Commentary

Pete Frates: A profile in ALS courage

The former Boston College center fielder is staring down Lou Gehrig's disease

Originally Published: July 4, 2014
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 4 and was updated on Aug. 14.

The parallels are extraordinary, and so are the men.

Both were fantastic all-around athletes who happened to choose baseball. Both became captains of their elite teams. Both stood in the left-handers' batter's box at Fenway Park and hit big home runs. Both were admired for their spirit by teammates and opponents alike.

Then both were diagnosed with ALS at a young age.

We know about Lou Gehrig, about his feats with the New York Yankees and the speech he gave 75 years ago. If you want to know more about Pete Frates, the 29-year-old former Boston College center fielder now suffering from a disease named after Gehrig, you can find it here.

It's the website for the Pete Frates #3 Fund. It is dedicated to Frates and details some of the different ways you can contribute to help defray his medical costs and fund research into ALS.

One of those ways is through the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the viral sensation in which people challenge one another to dump a bucket of ice water on their heads to acknowledge ALS or donate $100 to an ALS organization. Many end up doing both.

Patrick Quinn, an ALS sufferer from Yonkers, New York, got the ball rolling, Frates' support group, Team Frate Train, gave it a further push, and now everyone from Ethel Kennedy to Justin Timberlake to Roger Goodell is doing the challenge. Between July 29 and Aug. 13, the ALS Association received $5.7 million in donations, compared to $1.2 million for the same time period last year.

While the Ice Bucket Challenge has added an element of fun to the cause, it shouldn't distract from the brutal nature of ALS itself. The website also links Frates and Gehrig in their determination not to succumb to this cruel and mysterious disease. In a moving video that intersperses his past glories with his daily struggles, Frates says, "The story goes right now that you have it for a little while, or a long while, but either way the end is always the same: ALS always wins. So in order to rewrite the end of it, we need to raise awareness, money, funds to get better treatment and ultimately a cure."

Frates was diagnosed with ALS in March 2012 after months of motor difficulty. Since that time, he has thrown out the first ball at Fenway, worked as the director of baseball operations for BC and done his best to educate people about ALS. He also married his girlfriend, Julie Kowalik, last June, and they are expecting a baby in September.

One of the ironies of ALS is that, as physical skills deteriorate, the brain remains unaffected. "My mind is sharper than ever," Frates says. "I notice every little thing."

His younger brother, Andrew, decided to quit his job to take daily care of Pete. Indeed, the devotion to Pete from family and friends provides a heart-warming balance to his heart-wrenching challenges.

In an email to ESPN.com, Pete Frates writes, "Lou's words inspire me to strive to be a better man every day. His words were not about him but about thanking others for the wonderful opportunities he had in life. He praises others while deflecting attention away from his affliction. It has been 75 years since that famous speech, and yet ALS patients still are in the same predicament as Gehrig; no treatment, no cure. In my eyes, this is completely unacceptable. Imagine if the rest of the world moved as slow as the treatment for ALS: Internet would not exist, cars would all be vintage, we would still be living in a segregated society, and the Great Depression would be a very recent memory, not a history lesson.

"Yet Gehrig's words are extremely relevant, because in the world of ALS, it might as well be 1939.

[+] EnlargeEric Campbell with Mets in Pete Frates t-shirts
petefrates.comThat's the Mets' Eric Campbell (Pete Frates' former BC teammate) on the left with his current Mets teammates Jake deGrom, Anthony Recker and Wilmer Flores, wearing their Pete Frates shirts.

"Lou Gehrig is the face of ALS and one of the five best Major Leaguers ever. This year, MLB is shedding some light on our disease, but more must be done. MLB has such a vast reach that if they took a true leadership role, then a cure could be much closer than it is now."

Frates typed that with his eyelids.

There is a section on the website called "Traveling Tees," in which his supporters post photos of themselves spreading the word around the world. Eric Campbell, the rookie corner infielder for the New York Mets, got his teammates Jacob deGrom, Anthony Recker and Wilmer Flores to pose with him in red T-shirts with the ALS ribbon on the front and "FRATES #3" on the back.

Campbell played with Frates at BC. "He was the guy who helped convince me to go to Boston College," Campbell says. "He was a really good ballplayer and a really nice guy, and I still look to him for inspiration.

"It's funny, but when I was in third grade in Connecticut, I did a report on Lou Gehrig. It was around the time of Cal Ripken passing Gehrig for the consecutive games record -- my friend did his report on Ripken -- so I kind of knew about ALS. But it wasn't until recently that I came to realize how courageous Gehrig was. And that's because I see the same quality in Pete."

The luckiest men on the face of the earth? No.

The luck belongs to the people who know them.

And now, thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge, the luck is spreading.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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