For a friend
WINTERSVILLE – Going by the averages, Matt June only had a 10-percent chance of making it to Indian Creek High School on Friday.
The torrential rain didn’t even have anything to do with it.
June, a 1990 Wintersville High School graduate who now lives in Palm Harbor, Fla, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in September of 2009. Doctors give patients who suffer from ALS, 1 in 50,000 United States citizens, a 10-percent chance to live five years after the initial identification.
“It’s a huge deal,” said his wife, Jackie. “Finding ways to give him the will to live is what it’s all about.
“This event is one of those ways.”
Matt and Jackie, along with some of their children and a family friend, were in Wintersville for Matt’s induction into the Playing Hardball Against ALS Foundation Hall of Fame.
Celebrated at Indian Creek, the consolidated school of Wintersville and Mingo high schools, members of the community, former teammates and current Redskins players were on hand to honor an old neighbor, friend, coach and all-around humanitarian.
FORGING A FRIENDSHIP
In the late 1980’s a talented, yet snot-nosed freshman named Mike Cottis stepped on to the baseball field at the old Wintersville High School.
Trying to fit in on a team of mostly upperclassmen was a challenge, but Cottis, the shortstop, had his best friend right beside him.
June, then a junior, was Cottis’ double play partner at second base and a loyal companion in the Warriors’ dugout.
“More often than not, he picked me up,” Cottis said. “He took me under his wing.”
For the past two years, Cottis has been working with Jackie to find a way to honor Matt and spread the word about ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
At last year’s Ohio state coaches clinic in Columbus, Cottis met Jeff Swick, who is the founder of the PHAALS Foundation.
Since 2012, Swick a former high school baseball coach, himself, has been traveling the region to help serve patients and families stricken with ALS.
His foundation provides services to the ALS community, helps promote ALS awareness and honors ALS patients through its Hall of Fame and benefit baseball games.
June became the eighth member of the PHAALS Hall of Fame on Friday. He was honored with a plaque and Cottis was presented with a sign for the Indian Creek baseball team to hang at the John Muth Recreational Complex.
“Matt has been a tremendous friend all these years, from the time we were little until now,” Cottis said. “That’s the reason why I decided to do this. It’s not about me, it’s not about Indian Creek. It’s about Matt. It’s about raising awareness for ALS.”
A ‘MEANT TO BE’ CHANGE OF PLANS
Hundreds of people were expected to come to Friday’s scheduled baseball game against Edison. Instead, they flocked to the Indian Creek gymnasium due to the downpour of the afternoon.
“Maybe it was the baseball gods way of saying this special ceremony belonged indoors,” Cottis said. “Maybe it was meant to be. So many people still showed up and that just speaks volumes to Matt’s character and shows how much he’s loved.
“He came up here to watch baseball, though, and I wished we could have played.”
The June family made the nearly 17-hour trip from western Florida to eastern Ohio overnight on Wednesday. After a party at a local hotel with close friends, they will return to Florida on Sunday – just in time for Matt’s birthday.
He will turn 42.
“That just makes it even more special,” Jackie said. “Even with the rain, everything worked out so well. He recently had trachea surgery and he was planning his surgery around getting the time to be here.
“The fact that he’s seeing all these friends and reaching his birthday again is a big deal.”
Jackie and Matt met a few months after his diagnosis. They were married on New Years Eve, the final night of 2011.
She’s a native of Dorset, England who had been living in the Tampa, Fla. area for a few years. Matt moved to Florida shortly after his ALS diagnosis to be near his friends, Ron Duncan and Gene Evans.
Coincidentally enough, there is a nearby clinic on the University of South Florida campus, a few short miles from their home, that specializes in the treatment of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
AGONY OF THE AILMENT
Every 90 minutes, someone is diagnosed with ALS.
Every 90 minutes, someone will die of ALS.
There are no known causes or any known cures for the deadly disease.
“That’s what makes it so hard,” Swick said. “All we can do is raise money and support for those inflicted and the families involved.”
Swick’s foundation presents college scholarships to immediate family members of a person suffering from ALS. His organization also sponsors a Diamond Dreams program. Similar to the “Make A Wish Foundation,” Diamond Dreams assist PHAALS Hall of Fame members live out their baseball fantasies – whether it’s the chance to meet a major league player or travel to a spring training game.
In 2013, the PHAALS Hall of Fame Research Grant was established to grant money to ALS research hospitals for continued treatment methods for the disease.
“I’d love to add a survivors section to the Hall of Fame board,” said Swick, a coach at Fort Jennings High School for 15 years. “That’ll be the day my job is finished.”
In 2011, a Swick childhood neighbor and a family friend passed away from ALS.
“Those were the days that changed my life,” he said.
He stepped away from the coaching ranks to build the PHAALS organization from the ground up. But giving back has always been in his blood.
For as long as he was leading teenagers on the field, he molded them into even better people off it.
Community service was just as important at batting practice, sliding drills or fielding grounders.
