For 14 years, Dave Calabrese patrolled semipro football fields with vicious aggression and nasty intent from his middle linebacker position.
Now the 36-year-old can't even hold a glass of pop without his arm shaking so violently that the liquid pours down the sides. The Maumee resident never made money playing minor-league football. He played because he loved to hit people.
"I was hard-nosed and aggressive. I loved competition," Mr. Calabrese said. "I got to hit guys and I didn't get in trouble for it."
But last summer, Mr. Calabrese's speech began to slur inexplicably. His right arm also was growing weak.
Last fall, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. About 30,000 Americans have the aliment called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. They gradually lose control of limbs and speech. ALS makes it difficult to walk, eat, and breathe. There is no cure for it and most victims die within five years.
"I hadn't been to a doctor in 12 years and then all of a sudden, boom! This happens," Mr. Calabrese said.
Dave met his wife, Carey, in 1996. She was a cheerleader at one of his games. Both loved football.
"He was invincible to me," she said. "He was Superman. We've been together 14 years and he's always been the man of the house. For a man like David whose physical strength has always been part of who he is now the roles are reversed."
In 2006, the Maumee couple became owners of a local team called the Northwest Ohio Knights. Mr. Calabrese also is head coach and defensive coordinator.
"This is his baby," his wife said. "He works on this constantly."
On Saturday, the team is holding an ALS fund-raiser prior to kickoff of its first preseason game at Central Catholic High School. A tailgate party will start at
3 p.m. with a 50/50 raffle and silent auction. University of Toledo football coach Tim Beckman will be in attendance along with local pro boxers Devin and Dallas Vargas.
Tickets for the contest against the Michigan Demons are $10. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.
"There will be a barbeque. There's a car show. We'll have mascots and clowns for the kids," Mrs. Calabrese said. "The only money that is raised for researching the disease is done through private fund-raisers like this. We need Toledo and our area to know this."
She said she was already painfully familiar with the disease's insidious nature.
"I watched my grandfather die from it," she said. "It was horrible. It's going to take everything from him except his mind. He will eventually not be able to breathe."
The couple have four children, ages 11 to 18.
"He is going to be a grandfather on May 27," Mrs. Calabrese added.
She said she had never seen her husband cry until the day they had to tell their children.
"That was the worst day of our lives," she said. "We were sitting at the table. These girls need their dad. We are all just trying to get through."
But Mr. Calabrese shoos away any attention or sympathy. He just wants to coach football.
"I just go through it. I don't let it get to me," he said. "I'll eat with my left hand. I don't cry about it, and I don't really talk about it. She reads up on it. She's the backbone. That's the way I deal with it. I put it in the background."
Dewayne Pacheco, a fullback and tight end, is in his third year playing for Mr. Calabrese and was his teammate in 2006.
"He was a good player - a smart, hard-hitting linebacker," Mr. Pacheco said. "He was like Zach Thomas. He's an aggressive coach, too.
"He didn't want anyone to know at first. It's so sad to think about. I had to give up my number because we're wearing his number on our jerseys. We want to dedicate the season to him."
Mr. Calabrese played defensive line and fullback at Maumee High School. He still is ranked third in school history in career tackles.
He also won a Northern Lakes League wrestling title at 160 pounds as a senior. In his last high school match, he knocked out an opponent in the sectional finals and was disqualified. At 5-10 and 168 pounds, Mr. Calabrese drew some interest from colleges, but they only offered partial scholarships.
So he started playing semipro ball. He played 14 years, winning a league championship with the Toledo Seminoles in 2006, before stepping to the sidelines to coach.
"I started at safety and got a little fatter and went down to outside linebacker, and then got a little fatter, and moved to middle linebacker," he joked.
Mr. Calabrese now is on disability and has insurance through his former employer, Ford. But he went from earning $1,200 a month to bringing in $400.
"Physically, my balance is going. I can't even hold a glass of pop. I have no muscle in my arm. It's all gone," he said. "My fingers stick together and I have to pull my fingers apart. It's bad. I have no shoulder strength. I can't even pick up a football any more."
But Dave would rather talk about his Knights joining a new league called the United States Football Alliance. The team, which consists primarily of former local high school standouts, plays its home games at the Lucas County Recreation Center.
The Knights won the Great Lakes Football League championship last season but joined the 34-team league based in the Midwest. The home opener is May 30.
"There are a lot more former college players in this league," Mr. Calabrese said.
Mrs. Calabrese, who is a hairstylist, has poured her efforts into raising awareness about ALS.
"There is no money for this. The government doesn't give money for ALS because there are only 5,000 to 7,000 new cases per year in the United States," Mrs. Calabrese said.
She said her inspiration has been Augie Nieto, the inventor of the Lifecycle, who was diagnosed with sporadic ALS in 2005. She said Mr. Nieto has raised $15 million in three years through his organization called "Augie's Quest."
"The prognosis is one to three years. But Augie said they will find a cure within his lifetime and he told Dave he better believe it, too," Mrs. Calabrese said. "That's how we live."
There is only one pill for ALS and it only gives the patient an additional three months. That pill costs $1,500 a month.
"He doesn't really have pain," Mrs. Calabrese said. "It helps with the dying of the nerves. He doesn't let this get to him at all. It's more annoying than anything."
She pointed out that May is ALS Awareness Month.
"God must have a mission for me and this has to be what it is. That's what keeps me going," she said.
Mr. Calabrese said he takes vitamins by the handful now.
"[Lou Gehrig's disease] was just a name to me before," he said. "Now I just do what I have to do."
At a spirited practice during a cold and windy night last week, Mr. Calabrese joined in the cheering and taunting.
"You don't like contact!" he tried to scream at one player.
"He can't yell, and that's very tough for him," Mrs. Calabrese said. "We can't understand him at home later."
Brad Fields, the team's offensive coordinator, said he can "see it taking over now."
"He can't be as active as he used to," Mr. Fields said. "But he's already talking about next year.
"I don't think our players get the concept of it. But they know this fund-raiser is important. All the funds will go to ALS. It will help raise money for wheelchairs and things like that."
Edwin Clayborne, a huge defensive end, said he loved playing defense with Mr. Calabrese.
"We wreaked havoc together. We have a connection," Mr. Clayborne said. "He's still tough on me. But he's fair."
Mr. Clayborne said he was stunned when he found out his mentor had Lou Gehrig's disease.
"To this day, I haven't really talked to him about it. I don't want to look at him like that. I don't think he wants people to feel bad for him," Mr. Clayborne said.
But he said the players have talked about making another championship run for him.
"It's like an unspoken agreement. There's something different in the guys' eyes this year," he said. "If people come out and support the team throughout the season that will help, too. We're trying to leave a legacy."
Linebacker Brandon Simmons said Mr. Calabrese has an "old school, physical" mentality.
"It shows this can happen to anyone," Mr. Simmons said. "I pray for him every day. Sometimes I try not to think about it. It's so sad. He has four kids at home. Everyone on this team has a sense of urgency that we need to get this done for him."
Mr. Calabrese said he will never go soft.
"I don't put up with anything. I tell them how it is and if they don't like it, they can sit on the sidelines," he said. "Defense is my passion. This keeps me going."
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