How a coach with ALS inspired Trent Edwards

Posted: October 22, 2012

Trent Edwards

Quarterback

Los Gatos High School

Los Gatos, Calif.

EVERY PRO athlete has had someone who has pointed the way for them. There is always that special person who recognized their ability at an early age and helped shape it, not just with careful instruction but with words of encouragement. By their very presence, they are a reminder of what is possible in life, even in the face of steep odds. In the case of Trent Edwards, the Eagles’ third-string quarterback now in his fifth NFL season, that person was Charlie Wedemeyer, his position coach for the freshman football team at Los Gatos (Calif.) High School.

While Wedemeyer was once the subject of an Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary, "One More Season," and a made-for-TV movie, "Quiet Victory: The Charlie Wedemeyer Story," chances are you are unacquainted with him. But Wedemeyer was an extraordinary man, someone who was loved by many and who indelibly touched the lives of countless young men through the years. Until he passed away in June 2010 at age 64, Wedemeyer waged a courageous, 34-year battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a disease that left him unable to walk, talk or swallow. And yet he continued to coach football until the very end with the help of his wife Lucy, who drove him up and down the sidelines in a golf cart and interpreted his instructions to his players by reading his lips.

"I think I fell in love with football by playing for him," says Edwards, 28, who played for Wedemeyer in 1999. "He came out to practice each day in his wheelchair and you never heard him complain. He sucked it up. Life does not always hand you a perfect set of circumstances, but you have to battle through it. He understood that you had to do that to play this sport."

Until he began breaking down physically at age 30, Wedemeyer had had a superior athletic body. Of German-Hawaiian ancestry, he grew up in Honolulu, the youngest of nine children (his brother Herman had been a fine athlete who later played the character Duke on "Hawaii Five-O"). Charlie had been a star quarterback at Punahou Academy, where Lucy had been a cheerleader. They became sweethearts. Upon his graduation in 1965, he accepted a football scholarship to Michigan State, where coach Duffy Daugherty switched him to running back. Lucy joined him there a year later, and they were married. "They called him 'The Hawaiian Eye,' because his eyesight was so keen that he could see plays develop before anyone else," says Lucy. "And he had amazing quickness."

Unable to pursue a career in pro ball because of injuries, Wedemeyer became a math teacher at Los Gatos High School, where in 1976 he also became head football coach. But that same year he was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Lucy remembers it "began in his right hand, moved to his arm, then his left arm and then slowly into his legs." He could not button his shirt. Doctors gave him "possibly 3 years to live," according to Lucy. And yet he persevered, even when in 1980 he became bound to a wheelchair. He continued to coach the football team, even as his voice became nasal and lethargic. He coached a playoff game from his hospital bed in 1984 via a telephone hookup. When an emergency tracheotomy in 1985 left him without the ability to swallow or speak, Lucy learned to read lips and passed along instructions from her husband to his players. That year Los Gatos won the Central Coast Section football championship, which became the inspiration for the documentary and movie.

Coaching young men had given Wedemeyer a purpose that helped sustain him through his ordeal. So when he could no longer handle the work load of the varsity, he stepped down and later became quarterback coach for the freshman team. But he became more than just a coach to the players who would come and go each year. He became a part of their lives. He attended weddings and baptisms. And he was always inviting his players and former players over to dinner. Although he himself could not eat - he was fed a liquid diet through a tube - he took particular joy in helping Lucy prepare recipes that he had seen on the cooking shows he had become fond of. Lucy says, "I would get the ingredients and he would tell me how to prepare them. Having people around lifted his spirits, which also seemed to fall when football season ended."

Edwards had not planned to play football in high school. Although he was a fine athlete, his mother, Fran, encouraged him to play less potentially dangerous sports such as basketball and baseball. So he had not even signed up when the head freshman coach asked him to give it a try. Although Edwards had been aware of Wedemeyer - he had been a ball boy for the freshman squad while in elementary school - it was not until he played for him that he realized what extraordinary skill Wedemeyer possessed when it came to passing along the finer points of playing quarterback. Edwards says that even from the other side of the field, the old "Hawaiian Eye" could spot any flaw in his game. And Edwards remembers he even gave him a writing assignment.

"I remember he asked me what my read was on a particular passing play," says Edwards, who would go on to play for Stanford and for Buffalo and Jacksonville in the NFL before joining the Eagles this year. "When I could not come up with the answer, he told me to go home and write the following 10 times on a piece of paper: 'My read on Throw Right 111, Base Right, is the outside linebacker.' From that point on, I never forgot my read on that play. Even today, if there is a play I am struggling with, if I am unsure of what the reads are, I will sit down and write it on a piece of paper."

Lucy says her husband was very fond of Edwards. "I remember when Charlie first watched Trent play, he told me: 'This young man is going to be a good one.' He told me Trent was very teachable, very coachable. Trent wanted to learn. He loved the complexity of the game."

Fran Edwards remembers that Wedemeyer always teased her. "I would say, 'Oh, football is just so scary,' " says Fran, who was a middle-school physical-education teacher. "But Charlie would look at me with that amazing smile he had and move his lips, as if to say: 'Relax.' And then he would blink his eyes."

Edwards says the relationship between Wedemeyer and his wife was inspiring. "Absolutely," he says. "You would see the way they loved each other and think, 'Man, I wish when I grow up I can find a wife like that, someone who is going to stay by my side no matter what happens.' They impressed me. They were as solid as any happily married couple I have ever been around."

Lucy says her husband could not have been more proud of what Edwards has accomplished. But he was proud of every one of his players - and always thankful for the place they allowed him to occupy in their lives. They kept him going, gave him the strength to beat the odds for years and years. And it was not until he contracted pneumonia in the wake of a surgery in 2010 that he stopped. Edwards told the gathering at his memorial service that Wedemeyer had inspired "the passion I have for football, a passion I still have today. I learned lessons about work ethic, commitment and sacrifice."

Edwards says he will always carry coach Wedemeyer in his heart. "You would always think, 'If he can do it, I can do it,' " says Edwards. "But he was always able to look for the positive in something, and leave you with a smile on your face, even in the face of a tough loss. You would get the feeling from him that there is a little bit more in life than football."

Contact Mark Kram at kramm@phillynews.com.

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