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Dave Calabrese always loved the smashing of football pads and more often than not he’d be the ferocious linebacker dishing out the vicious licks.
Now the 38-year-old is relegated to the sidelines with a devastating illness. Yet football remains a focal point and motivation to keep fighting for the Maumee coach in his battle against Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Calabrese was diagnosed with the illness, also know as ALS, in the fall of 2008. The Maumee resident had always thrived off the competitive atmosphere of football practices and games. He has owned and coached a local semipro football team called the Northwest Ohio Knights since 2006.
“It’s keeping me alive,” Calabrese said. “I’m still out in the middle of it.”
Calabrese excelled in wrestling and football at Maumee High School and went on play minor league football for 14 years after a stellar prep career.
But in 2008, Calabrese noticed his speech began slurring for no reason and his right arm was constantly numb.
The diagnoses blindsided the Calabrese family. They discovered that there is no cure for the disease that makes it increasingly difficult to talk, walk, eat, and breathe.
“When David got it, I looked into it more and it was just devastating,” said Dave’s mother Dawn Szymkowiak.
The family established a charity football game in 2009 to raise funds to find a cure for ALS. It has grown each year.
On Saturday, the third annual Dave Calabrese Football Blitz will be held at the University of Toledo’s Glass Bowl.
Szymkowiak is spearheading the fund-raising event.
“It’s important because we’re trying to raise awareness about what this disease is,” Szymkowiak said. “There hasn’t been a lot of research and there is no cure as of now. It involves deteriorating muscles.
“We hope down the road they will find a cure or something to reverse it.”
The event at the Glass Bowl will feature three football games. All six semipro teams that are participating compete in the Great Lakes Football League. The first football game will take place at noon, the second at 3:30 and the third at 7.
The teams competing are the Northwest Ohio Knights, Noble County (Indiana) Wolfpack, Midwest (Cleveland) Rams, the Capital City (Lansing) Stealth, Detroit Diesels, and Southern Michigan Timberwolves.
The cost of a ticket for all three games is $10.
“We have a lot of things happening out at the Glass Bowl,” Calabrese said.
This year’s event starts at noon with a car show and live music. There also will be kids’ activities, including a moon walk. A silent auction of sports memorabilia, gift baskets, and gift cards also will take place. There will be 50/50 raffles at the games.
“Football is what it is all about,” Szymkowiak said. “We hope people will come for the car show or the first game and then decide to stay. They pay $10, and they can stay all day.”
Don Czerniak, who is the president of AFSCME Local 7, has aided Calabrese since first getting involved three years ago.
Czerniak said he has been active in fund-raising and helped plan the charity game last spring at Central Catholic High School.
“I’ve become very good friends with the family,” Czerniak said. “Dave doesn’t want any sympathy. I look at the fight and battle he’s putting up and I commend the man dearly. It is a great motivator to see him out there coaching the team.”
Calabrese is owner, head coach, and defensive coordinator of the Knights, a team that consists of players from northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
For 14 years, Calabrese was known as a fierce hitting middle linebacker in the GLFL. But now Calabrese cannot use his arms and is getting more difficult to understand.
“He’s still getting around somewhat, but I can see the progression. Fortunately it has been slow,” Szymkowiak said. “He can’t move his arms. But he can still walk. His balance is not as good. He can fall easily.
“But he is not giving up. The kid is hanging in there.”
Eventually Calabrese will be forced to use a wheelchair.
“His mind is very alert,” Szymkowiak said. “He still loves being coach, and he loves this game. He is a fighter.”
Szymkowiak said she didn’t know anything about ALS other than its connection with baseball great Lou Gehrig until her son was affected by it.
“He loved football so much,” Szymkowiak said. “He got this disease, but he did not want to walk away from football. It is his thing. He is a defensive coach and still wants to do it. We’re working hard to keep it going for him.”
This is the third year that an ALS fund-raiser is being held in Calabrese’s name.
Last year, the charity football game was held at Central Catholic.
“We started out with just one game,” Szymkowiak said. “Now we have UT and it’s growing. We hope this year is the best year.”
Szymkowiak estimated that it will cost about $4,000 to put on the event. Officials at UT gave her a discount on the renting of the Glass Bowl. She said she hopes to raise $10,000 and give at least $6,000 to ALS.
“We’re hoping we get a big crowd,” Szymkowiak said.
Czerniak said he has been working diligently on making the event a success with a limited budget.
“To me it’s a well worth charity,” Czerniak said. “It has given me a new look at this disease and what it can do to someone. Hopefully, one day we will find a cure.
“We understand people are being hit hard [with the economy], but anything we can get will help,” he said.
For more info go to nwoknights.org or call 419-297-0128. Donations can be sent to Sun Federal Credit Union of Maumee.
Szymkowiak said half of the money goes to research and half will go for the care of ALS patients.
“David hasn’t had to use it yet,” Szymkowiak said. “I hope he won’t have to, but you never know.”
She said Calabrese’s insurance is good and it is taking care of most of the expenses for his care.
But she said eventually the family will need to purchase a van with a wheelchair lift which cost between $40,000 and $50,000.
Szymkowiak said sometime this summer she hopes to hold a benefit to raise funds specifically for her son.
“He was always very tough,” Szymkowiak said. “I’d call him up and he’d help with things around the house. Now he can’t even drive. But he has a good attitude and he still cracks his jokes and he is still ornery as ever.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6354.