Cook: A death in Ilkin's family

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You've heard of Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen, right?

I give you Tunch and Sharon Ilkin this morning.

The star quarterback doesn't always get the gorgeous woman.

"I never once took our marriage for granted because I knew how special she was and how special we had it," Tunch Ilkin was saying this week at his Upper St. Clair home, still trying to figure out, all these years later, how he -- "a big, dumb, ugly offensive lineman" -- ended up with the pretty cheerleader.

"I'm so thankful for her. Sharon was the best. She loved deeply and she was so easy to love. She was just an amazing person to share life with. She loved Jesus. She loved people. She loved life."

It was that way for Sharon Ilkin until her final day. She died Feb. 6 after a long, brutal battle with cancer. She was 55.

"I used to think I was tough. I played football for the Steelers," Ilkin said. "But she was so much tougher than I ever was. I called her my beautiful warrior. She was in such terrible pain, but I never once heard her say she wanted to die. Every time we thought it was going to be the end, she would rally. The doctors and nurses would tell her what a fighter she was. She would just look up at them and say, 'I've got a lot to fight for. My children. My husband ... "

The Ilkins were married for almost 30 years.

Sharon Senefeld really was a pretty cheerleader at Indiana State. If you google the Nov. 28, 1977, cover of Sports Illustrated, you'll see her with Indiana State basketball star Larry Bird before Bird became an iconic sports figure.

"She was kind of like the campus darling even if she never understood all the fuss or just how beautiful she was," Ilkin said.

Ilkin was a big lineman at Indiana State, but that's where the stereotype stops. No one would describe him as dumb or ugly. Now lucky? That fits.

"The first time I saw her, I knew I had to meet her," Ilkin said of Sharon. "It took me two years to work up the courage to ask her out. I kept chickening out. Once we did go out that first time, I fell in love. I remember thinking, 'How can I fool her into marrying me? How am I going to pull this off?' "

That was during Christmas break, 1977. Tunch and Sharon were married April 24, 1982. They had three children -- Tanner, 26, Natalie, 23, and Clay, 21 next month.

Sharon Ilkin loved plants and gardening. She loved antiques. But most of all, she loved being a stay-at-home mom. "Our door was always open and kids were here all the time," Ilkin said. "Sharon liked to call herself a short-order cook, she made so many meals. ... She made a beautiful house for us. It was our haven. I always loved coming home."

Ilkin played 14 seasons in the NFL -- all but one with the Steelers -- and made two Pro Bowls. He is so knowledgeable and well-spoken that the Steelers were glad to add him to their radio broadcast team in 1998.

The Ilkins became heavily involved in their non-denominational Christian church, Bible Chapel in McMurray. They made the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side their family charity, frequently serving meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They just wanted to give something back. Life had been so good to them, they didn't dare ask for anything more. They just wanted to grow old together.

Sharon Ilkin was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004. She had a lumpectomy and did the radiation and chemotherapy treatments. "The doctors said she should do well," Ilkin said.

But the cancer came back within six months. Sharon Ilkin had a mastectomy and really struggled with the treatments this time. Another tumor on her chest wall was found, leading to more surgery and more treatments. "Now," Ilkin said, "you could really see the concern in the doctors' faces. They were alarmed the cancer came back so quickly and so aggressively."

Sharon Ilkin found temporary relief and hope in Health Quarters Ministries in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Dr. David Frahm uses natural medicine to treat patients. "She went on a diet that was probably 80 percent raw fruits and vegetables," Ilkin said. "She would do a juices-only fast one week a month. The next four years or so were great for her. She was healthy and had so much energy."

But Sharon Ilkin developed a persistent cough in December 2010. She went to Dallas for the Steelers-Green Bay Packers game in Super Bowl XLV in February 2011 but felt lousy. Subsequent tests showed her cancer had returned and spread to her lungs and liver. For a brief time, the Ilkins believed another round of radiation and chemotherapy had worked. But by fall, the cancer was back.

"She didn't feel like she could do the treatments anymore. Her body was too compromised," Ilkin said. "We ended up taking her to Dr. Filaberto Munoz's clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. He was doing some promising things with cancer that weren't approved in this country."

Natalie Ilkin, who had just graduated in May from Virginia Tech with a degree in communications, accompanied her mother to Mexico. They stayed in San Diego, crossed the border for the treatments and then returned to San Diego.

But Sharon Ilkin didn't do well. She developed headaches and horrible back pain. The cancer had spread to her brain and spine. She had a brain hemorrhage that doctors controlled with medication.

Ilkin made two trips to San Diego and missed the Steelers' exhibition game against Carolina and their regular-season games against Seattle and Indianapolis. He went the second time in October to bring Sharon home after her father, Tom, died after a long illness. He said she somehow was able to cope with the flight to Pittsburgh but couldn't make it to Connersville, Ind. -- the Senefeld's hometown -- for her dad's funeral. "That absolutely crushed her," Ilkin said. "She was so sad. She wept and wept."

Sharon Ilkin's health worsened. There was a urinary infection, a couple of blood infections, pneumonia. "She was in and out of hospitals," Ilkin said.

The family was able to celebrate Sharon Ilkin's birthday Dec. 14 with a dinner at Eleven in the Strip District. Ilkin talked of a night out in early January to see the movie "War Horse" with good friends Tim and Cheryl Colussy. "Things almost felt normal that night," Ilkin said. He and Sharon had their last outing a few weeks later, doing the drive-through at Wendy's, having an in-car picnic at Canonsburg Lake and stopping by Route 19 Antiques in Canonsburg, one of Sharon's favorite shops.

"I wanted so bad to keep her," Ilkin said. "I know I was selfish because she was in such terrible pain."

Sharon Ilkin was hospitalized for the final time Jan. 27. A week later, doctors told the family she wouldn't rally this time. "That started what became a three-day prayer vigil," Ilkin said.

At one point, Ilkin -- a self-described "lousy singer" -- broke out in a "really lame version of Amazing Grace." His kids had to laugh, begged him to stop and quickly turned on their mother's iPad and filled the room with her favorite contemporary Christian music. "Those three days were a really special time for our family," Ilkin said. "We were all there when she took her last breath. We knew she was in a more joyful place than she ever was on her best day on Earth. We also knew we would be with her one day again."

The ride home from the hospital after Sharon Ilkin died still was difficult. "I mentioned to the kids that I didn't know how I was going to sleep in our bed without their mother," Ilkin said. That night, Tanner Ilkin climbed into bed with his father and spent the next four nights there. "I can't tell you what that meant to me," Ilkin said. "All my kids were so great to their mother and me. They just adored their mother."

The crowds at Beinhauer Funeral Home in McMurray for Sharon Ilkin's visitation were massive. "A tribute to her," Ilkin said. Sure, it was. But it also was a tribute to him.

The funeral was Saturday morning. Soon after, family and friends left, the way they always have to do, leaving the Ilkin home eerily quiet. On this afternoon, Ilkin was alone with the family dog, Ali, a gentle vizsla. He, too, had lost his best friend.

Ilkin went back to work Monday at Bible Chapel where he's the director of men's ministries. "I had to stop focusing on me and needed to start focusing on others," he said.

That takes care of the days, but the nights are "awful." Anyone who has lost a spouse knows that.

"I'm not OK, but -- you know what? -- I'm OK with that," Ilkin said. "I miss her terribly, but I know how lucky I was to have her in my life for 35 years."

Anyone who knows the Ilkins will tell you the same thing about Tunch. But they'll also tell you Sharon was pretty lucky, too.

Ron Cook: . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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