What would you do if someone told you that you only had three years to live? Charlie Wedemeyer got the shocking diagnosed of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) when he was in his early 30s. Better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the disease was a death sentence.
He had been healthy all his life. A shocking specimen of human achievement.
The quarterback superstar of the Punahou School football team star in high school, he was named Hawaii Prep Athlete of the 1960s. After playing football at Michigan State University, he married his high school sweetheart, Lucy. Together they had two beautiful children. A son and a daughter.
Their lives were perfect. No sign of disease.
Until Charlie’s hands started getting weaker and weaker.
He could barely hold the chalk he used to share game plans on a blackboard. He finally went to the doctor to see what was causing his increasing pain.
Can you imagine how he felt when the medical team told him the horrifying news?
He might live a year. He might live three. But he was dead already.
As the news crashed down around him, all Charlie Wedemeyer could think about were all the things he had never done. And all the things he wouldn’t be able to do. He thought about not seeing his children grow up. About not being able to walk his daughter down the aisle.
About not being able to see his son play the game they loved so much. About not being able to hold the love of his life, Lucy.
He left the doctor’s office — and sat in his car and cried. Long, painful tears. He was devastated. Not only would he not get to do and see all those things, but his family would have to watch him die.
That was something he wasn’t willing to allow to happen.
He going to fight. He was determined to win. In an instant, Charlie decided he was going to beat this. Death was not going to be the outcome.
“I can beat this! I can’t quit. Please don’t let me quit…..Promise!” He asked his wife, Lucy.
And she didn’t. Even as his symptoms got worse.
First, he couldn’t do a task as simple as opening a jar. Then, he couldn’t put his pants on by himself. He hated accepting help from his children.
It was embarrassing that his eight-year-old son had to help dress him. This was not the way it was supposed to be. He had been an all star football player.
He was strong and fit. Or at least he used to be.
He should be able to stand up in the morning. His wife should not be keeping her ears at attention at all times for the “thud” his body made as he hit the floor….. again. And again. And again.
He went home to Hawaii to see his family and a local shaman. He was willing to try anything that would help him beat this terrible disease.
But his health continued to deteriorate. The long, slow death curse was becoming a reality.
Los Gatos High School, the school he coached at, didn’t want to renew his contract. After all, how could he coach if he could barely live? But Charlie wouldn’t quit.
“Who is going to teach those boys about life? About not giving up? You are going to have to fire me, because I will not quit.”
Charlie continued to do what he loved — coaching football.
Through slurred speech, he called plays. In a wheelchair, he sat on the Los Gatos sidelines, Lucy next to him, coaching his team.
Even though he hated having his children and Lucy do everything for him, he smiled and joked and never let on that he’d rather be able to do it for himself.
It was a fight every day. Every month. Every year. One year. Then two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
It was year seven when death came close. And everything changed. Charlie was rushed to the hospital. The sickness had paralyzed his lungs, leaving him unable to breathe. He had to be put on a ventilator and lost his ability to speak. He could no longer call plays.
Lucy remembered Charlie’s words, “Please don’t let me quit.”
And she didn’t. The disease crippled his body to the point where he could only move his eyes, lift his eyebrows, and move his lips. But together Lucy and Charlie fought for the coaching job he loved.
She read his lips as he called plays. Shouting the routes to the quarterback. Positioning the defense. Coaching. Leading. Guiding.
The team didn’t win the championship that year. But it wasn’t over.
Charlie and Lucy were back on the Los Gatos field the next year. Not only did they coach a young team, but they coached that team to the victory Charlie had always wanted.
They won the state championship.
That was the last year Charlie coached. He stepped down to focus on the fight for his life.
For thirty two years, Charlie battled a disease that was predicted to kill him within three. He refused to give up. Refused to settle. He continued to smile, joke, and keep his positive outlook on life. He continued to show up at all the Los Gatos football games every season with a smile on his face.
“Pain and suffering are inevitable— we all experience it. But misery is optional.”
Charlie would not allow misery to control him. He kept his sense of humor with winks and facial movements.
He made it his mission to make everyone feel better about themselves.
It was 2010 when Charlie Wedemeyer lost his battle with ALS. He was 64 years old.
He had defied all the odds, living three times longer than the longest life expectancy for the disease. At his funeral, the HP Pavilion was filled with hundreds of his former players and friends. People loved sharing stories of their time with Charlie.
Despite losing his speech, his ability to walk, and all ability to be independent, he continued to encourage people to do more. If he could fight this battle, there wasn’t a battle any one else couldn’t fight as well.
That’s the secret to success — fighting.
Choosing progress over pity.
You aren’t owed a good life just because you are a good person. You aren’t guaranteed a successful future just because you try hard.
The truth about life is that sometimes bad things happen to the best people. Sometimes good intentions yield poor results.
Success is not about the resources you have but how resourceful you can become.
You might not find yourself fighting for your life right now, like Charlie. But you might find yourself fighting to make money, to get in shape, to better your health, to get that raise or promotion.
Living is your choice. Winning is your choice. Fighting is your choice.
Some people will tell you you’re wasting your time.
And it might feel like it most days. Just know that you get to decide the story of your life.
You decide how you’re going to respond to the circumstances life brings you. You are the captain of your destiny.
Your past does not decide your future. You do.