No Golden Years : Former North Star Bill Goldsworthy Learned He Had AIDS, Then Drank Himself to Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There had been so many calls like it before, so many solemn voices informing Tammy Goldsworthy that her father, Bill, was in the hospital or drying out at a rehabilitation center, that she had no reason to think this time was any different.

Bill Goldsworthy had been something of a lost soul since the end of his hockey career, which encompassed 14 seasons in the NHL and two in the World Hockey Assn. He tried scouting and coaching but couldn't stick with anything long because of the booze. It contributed to the end of his marriage too, although he remained close to Tammy and his son, Sean.

"To be honest, we had our [bad] times, but he was there when the going got tough," she said.

On that November day in 1994, Tammy was told her father had blood clots in his legs and an oxygen deficiency. She was sure it was alcohol-related. At worst, she guessed, his liver was failing.

But when she arrived at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., she sensed something was terribly different, terribly wrong.

"It's weird how your intuition picks things up," she said. "When I was down there, six other people had respiratory distress, but no other people required [visitors] to suit up [in sterile gowns and masks]. I started thinking, 'Why do I have to suit up?'

"Then I started looking at his chart, and the nurse wouldn't let me. Part of me knew then."

Bill Goldsworthy, who danced into fans' hearts with his joyful "Goldy Shuffle" after scoring goals and was beloved in Minnesota as a member of the original 1967 North Stars, became the first hockey player known to have AIDS. At 50, his life span was estimated to be five years.

"We were scared. We didn't know what to think," said Tammy, 28. "For myself, coming from a family where growing up I lived in the suburbs and we had money, I thought we'd be protected."

He contracted AIDS because he failed to take precautions during the many heterosexual encounters he had after his divorce, he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He had heard about AIDS, read about it, "seen the programs on TV," he said. He had even discussed the perils with his longtime companion, Linda Loerch. Prompted by Magic Johnson's disclosure that he was HIV-positive, Loerch asked Goldsworthy if he had been tested. He told her his results had been negative.

By then, he may already have been infected and not known it.

Unlike Johnson, who came forward within days of learning he had the virus, it took Goldsworthy three months to speak out. Johnson's frankness, they say, influenced Goldsworthy to overcome his trepidation.

"Magic definitely took a leadership role. It was easier, in [Bill Goldsworthy's] eyes, being a public figure and someone people knew," said Sean, 24, a graduate student in biomechanics at St. Cloud (Minn.) State. "People rallied around him, especially hockey people. . . . Five years ago, there was such a stigma attached to it that maybe people didn't want to take notice. People still are [supportive]. I'm still getting phone calls and letters."

His disclosure was difficult for Loerch to accept. "I did not want [him to go public]. I think it was personal," she said. "We used to clash on that. I wasn't part of his life when he was a public figure. I didn't understand then why he wanted to do it, but I came to understand why he needed to. . . .

"He wanted to make it a non-sexual issue. There's a woman I work with whose husband--also named Bill--died of AIDS, and she told me people always ask how he got it. She figured the reason people ask is because they want to be sure it can't touch them. If they know they're heterosexual and it doesn't affect heterosexuals, per se, or at least in a smaller percentage, they're OK. They feel the same way athletes do, that they're immortal or untouchable."

Nor was the disclosure easy for his former wife, June Ness. They were married only a few months when they packed their belongings in the trunk of their car in 1967 and drove to Minnesota to begin a new life with a new team. "We had some wonderful times. We were crazy in love," she said.

Later, they had awful times, angry times that led them to divorce when Tammy and Sean were youngsters. But they became cordial in later years and often had dinner together.

Until the shocking day she learned of Bill's illness, June had never known anyone with AIDS, never considered its impact. When she found out he wanted to go public, she was afraid for him and afraid people would gossip. They did.

"They still do," she said. "I can be out in public and I'll see people talking and saying, 'She was married to Bill Goldsworthy, you know, the guy who died of AIDS.' Your friends still accept you for who you are. You do really find out who your friends are.

"I think he came forward for himself, because he didn't want to live in a closet. He wanted to make people aware. . . . I didn't personally see [people shun him], but I know when he was out, he felt people were looking at him. I think he had a very difficult time with it. He never came to grips with it."

Said Tammy: "My Dad had a different perspective than Magic did. My dad has a real zest for life, and then it was really hard for him to realize he was dying. Magic has such a positive outlook on life."

For a while, Goldsworthy fought his fate. He worked for the Minnesota AIDS Project, attended a benefit in the Twin Cities with Johnson and took his medication. But around last Christmas, he began to make excuses not to spend time with Ness, Loerch or his children. He was drinking heavily again.

"He went to the doctor in January or February and the doctor told him as far as the AIDS was concerned, he was in great shape. He had gotten through the winter without any infections or setbacks and the doctor said he could live for a year or more," Loerch said. "He was dead within six weeks.

"He drank himself to death. Bill looked very healthy until the last few months, and that was because he started drinking. Bill was in good shape. Alcohol just takes a toll on your body.

"He didn't fight the way I wanted him to fight. Every time I read the paper now about a new drug that might have helped him, I get mad all over again. Our relationship became strained because of it. Very few of us knew him very well. To love him was to hate him too. He was Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde."

Sean won't condemn his father's actions. "No one has walked a mile in his shoes. I do know he was scared to go through the long process and in that sense things did not carry into as long a struggle as it could have."

Goldsworthy died March 29 at age 51 a few weeks after entering the hospital. "There were days I'd see physical changes in an afternoon or hours, more so mentally than physically," Sean said. "He was raised to be mentally tough. . . . I once described it to friends of mine in talking about how it accelerates as a long bout with cancer and Alzheimer's combined, crunched into a matter of a month."

Those closest to him agonize each time they see Johnson on TV, looking robust, playing basketball or simply living his life.

Tammy used to speak to high school students about the dangers of alcohol and now tells the cautionary tale of her father's death, which she believes was caused by the poor choices he made while drinking. Often, she must explain why Johnson is alive and her father isn't, that Johnson is HIV-positive and does not have full-blown AIDS.

"A lot of people think, 'If Magic Johnson is so contagious, how come his wife doesn't have it? Why doesn't his child have it? Why does he look so much better than your dad did?' " she said. "More than anything, I want people to know my father was really a good man. He was a very good father and husband and he was struck with two very serious diseases."

Said Ness: "I'm very respectful of Magic Johnson and the things he's doing for himself and his family. I'm not resentful toward Magic Johnson, I'm resentful toward Bill. He didn't take care of himself. Magic Johnson makes every effort to keep himself healthy. Bill did not. He went the other way. He didn't give us five more years of his life."

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