The Zac Brown Band‘s John Driskell Hopkins is speaking out about his recent diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS. The 51-year-old reveals he first noticed he was struggling while the group was on The Owl Tour in 2019, and he couldn’t play the bass — one of many instruments he plays — as well as he could in the past.
“It wasn’t that I couldn’t play anymore, it was that I couldn’t play as fast,” Hopkins recalls to People. “My guitar hand was failing me.”
It wasn’t just his playing that he noticed was becoming more challenging, but he also realized speaking articulately was becoming difficult, as was moving around on stage.
“I’m not Justin Timberlake, but I’m a rock and roll guy and can dance pretty well,” Hopkins says. “Jumping started to bother me.”
It took two years, and a battery of tests, before an electromyography (EMG) confirmed the devastating diagnosis.
“In my life, I’ve been scared, I’ve been angry, I’ve been stressed,” Hopkins says. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt anxiety until that day.”
There is no known cure for the degenerative disease, which impacts not only Hopkins but his wife, Jennifer, and three young daughters as well.
“It was devastating,” Jennifer admits of hearing the news. “In that first month, I spent a lot of time in my closet and the shower crying because I didn’t want our daughters to see me that way.”
For now, Hopkins plans on continuing to perform with the Zac Brown Band, who has continued to support him since he was first diagnosed.
“I’m singing as well as I’ve ever sung, and I was never a good player,” Hopkins says with a laugh. “The band will back me up on that. When I told them about my diagnosis on a Zoom call, Zac said, ‘Are you making all this up because you’re a s—ty banjo player?'”
While the average life span of someone diagnosed with ALS is three to four years, some people have lived ten to 15 years with the diagnosis. For now, Hopkins is determined to just live each day to the fullest.
“No one knows what the condition will be like going forward, so we can’t sit around and cry about it,” he acknowledges.
Hopkins was joined by Zac Brown and the rest of the band when he shared the unfortunate news, also sharing that he started the foundation Hop On a Cure to raise money for research into finding a cure for ALS.
“One of the beautiful things about my condition, if God-willing it remains the way it is for a couple of years, is I have the energy and the presence to make a big impact,” Hopkins says. “I’m ready to go. I can still play, I can still sing, I can still make records — and I want to do all that. I’m trying to record everything I can in the event that one day I might not be able to.”
More information on Hop On a Cure can be found here.