstra University and spent time with his family.
After putting professional football behind him and working as a corporate lawyer, Bjorklund continued to stay active, hiking and traveling with his wife, Victoria.
In 2015, however, Bjorklund’s body began to fail him. His doctors told him that he was suffering from a degenerative neurological disease, which some identified as possibly being CTE-related due to his years playing football. Now wheelchair-bound, Bjorklund said he struggled with the diagnosis, feeling a sense of helplessness.
Until one day when he woke up and began writing poetry as a way to express himself and his emotions. Bjorklund said he enjoyed writing poetry back in high school, but hadn’t done so in decades.
“I just felt an urgency to write about my life, to try and make sense of the life I’ve had,” he said. “I felt that I could get more in touch with those feelings through writing poetry.”
Bjorklund joined a local group that reads and discusses poetry, made up of residents in the North Shore School District and Glen Cove. The group was run by Nassau County’s former poet laureate, Evelyn Kandel, a Glen Cove resident who immediately took a shine to Bjorklund and his wife.
Kandel said she was struck by how expressive and impressive Bjorklund’s work was, especially considering the fact that he hadn’t written anything like it since he was a teenager. She was moved, she said, when reading and listening to his poetry, as his work tackled themes such as loss and endurance in the face of tragedy.
“Hank had spent his whole life as an athlete and a lawyer, and yet his work was already fully developed,” Kandel said. “He really is an amazing poet.”
Through this group and other poetry groups, Bjorklund got to know fellow poetry-enthusiasts, Diane Menzel and Helen Kotzky, both of Glen Cove. In addition to writing poetry, the two are also musicians who play together at small local venues.
Moved by Bjorklund’s story, the two women began working with him to turn his poems into music. Bjorklund said that his poetic style was inspired in part by the works of Leonard Cohen, so the transition wasn’t difficult.
The two musicians explained that they work with Hank to find different ways to adapt the poetry to song. Menzel typically creates the melodies, while Kotzky develops the harmonies, and they play accompaniment and background to Bjorklund’s singing during live performances.
“Working with Hank is a very interesting dynamic,” Menzel said. “He uses poetry to deal with some of his anxieties and fears and sadness, and then he gives the lyrics to us.”
“It’s inspiring and fun and fulfilling, and I think we’ve seen him grow stronger throughout the process,” Kotzky added. “He’s a lovely person, very humble and grateful that this all came together the way it did.”
Bjorklund, Kotzky and Menzel played two concerts at the Sea Cliff Arts Council’s building on March 4 and 5. The room was packed with guests, and according to Mark Sobel, the Council’s producer at large, Bjorklund’s poetic words moved the audience.
“You hear and see what he’s going through with his affliction, and to see what he’s done to overcome it is just amazing,” Sobel said. “Poetry is a healer, and it helps people dealing with difficult situations overcome them.”