David Alan Calabrese, the coach and owner of local semipro football team the Northwest Ohio Knights and who taught others to play the “Caly Way,” even as he fought Lou Gehrig’s disease, died Saturday at Toledo Hospital. He was 40.
Family members said Mr. Calabrese died of complications amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly associated with the baseball Hall of Famer who died of the disease.
Born in Toledo in 1972 and a graduate of Maumee High School, Mr. Calabrese began a love of football in his freshman year, his mother, Dawn Szymkowiak, said. That love continued after high school, through a minor-league career, then his ownership of the Knights.
It stayed until the end, even after ALS limited his physical functions, family and friends said. His mind remained sharp and focused on football and family. He was even at the team’s preseason game a week ago.
“Play hard and fast and get the offense the ball back,” is how friend and Knights’ defensive coordinator Cory Hicks described the Caly Way to play football.
Mr. Calabrese was an athlete from a young age but only started to play football in high school. He immediately latched on to the game, his mother said, because he liked the action. Most other sports were too slow for him.
“It was just the fast-paced, hard-hitting, get-out-there-and-get ’em-type thing,"”said Ms. Szymkowiak said, as only a football mother could.
He played defensive line and fullback during an accomplished tenure at Maumee, racking up tackle totals that still rank among the top in school history. He relished the physical aspect of the game.
“I was hard-nosed and aggressive. I loved competition,” Mr. Calabrese told the Blade in 2009. “I got to hit guys, and I didn’t get in trouble for it.”
Undersized, he didn’t receive a college athletic scholarship but wanted to continue playing football. So he began a 14-year semipro career, much of it at linebacker, that included a league championship with the Toledo Seminoles in 2006. He never made money but played for the love of the game.
He finally gave up playing, but he wouldn’t give up football. He took over the Knights in 2006, serving as co-owner with his then-wife, and as head coach and coordinator of the defense and special teams. The team, mostly filled with local high school standouts, gives players a chance to continue with their love of the game after their high school and college careers.
Mr. Hicks played with Mr. Calabrese in the semipro league, and he said the pair butted heads as teammates. But as coaches, he said they learned they had similar views on football and developed a bond.
In 2008, Mr. Calabrese began having trouble speaking and feeling other ALS symptoms, and he was diagnosed with the disease. But he stayed with the team, even as he progressively lost functions, family and friends said. Even though he gave up many of the daily responsibilities of the team, he still served as head coach until the end.
Wheelchairs and loss of speech didn’t stop his love of the game.
“Everything was ran through him,” Mr. Hicks said. “There was no stepping around Dave to do something.”
In 2009, the family created the Dave Calabrese Football Blitz, an ALS fund-raiser. This year’s benefit is scheduled for Saturday at Springfield High School. Rachel Ahrens, Mr. Calabrese’s fiancee, said many other local semipro teams have canceled their games and plan to attend the benefit. Many have asked for stickers to put on their helmets to honor him.
Ever the competitor, Mr. Calabrese was an avid poker player and even became addicted to the online game Candy Crush Saga, Ms. Ahrens said, adding that he made it to level 121 on the game, “farther than I think anyone else in Toledo,” she said with a laugh.
Mr. Calabrese and Ms. Ahrens met at age 11, and both went to Maumee High School. The pair reconnected after Mr. Calabrese separated from his first wife and soon developed a relationship. Though Mr. Calabrese was already diagnosed with ALS, Ms. Ahrens said she saw him as he was when he was young.
“I didn’t look at him like he was sick,” she said.
The two were building a family together. Both had children from previous marriages, but Ms. Ahrens said her fiance treated her children just as if they were his own.
“He was an awesome father,” she said. “He loved his kids, all of them.”
On Ms. Ahrens’ May 5 birthday, Mr. Calabrese took her to dinner and gave her a card. Inside, it asked if she would marry him. “I started to cry, and I kissed him,” she said, “and he looked at me and said, ‘Is that a yes?’ ”
Ms. Ahrens co-owned the Knights, and she promised her fiance to keep the team going. She admits she knows more about the business side of the game, so she’ll leave coaching to Mr. Hicks, who said he’ll handle the job “until Dave comes back.”
“In my opinion, he’s still the head coach,” Mr. Hicks said. He added that he plans to run the Knights the only way he knows how: the Caly Way.
Mr. Calabrese is survived by his fiance, Rachel Ahrens; parents, Dawn M. Szymkowiak and David Albert Calabrese; children, Alexis “Lexii,” Shawn, Hali, Lexi, Mikayla, and Sammy; brother, Mark Kachenmeister, and sister, Tammy Calabrese Groves.
Visitation is to be between 2 and 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Maison-Dardenne-Walker Funeral Home, 501 Conant St., Maumee. Services are to begin at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the funeral home. The family suggests tributes be made to a memorial fund in Mr. Calabrese’s name at Sun Federal Credit Union in Maumee.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.