“It wasn’t necessarily about how we did in between the lines,” Swick said. It was about what the team does out in the community. Combining baseball and helping others is a wonderful, natural relationship.”
Quickly, about 100 high schools got on board with Swick’s mission when he founded the organization in 2012. Currently, over 300 high schools and small colleges throughout Ohio, Michigan and Indiana are involved.
Speaking to over 1,000 coaches at the 2013 clinic in Columbus, where he met Cottis, helped attract even more schools.
Over 40 benefit games are held each year.
JUNE’S PASTIME PASSION
Baseball has flowed through Matt June’s blood since he was young enough to pick up a ball.
He played his entire life, including stints in rec league softball as he crept through his 30s.
He was a multiple All-District selection at Wintersville and led the Warriors to an undefeated regular season in 1990.
After high school, he served in the U.S. Army for four years. Upon his return home, June began a career with the United States Postal Service, working until his diagnosis in 2009.
He coached in the Wintersville Baseball Association for 13 years and served as treasure for four.
June served on the board of directors for the Mingo Chiefs football team and coached elementary school basketball.
“He coached at least half of the kids who are on the (Indian Creek) team now,” Cottis said. “They were so fired up about today. They wanted to come out and play hard for him.”
Matt’s son, Dillon, is 17 and was once a classmate of some Indian Creek players.
Matt and Jackie presented each member of the Redskins with a trophy to commemorate the day and postponed benefit baseball game.
They also presented a special sign for Cottis, with the old Wintersville Warriors logo embedded.
It reads: “Mike, thank you for all you’ve done to raise awareness for ALS. For a whiny little freshman, you turned out to be okay. Your forever friend and double play partner, Matt.”
CONTINUING TO GIVE BACK
Matt’s leadership qualities haven’t strayed, despite his weakened condition.
Though, vocally, he has trouble communicating, he has served on advisory boards for ALS and is the Director of Fundraising for “Embracing Life Through Love,” which is a Florida-based organization designed to lift the spirits of ALS sufferers through therapeutic massage and body work.
Megan Durgan, founder of Embracing Life Through Love came with the Junes from Florida.
She was presented a check for $800 from Patti Retton, widow of Joe Retton – the longtime Wintersville baseball coach.
Mike Mavromatis and Bill Halog, leaders of the Steubenville Umpires Association, were supposed to officiate the Edison-Indian Creek game on Friday. They were still on hand to be recognized for their support of the PHAALS Foundation and the Cottis-organized event.
“The outpouring of love is just overwhelming,” Jackie June said. “Coming up here has been a blessing. You try to live each day out like it’s your last, in Matt’s case. Today has just been so special for all of us.”
A LIFETIME OF ADVENTURE WITHIN 5 YEARS
Though he’s gradually become paralyzed, Matt has experienced a bucket list of adventures including skydiving.
Last summer, he completed a 6,300-mile road trip throughout the country, fulfilling a lifelong goal of seeing Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon, in-person.
He’s now confined to a wheelchair and must wear a nasal mask for his respiratory issues.
“Everyday is a struggle to make sure nothing is getting clogged or anything like that,” Jackie said.
She recently quit her job as a preschool teacher to care for Matt around the clock.
“I’m the permanent care-giver,” Jackie said. “It’s the best job I could possibly have right now.”
Matt’s verbal communication has cut down considerably, though he still had the energy to crack a joke on Friday.
As the Indian Creek baseball team, and Matt, lined up for a group photo, he said, “Everybody blink at the same time,” as lines of family and friends gathered to take a picture.
“We’ve had to talk through text message most of the time and he’ll always bust my chops about why we didn’t win a game,” Cottis said. “Those have become less and less, so most of my communication is with Jackie.
“He can still check Facebook. We’ll leave smart comments on each other’s photos. We take 14-hour away jabs at each other, it’s all good-hearted fun like we used to have together.”
GOING THROUGH GEHRIG’S GRACES
It’s hard to tell what the future will hold for Matt June.
Those closest to him will say that he’s certainly lived a life of love, though it’s a generation taken far too soon.
Half of all ALS patients will pass away within three years of diagnosis.
June has already beaten the odds.
Professional golfer Jim Julian died at age 42 in 2004, succumbing to the disease less than three years after the initial discovery.
Yankees pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter passed away when he was 53, after finding out he had ALS when he was 51.
Most recently, former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason revealed he had ALS. Gleason, a seven year NFL player, is only 37 years old.
Even the disease’s nick-namesake, Lou Gehrig, couldn’t fight all the way through the symptoms.
The Yankee’s “Iron Horse” was 36 in the middle of the 1939 season when the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. first tested him for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
On July 4 of that year, Gehrig proclaimed to a soldout Yankee Stadium that he was the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” as part of his retirement speech.
Indian Creek catcher, senior Adam Freshwater, recreated the famed articulation in front of June and the Wintersville community.
“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky,” the speech goes.
“…when you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed that’s the finest I know.
“…I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”
June can full-heartedly agree.