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He shows silent strength in guiding Los Gatos football team

FOOTBALL

Charlie Wedemeyer, diagnosed 31 years ago with ALS and told he had a year to live while coach, today guides players from sidelines in non-verbal language to his wife.

October 30, 2009|Sam Farmer

The football game is over and the players' ritual begins.

Before heading to the showers, the victorious Los Gatos High team members head toward an end zone and take a knee before Charlie Wedemeyer, the most famous coach in the school's history.

The players form a semicircle around the side of Wedemeyer's van, which is parked in its usual spot just behind the goal post. They wait to hear his observations and words of encouragement, even though he is no longer the varsity coach but an unofficial consultant for the freshman-sophomore team.

Not one of them has ever heard his voice.

Wedemeyer cannot speak, nor can he move. He is confined to a wheelchair and communicates to his wife, Lucy, through a language of blinks, eyebrow raises and cheek twitches. She then relays the message to the team.

"Coach is very impressed," she announces to the group. "Coach is saying, 'Great job tonight,' and, 'I. . . like. . . seeing. . . those high numbers. . . on the scoreboard.' "

Thirty-one years ago, Wedemeyer was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and told he had about a year to live. The incurable illness, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, attacks the nervous system and destroys the ability of people to control their muscles.

Wedemeyer, 63, is unable to move from the neck down and needs a respirator to breathe, the air flowing through a ribbed tube protruding from his throat. He cannot swallow, so a round-the-clock nurse suctions the saliva from his mouth every few minutes. He is fed through a tube in his abdomen.

Among his former players is Buffalo Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, who played for him on the frosh/soph team in the Northern California town and still keeps in close contact.

Last Sunday, Edwards launched a program called "Trent's Touchdowns for ALS" to raise money for the ALS Assn. through private and corporate donations tied to touchdowns. Edwards is expected to sit out his second straight game this week, recovering from a concussion.

Edwards, who later starred at Stanford, said Wedemeyer was not only his first football coach but also his most inspirational.

"There are times when practice gets hard, hot double days, struggles that you face both on and off the football field," Edwards said. "But you haven't experienced anything close to what he's gone through with his life.

"If he's out there every day and he's willing to give his best and be willing to help you as a player, you feel like you can't give anything but your best. It was nice for me at a young age to learn that and have that instilled by a football coach."

A three-sport star named Hawaii's prep athlete of the decade for the 1960s, Wedemeyer went on to play football at Michigan State.

As a coach, his specialty was working with quarterbacks and implementing a passing system that, when he first put it in place in 1977, was ahead of its time in the run-it-up-the-middle world of high school football.

By the time Edwards was at Los Gatos in the late 1990s, Wedemeyer's role was preparing young players for the varsity. And even though he couldn't speak, he maintained his exacting attention to detail.

That was the case with Alex Rollins, the Wildcats quarterback who followed Edwards. Because he was more of a baseball player, Rollins had a tendency to release the ball at a lower point. To correct that, Wedemeyer routinely had Rollins face his wheelchair ramp and throw pass after pass over his van.

Then, there was punter Jeff Collins. He would practice kicks with Wedemeyer wordlessly watching until the kid got it just right. And then the coach would have him punt over and over that same way.

"If you got a wink," Collins said, "you knew you were doing something right."

Wedemeyer was Los Gatos' varsity coach from 1977 -- the year before he was diagnosed with ALS -- through 1985, after which the school relieved him of his duties because of his declining health. That was a painful time for all involved, including the good friend who replaced him, Butch Cattolico, still head coach at the school.

"It got to a point where we really had to be careful with him out there on the field because he didn't have the ability to move and he could get knocked over," Cattolico said. "You wanted to be in there, but yet you had to kind of stand by him and protect him. That was really hard because he was still young. We were all young. At that point, we weren't smart enough to know that we could die someday."

Cattolico, who went on to win 16 league titles and become one of the area's most successful coaches, believes that if not for the disease, Wedemeyer easily could have wound up coaching in college or maybe the NFL. He was that good, that dedicated.

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