LOS GATOS, Calif. — His body is limp and covered with a blanket. His mouth moves, but there is no sound. His wife sits next to the bed, reading his lips.
“It began . . . when I was playing basketball . . . and I kept dropping the ball. . . . Then in the classroom . . . I would drop the . . . what was that, honey? Oh. . . . I would drop the chalk. . . . “
The words come slowly through her voice, just as the disease came slowly to Charlie Wedemeyer, robbing him of the marvelous athletic body he once possessed. A football star (1966-68) at Michigan State, a quarterback, a flanker, a guy voted best prep athlete of the decade in Hawaii, a lean, handsome man who resembled an island version of Joe Namath. Cheerleader wife. Two great kids. At age 31? This couldn’t happen to him.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Lou Gehrig’s disease.
It is perhaps the cruelest way to die — slowly, moment by moment. No cure. And yet, somewhere in the months that followed, when he could no longer lift his arms to shave, and his students had to walk him, and soon his head needed constant support, lest it fall into his chest — somewhere in the middle of this horror, Charlie Wedemeyer decided to live.
And to live happily.
Which meant doing his job: coaching football at Los Gatos High School. At first he limped. Then he rode in a golf cart, which Lucy, his wife, drove. When speech deserted him, Lucy read his lips, passing on the plays to the offensive co- ordinator.
They lived. They got by.
“One time he called a play ‘Max!’ for maximum,” Lucy says. “And I said
‘Max? Who’s Max? We don’t have a Max!’ “
She laughs. In the bed, Charlie makes a clicking sound.
“Yeah . . . ” he adds, through her voice. “I fired her after that. . . . “
How can we ever complain about anything? How can we moan about traffic or a lousy boss? Charlie Wedemeyer, 42, whom MSU legend Duffy Daugherty once called “my best blocker,” can hear and think as well as you and I, yet he cannot move a muscle, cannot speak, cannot even breathe without a ventilator. The doctors gave him one year to live.
That was 11 years ago.
And in that time, his one life has touched another — and another, and another. Do you remember that Christmas movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” in which Jimmy Stewart gets to see the world had he never lived in it? What would this town be like, without this brave, now-withered man? Wedemeyer did not ask for notoriety. He kept his disease secret for several years before a newspaper story came out.
And yet all the kids he coached! All those he touched! How hard it must be for a proud man to be shaved, to be washed, to be lifted by others. Not once did he ask for sympathy. Not once from that golf cart, unable to turn his head to follow a pass or a touchdown run, did he ever ask his players to “win one for me.”
They won anyhow. Won their division. Won their playoffs. And in 1985, on a cool December evening, Los Gatos went to the California Central Coast Championships, with their coach in his golf cart on the sidelines. Smaller than their opponents, they hung in anyway, and in the final seconds, they blocked a field goal for a 14-12 upset victory. The stadium began to tremble. Then to roar. A chant of “CHAR-LIE! . . . CHAR-LIE! . . . CHAR-LIE! . . . “
It would be his last game, although no one knew it. The players mobbed his golf cart; they dropped to their knees. He whispered the words to his wife:
“You guys . . . played like champions. . . . You will remember this . . . for the rest of your lives. . . .
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has made a TV movie about the Wedemeyers (which airs tonight on Channel 2 at 9 p.m.), a project that has brought mixed feelings. For while the message comes across, a film can never capture the subtle courage: how friends donated money for the $60,000-a-year medical costs; how Charlie’s son, Kale, would help clean the tubes in his throat; how Lucy, an attractive blond woman who might have selfishly felt she deserved better, would sleep alongside Charlie’s bed, her hand on his foot, so if he wiggled it, she could wake and attend to him.
One life touches another and another. And eventually, fate went from something that led them, to something that followed.
This is truly what is meant by “human potential.”
Eventually, the disease worsened. Charlie lost his job. His assistant coaches had grown weary of the burden. Eight years? The problem was — to put it bluntly — he had lasted longer than anyone figured.
So in 1986, the principal delivered the bad news. Told him to retire, said it was for the best. True to form, an angry Charlie mouthed his response from the wheelchair.
“He says,” Lucy told his boss, “you’re . . . a . . . bleep.”
And they pressed on. Today his son plays college football, his daughter is in school, and Charlie and Lucy cope as best they can in their warm, ranch-style home. There is no morbid talk. No over-sentimentality. When he needs to be lifted, he is lifted. When he needs to be washed, Lucy holds him up in the shower. They talk. They laugh.
“I used to be . . . so afraid of death,” he says. “I would stay awake . .
. for three or four nights . . . because I was afraid to . . . choke in my sleep. . . . But now I know . . . I have a purpose . . . to inspire people to
. . . see their difficulties as a challenge . . . rather than a barrier. . .
He lifts an eyebrow at his nurse. She pulls back the blanket, disconnects the tubing, attaches an air bag to his throat, and, with the help of Lucy and a friend, lifts his limp flesh into a wheelchair.
“Where are you going?” he is asked.
“Christmas . . . shopping,” he says.
About a year ago, the Wedemeyers received a letter. It came from a man in Canada, who had lost his business, fought with his wife, and, in a fit of desperation, flown to Seattle and checked into a hotel. He planned to kill himself. In the room of his intended death, he absentmindedly flipped on the television. And there, in low-volume color, he saw a documentary on Charlie. Saw him lifted from his bed, limp as a rag, somehow still smiling.
The man went back home. He is alive today.
One life touches another — and another and another.
This column is being written on Christmas Day, and I keep stalling because I can’t find a happy ending. Barring a miracle, Charlie Wedemeyer will die, far too soon, and where is the sense, where is the justice?
I have no answer. Except that maybe the ending isn’t always what counts in a story. Maybe, sometimes, it’s just the courage you show along the way. CUTLINE: Charlie Wedemeyer and family leave the premiere showing of tonight’s TV movie on the former Los Gatos, Calif., football coach. Michael Nouri stars as Charlie Wedemeyer, the former MSU star who developed Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 31. Charlie Wedemeyer and his wife, Lucy, make the best of each day of their lives together.