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Bob Waters Is Fighting a Battle for His Life : HE DIDN'T WANT TO BE A HERO

August 24, 1986|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

CULLOWHEE, N.C. — Bob Waters stands quietly near the middle of the Western Carolina University football field that bears his name and lets the gentle afternoon mist fall against his face. His right arm is in a sling now, and his left arm hangs at his side, unable to do much of anything. Earlier, his wife helped dress him. At lunch, his assistant coaches helped feed him. Someone will drive him home when practice ends.

Whoever said it was Lou Gehrig's Disease was wrong. It is Bob Waters' now.

Just last season, he stood here and reluctantly took part in the dedication ceremony for him at halftime of Western's game against Virginia Military Institute. Back then, before his condition worsened, Waters still could shake a man's hand or hold the plaque presented to him. And he could coach. Still can.

Down by 10 points entering the third quarter, Western bungled things even more and began the fourth period behind, 30-14.

"The dedication didn't have the effect it was supposed to have had," Waters says, smiling.

Then Western scored a touchdown. And another. And another one after that, ending up with a 35-30 victory.

"It was like a whole other football team," Waters says.

So sentimentality had triumphed. Good guys aren't extinct. Winning one for the Gipper isn't such a myth, after all.

But then what? Waters wasn't getting any better. The curse of his illness--amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)--is in its unpredictability. It adheres to few rules, has no sure cause, eludes possible cures. About the only sure thing is that ALS almost always renders the body's muscles useless by attacking the motor nerve cells of the nervous system.

With this in mind, said some at Western, might it not be better for all concerned if Waters resigned from his duties as the school's athletic director and head football coach?

Waters considered the suggestions and decided that, while he could no longer raise his hands above his waist or climb a steep set of stairs without laboring, he was a coach, and not a bad one at that. Let someone else become athletic director. He would remain head coach. He had lost weight, but never hope. And anyway he was alive, which, he says, is a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

"I don't think I've ever been more excited about getting a season started," Waters says. "Whatever the reason, I'm not quite sure. Probably, it gets my mind off the illness. But the people, the family, the coaching staff, my wife, make it possible. It's not easy to deal with. In fact, I feel bad sometimes putting people in situations where they have to work for two, dress for two."

No one seems to mind.

"It's tough, but dad's probably taking it better than any of us," says Jeff Waters, a reserve quarterback at Western. "I saw his old high school coach two weeks ago, and he said that if anybody could beat this, it was dad."

Says senior running back Milton Beck: "Last year, I thought it was going to be his last season. He surprised us and he's still going strong. He's just in his prime anyway. I hope he can coach for 20 more years."

Waters, 48, makes his way around the field in deliberate, measured strides. He watches each drill with interest, occasionally approaching a player or assistant coach with a suggestion. He seldom raises his voice, needs no shrill whistle to command attention. When a group of wide receivers continues to cut pass routes short, Waters reminds them that the play is designed for an 11-yard completion, not 9. That takes care of that.

Earlier in fall practice, the assistant coaches took time to answer players' questions about Waters. What was ALS? What was it doing to him? Would he, could he, be their coach at the end of the season?

He would coach as long as he was physically able, they were told. "As long as I can contribute and think that I can be effective," Waters would say.

And here he is, doing what he knows best; doing what he needs the most.

There is no timetable to this. ALS, first described in 1850, is a fickle disease, each case seemingly different than the next. As best as researchers can determine, 50% of all afflicted ALS patients will die in about three years. About 20% survive beyond five years and 10% of ALS patients can live beyond 10 years. Specialists at the University of Vermont diagnosed Waters' condition about a year and a half ago, though Waters says he first felt the effects of ALS more than four years ago.

What makes ALS particularly cruel, in a sense, is that a patient's intellect remains unaffected.

"You sort of have a ringside seat as your body melts away," says Dr. Stanley Appel, chairman of the department of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where Waters takes part in an experimental treatment program.

Researchers also know that there usually is no physical pain from the disease itself. A patient retains his ability to taste, hear, smell, see and touch, and there is no impairment of the bowel and bladder functions. Sexual functions remain possible.

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