By Christopher DawsonWhen McIntosh High School lacrosse player Caitlin Obrien would feel exhausted and defeated during one of her home games in Peachtree City, Georgia, a quick look over to coach Mickey Beard would change her perspective, and her determination.
"He makes you want to do better and push yourself harder and give it your all because if he could, he would be doing that. And he is doing it, because he comes out here in his condition."
Beard uses a wheelchair, the result of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, which is also referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. It is a neurodegenerative disease in which the brain progressively loses the ability to control muscle movement. The life expectancy of someone with ALS is on average two to five years, with their condition worsening over that time to a possible full paralysis.
Beard can still hold his head up, breathe and give his girls the advice and sarcasm they expect. His mind is still as sharp and as witty as ever. But it has been difficult for players like Shelby Durden to see his physical decline.
"I was 10 years old when he started coaching me and it's just hard to see someone you care for have to go through such a struggle every day of his life."
But the girls on his team did not shy away from the heartbreak of what their coach was going through. They embraced it with him, making it part of their lives. They researched ALS and when they learned that there was no cure, they became committed to helping raise money for the ALS Association. Their school and community were soon barraged by bake sales, silent auctions, fundraisers and ALS awareness events. The girls formed their own "Walk to Defeat ALS" team, and to help Beard with his medical expenses, they started an annual 5K run called "Miles for Mickey."
Coach Beard's team
They also pushed to make a difference in Beard's home life, bringing meals to his house, hosting "Lacrosse Dinners" and showing up for visits during the off-season.
On the field, Lacrosse began to take on a different meaning. Seasons were dedicated to Beard, and the team's rallying cry was for him. They would each wear a red sock on their left leg in his honor. Beard would give them a sarcastic remark, but Shelby knew him well enough to see he appreciated their help.
"I think he is definitely the first one to tell you that he doesn't want all the attention, he just wants us to think of it as his challenge that he has to overcome. But I think it really helped us become a year-round team, because in the off-season we are raising money for ALS and we've just become so close that we've now become a family."
Some girls on the team, like Amanda Lindsey, realized that choosing to get closer to someone succumbing to ALS is worth it, even at their young age.
"Mickey's the first person that I've ever had to watch slip away from me, and it's been hard on me, but I also know that his experience has transformed me into who I am. So even when his physical presence isn't with us anymore, it's always going to be a part of me. That I can carry him with me so other people can see what he was like by seeing what he did to me."
Beard did not have a choice about ALS. It was a burden thrown his way, which he took on without complaint, but with plenty of sarcasm. His team says you would know something was bothering Beard if he would not joke about it, so he made sure his ALS was a regular punch line for all to hear.
But you wouldn't hear Beard complain that life wasn't fair. He didn't even get to choose lacrosse, the sport that he says drives him crazy.
"I don't hate girls' lacrosse. It's just the rules are so frustrating. I got into it because my daughter was playing, and they said they just needed an adult to stand on the sideline and shuffle kids in and out of the game. I told them I didn't know anything about lacrosse, and they took that for a yes."
When Beard found out he had ALS, he stopped working and thought he was finished coaching. But parents would call, saying their daughters would only stick with the sport if he would still coach them.
So he continued as best as he could. As his muscles became weaker, he moved from using a cane to sitting in a golf cart on the field. This cart became a popular destination for the girls to hang out and talk about their boy problems. Beard says he was a trapped confidant.
"So I kind of became the team mom, and with a bunch of teenage girls, when you can't go anywhere and you're surrounded, it's a little frustrating, because you hear stuff you don't want to hear."
So there he was, coaching a game he didn't really like, having to listen to all this high school girl drama, and knowing that these were hours of a shortening life that he was not sharing with his family.
Then these lacrosse girls pushed even closer. They made a big deal about his ALS, and they would even show up at his house during the off-season, and watch his TV.
You might expect some frustration. But for Beard, this became his salvation.
Through all this, he did have one choice: whether he was going to share his journey of ALS. No one would fault him for keeping the pain and embarrassment of his condition to just his family. People would understand the desire to face your own mortality in private. But Beard chose to share his journey. He let the girls get close and help carry the load.
He doesn't fully understand why he means so much to these girls, but being needed helps him get up each day. Changing his attitude is one of the few things Beard can still do. He references a quote from Jeremy Williams, another Georgia high school coach suffering from ALS.
"He said everybody has difficulties, and it's like the wind. You can't control the wind but you can adjust your sails, and I actually told the girls that, and this being able to come out here with them, it's like that's what I do to adjust my sails, because they give me something to get up and look forward to."
A year ago, the McIntosh Girls Lacrosse team got to the state championship finals, and lost. At the end of this season, they were back in the championship match, ready to finally win it for Beard.
They lost again. Both times the team was feeling dejected, until Beard broke the silence. Amanda remembers it clearly:
"He was the first one after the game to come up to us and be, like, it's not the end of the world, that's not what it was about. It's about the journey that we've been on together and the experiences that we've shared together."
He also sarcastically added that because they lost, he now has to come out for yet another season. With that, the team knew they had really won.
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