It’s been almost 80 years since Lou Gehrig’s shattering speech in 1939 about the “bad break I got” while calling himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
If you’re like Tom Watson, it still might make you cry every time you see it.
If you’re like George Brett, chances are you’ll choke up when you come across what he considers the most recognizable speech ever made by a sports figure.
But the reason it moves them so deeply extends beyond the piercing grace of Gehrig in the throes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which came to be known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
It’s because this fiendish disease became personal.
And it remains inspiringly so years and years after they suffered losses that forever will bind two figures that would be on anyone’s Mt. Rushmore of Kansas City sports legends.
Because you can’t unsee the ravages of ALS, which I believe forever changed me when I saw a friend contending with it.
That’s why they were together yet again Monday morning at the Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate for the 35th annual Joe McGuff ALS Golf Classic, named since 2003 for the iconic Star editor and columnist who died from complications of the illness in 2006.
And that’s why they will for years to come be trying to help conquer a disease for which research is relatively underfunded despite such windfalls as the ice bucket challenge of 2014 that raised $115 million
“We’re going to continue to be here until … we don’t need to be here,” Watson said, smiling and resetting to add that they’ll still be here when there’s a cure. “We’re going to be celebrating.”
Elusive as they both know that is despite the progress being made in research and advances being made locally in what the ALS Association of Mid-America’s Sally Dwyer called service, advocacy and empowerment for people with the disease.
A diagnosis still is a “death sentence,” Brett lamented.
“They have the address, and there’s the door there, but they can’t open that door,” said Watson, whose charitable work for the cause also has included the Bruce Edwards Foundation for ALS Research and the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins -- and who is conversant enough in some of the science to dazzle Brett.
So here they are again and always, further honoring their friends -- and the many struck by the disease they’ve met since -- on a day the event would raise in excess of $100,000, according to Sherrie Hanneman, director of communications for the ALS Association of Mid-America.
“It’s hard to quantify what it means to have two of Kansas City’s most beloved sports figures both in our corner, rowing really hard,” Hanneman said.
Brett was introduced to this nightmare through Keith Worthington, with whom he became friends in 1973 on a fashion shoot for Woolf Bros. on Country Club Plaza. Worthington, in whose name the local ALS Association chapter was founded, died in 1984.
Watson’s initiation was by way of Bruce Edwards, his longtime caddie.
“When someone you know gets this disease,” Brett said, “it touches you.”
In each case, though, it also stirred them.
While it’s a bond they’d surely rather not share – “I’m sad to see Tom here, because he lost a very good friend, too,” Brett said -- the upshot is that the experiences made them vital to a cause.
Each made vows to their dying friends that they would work on their behalves until the fight is won.
For Watson, it essentially started when Edwards showed him in the fall of 2002 that he had no meat in the area between his forefinger and his thumb. Watson urged him to get a complete physical.
Edwards dawdled, Watson said, and when he developed a cough Watson insisted he “get his butt up to the Mayo Clinic.” He called Watson from there and said, “I just made a quad.”
Meaning a quadruple bogey.
“That was his first line,” said Watson, who took up the cause in 2003. “He was laughing at himself, laughing at his condition and making a joke of as he always did.”
Watson knew better, of course, as he was learning what Lou Gehrig’s Disease really meant.
“I vaguely knew that (Gehrig) had ALS,” Watson said, “but I didn’t know what it did to him.”
He admired Edwards’ willingness to be what he once called a “guinea pig,” knowing if treatments couldn’t help him that they could be links in a chain toward helping others.
“ ‘This is what I’ve got now; I’ve got to deal with it,’ ” Watson recalled him adding. “Which is just the right attitude to have (with) anything in life, really.
“Life throws you a curve ball, wait on it, right, George?”
Smiling, Brett said, “Don’t swing at it. Hit the fastball. That’s what I did.”
But neither could lay off anything when it came to this.
Not long before Edwards died on April 8, 2004, Watson told him, “I’ll work on this and try to find a cure for the rest of my life.”
In Brett’s case, he saw Worthington go from a cane to crutches to a wheelchair and a respirator and took to heart his words near the end.
“He asked me if I would continue his fight,” Brett said.
His pledge to Worthington literally is etched in stone on the base of his statue at Kauffman Stadium:
“I made a promise to a friend and I intend to keep it.”
So anything they can do to help, Hanneman said, they’ll do.
She figures you’d be hard-pressed to find other professional athletes who have been so deeply engaged in a cause for so long – particularly when it comes to Brett.
“For 40 years, he’s been with us virtually the whole time,” Hanneman said, noting that his dedication started when he was “10 feet tall and bulletproof. It obviously had a profound impact on him, and he stuck with it.”
That’s largely a tribute to the spirit of Worthington.
“Keith never felt sorry for himself,” Brett said. “Keith was trying to help other people. He knew they wouldn’t find a cure in his lifetime. But he was trying to help other people.”
So Brett thinks of all that’s been done but also all that remains to be done. He thinks of Stephen Piscotty, who was traded by the Cardinals to Oakland so he could spend more time with his mother, Gretchen, who died earlier this month from ALS.
“To me, that (trade) was very, very special,” he said.
So is what Brett and Watson are trying to do. Long after their heydays as athletes, they’re using their platforms in powerful ways for a rare type of force and influence.
“Two incredibly committed Kansas city legends,” Dwyer, the ALS Association of Mid-America’s director of programs and services, called them. “And they have truly accelerated what we do, and we appreciate both of them very much.”