For nearly four decades, Jim Lambright gave his heart to the University of Washington.
And then he gave everything else.
Lambright — who participated in 386 games with the UW football program as a player, assistant coach, defensive coordinator and head coach, more than any other person — died after a sustained battle with dementia on March 29, at age 77. His family suspects the dementia was caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease found in former athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma.
Because of that, Lambright’s children — Kris and Eric Lambright — decided to donate his brain to the UW Medicine Brain Repository and Integrated Research (BRaIN) laboratory, in the hopes that it can assist medical research and improve treatment of brain injuries in the future.
“The first conversation that I remember (about donating their dad’s brain) is when Kris, (her husband Tim Hevly) and I were standing outside of his most recent place of living (after he died) and just talking about, ‘What do we do?’ ” Eric Lambright said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “We seemed to be very much on the same page that, mentally and spiritually, he’s gone. So let’s do what we can now to help us understand what exactly had been going on, how much damage was there.
“But also, we can do some good. And for me, at least, it was solace to know that there was some good to come out of this. Someone else hopefully will benefit from his passing.”
Kris Lambright estimated on Wednesday that her dad began showing signs of dementia roughly a decade ago. A test in 2014 revealed “mild cognitive impairment,” and by 2018 the effects were akin to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Jim Lambright — who, despite measuring just 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, played defensive end at UW from 1962 to 1964 — undoubtedly sustained numerous concussions throughout his football career.
“When I talked to my dad’s sister, she mentioned that he had been knocked unconscious in high school two or three times,” Eric Lambright said. “These days, if that much had happened, there would have been no way you would have been allowed to play.”
Despite his mental deterioration in recent years, however, Kris Lambright said that “physically he’d been in really quite good condition for his age. So that’s what was so shocking. He passed in his sleep, but it was a big surprise.” And, to make matters worse, the family was not allowed to visit Lambright in the final two weeks before his death as a COVID-19 precaution.
Still, to use Eric Lambright’s words, they’ve found “purpose to his passing.” Initially, the family was unaware that Lambright’s brain could be donated to the UW Medical Center. They contacted the CTE Center at Boston University, but were told that — due to reduced staffing caused by the coronavirus crisis — BU could not accept his brain. Another institution concluded that they had waited too long after Lambright’s passing for his brain to be properly preserved.
Finally, Eric Lambright phoned a friend at the University of Washington.
“Immediately the brain center called me back,” Eric Lambright said. “They said, ‘We would love to have him.’ There were a lot of disclaimers, the main one being that he could not be positive for COVID-19.
“So he actually was tested, and since he did test negative, they were able to accept the brain.”
And, it turns out, his brain was just the beginning.
“We just moved from there,” Eric Lambright said. “It was, ‘Hey, listen. If we’re doing this, let’s see what else we can donate.’ We were able to have all of his organs donated to the UW autopsy center for education in their department.
“The thing that helped even more is that both of those departments have just been profusely appreciative. They’ve just been really great to deal with. So that just made it feel that much better. It gave purpose to his passing.”
But, understandably, it hasn’t completely numbed the pain. And it hasn’t helped that, because of coronavirus concerns, they also haven’t been able to hold traditional services for their father. Eric said that “I still have a couple of his best friends call me very regularly, and these are grown men, and they’re sad. They want to talk about him.
“He was a very, let’s call him ‘polarizing,’ person. But for many of these people, he played a very instrumental role in their lives.”
That includes players, coaches, fans and friends, walk-ons and All-Americans and everything in between. Jim Lambright coached at his alma mater from 1969 to 1998. He served as UW’s defensive coordinator from 1978 to 1992, most notably winning the program’s most recent national title in 1991. He also accumulated a 44-25-1 record in six seasons as the Huskies’ head coach, from 1993 to 1998.
Kris and Eric Lambright — who both attended UW as well — called the outpouring of love and support that followed their father’s passing “phenomenal” and “overwhelming.” Eric said that, even without customary services, “I don’t feel like I missed out on a lot.”
“The thing that I think for me has been most impactful about all of this is that my kids were born after he finished coaching,” he said. “To be able to show them a lot of this stuff that talks about how he was able to make a lasting impression on so many young men — and fans, for that matter, but most deeply it was the players that he spent time with — for my kids to see that and be proud and know that a member of their family was that impactful on society and individuals, that means the world to me.”
Kris Lambright said that, when it’s safe to do so, they’ll hold a celebration of life for their father — a man who, in life and death, gave everything to his alma mater.