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Battle With Disease : Former Coach Leaves Hustle of College Basketball, Bustle of City Life for Quiet River to Recover From Rare Paralysis

May 21, 1987|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

COLOMA — Bob Foerster lifted himself slowly out of a lounge chair and to his feet. He extended an open hand to a visitor and asked for help in standing.

"It takes me some time to get going," he said, taking the visitor's right hand in his while clinging to the back of the chair. "I'm trying to learn to walk without my braces."

Men once sought fortunes in the gold country here. They searched along the twisting banks of the American River, groping for the precious substance that could change their lives.

Five months ago Foerster moved here, half a mile downstream from Sutter's Mill, to pan out his future. The former basketball coach at Cerritos College is battling the effects of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare affliction that temporarily paralyzes its victims. Although most patients recover in a relatively short period, Foerster remains handicapped. His struggle has lasted more than five years.

He was one of the more severe patients we've had," said Dr. Harry L. Gibson of St. Jude Hospital in Fullerton. "The percentage of cases like Mr. Foerster is low, but they are there."

The legs that once carried Foerster on his fiery walks up and down the court, now go numb when he sits. He cannot put on his own socks because he can't reach that far. He has very little muscle tone below the knee. A 200-foot walk from his porch to the river's edge is a two-hour trip with a cane.

At 55, he has forsaken his native Southern California and with it a chunk of his past. He says he moved here to escape the hustle and bustle of his sprawling suburban life style, but his move may have been advanced by a series of personal dilemmas.

A year into his hospitalization, an already shaky marriage collapsed. His return as a physical education instructor at Cerritos College disappointed him when he found it impractical to teach tennis in a wheelchair and be an assistant women's basketball coach in a walker. He took a sabbatical leave, traveled the country and then decided not to return to his job.

"A recluse? Yes, some people have said that about me," he admited. But he said he has accepted his affliction as a blessing.

"Guillain-Barre gave me the opportunity to change my life."

Still Has Cagey Mind

Dressed in nylon sweats, polo shirt and tennis shoes, he still looks like a coach. But with the bushy salt-and-pepper beard, he could be a mountain man. He exudes the cagey intelligence of the old Foerster when he speaks, but his mannerisms suggest that he is adjusting to a new way of life.

Nevertheless, he is more than cordial with old acquaintances. He entertains selected people from Southern California, often inviting them to spend days in his home. He writes "about 10 letters a day," and a favorite trip in his faded green 1970 Ford pickup is down to the one-room post office on the town's main street to meet the 3 p.m. mail.

"I miss coaching. I miss my friends, but I enjoy what I have now more," he said, running an index finger over his beard. His other contacts with the outside world are a telephone and a TV satellite dish, on which he receives sporting events from around the country.

"We don't miss Southern California," said Sandy Verner, Foerster's girlfriend, a pretty woman in her 40s with shoulder-length brownish-gray hair and bright green eyes.

Known as Stern Taskmaster

As a coach, Foerster was respected, first on the prep level at Bellflower High School and later in the two-year ranks at Cerritos. In 13 years with the Falcons, he posted a 224-131 won-lost record. He also was known as a stern taskmaster, a philosophy, he said, he adopted in high school as a tennis and basketball player.

"I didn't know how to do things in coaching without putting in a lot of time." he said. "We would work every damn day. I didn't know any other way to get success out of people other than that."

At the time of his illness, in the spring of 1982, he was assembling a basketball team that would later win the state title as he lay paralyzed in a hospital bed. The lost opportunity sometimes haunts him, he said.

Twice before he had taken the Falcons to the championship game of the California community college basketball tournament only to be defeated. He intended to overcome that with the team he was building in 1982.

"It was obviously destined for that team to win the state title," he said. "Not being able to coach, it is a hard thing to come to grips with, but maybe that was for the best. My mind has been on (my) recovery, but I still think about that team quite a bit."

Jack Bogdanovich, a longtime Cerritos assistant, was appointed head coach soon after Foerster became ill. Cerritos has since won five South Coast Conference titles, in addition to the state title. The Falcons have been routinely ranked among the top five community colleges in the state the past five seasons.

Once close friends, Foerster and Bogdanovich do not speak to each other anymore. Foerster refuses to discuss the estranged relationship, except to say that "a definite rift exists."

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