ATLANTA — The day after three Atlanta sports radio jocks were fired for making crude jokes about Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Air Force veteran Chris Marcella staggered into the hospital — in his words, “like a drunk” — and asked for a walker.
“He gets tired walking,” said Marcella’s wife of 26 years, Janet. “He is changing. He was very soft spoken anyway, now sometimes his voice goes soft and it is hard to hear him. So when he asked for the walker, the only thing I could think was: ‘This monster has taken my athletic husband and ripped him to shreds.’”
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis will do that to a person.
It is getting harder to hear Marcella, but the din of Atlanta talk radio is as loud as ever.
Chalk it up to being a commuter town, with a huge captive audience up for grabs. This is for sure: Competition to be louder and more outrageous than the guy down the dial is intense.
So the three-man “Mayhem in The AM” crew tried to live up to their tagline earlier this month, somehow figuring a “bit” on a former NFL player with ALS might produce a few naughty yucks.
The segment was only about two minutes long — less time than it takes Marcella to put on a shoe.
But here’s the thing: Somewhere out there in radio-land, their “humor” was bound to reach the ears of someone who would find it worse than merely tasteless.
When Janet heard them, she literally shook with rage.
“Those radio hosts have never been in the situation where they have wanted to say something and were unable,” Janet said. “Imagine being locked and wanting to communicate and cannot because this disease has ripped your tongue out. Do you know how lonely that would be? And how much courage you must have to go out in the public to face that every day?”
In its simplest terms, ALS is a degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The brain can’t talk to muscles anymore, slowing down and eventually stopping movement. During the latter stages of the disease, the person could become totally paralyzed and dependent, before dying.
Lou Gehrig, the former New York Yankee first baseman for whom the disease is named, died June 2, 1941, two years after he stood in the middle of Yankee Stadium and delivered his “Luckiest Man,” speech on July 4, 1939.
To understand the swiftness of the disease, Gehrig, who was known for his power and strength, having played in 2,130 consecutive games, was completely finished immediately after his diagnosis.
Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saint that the radio trio mocked, mostly because he has lost his ability to speak and is totally dependent on others, revealed he has ALS in 2011. Five years earlier he blocked a punt against the Atlanta Falcons that was recovered for a touchdown.
Now, Gleason is in a wheelchair and talks with the aid of a device that amplifies his voice, something that Marcella may one day have to use.
Marcella didn’t hear the radio bit and isn’t interested in hearing it. He’s less disturbed by it than his wife. “Was it insensitive? Yes. Should they have been fired? Maybe not. Disciplined? Yes,” he said this week. “The drama that occurs in radio and TV doesn’t bother me.”
Marcella, who now lives in Perry, was born and raised in Los Angeles, where his father taught him to love the outdoors. He would hike mountains then rappel down. His time in the mile was down to 6:10.
In 1986, he joined the Air Force. A year later, he married Janet. They had a son and adopted another one. They lived all over the country, and he served all over the world, including in Iraq.
One February afternoon in 2009, he went out for a quick run.
“About a quarter-mile, my right leg started spazzing out,” said Marcella, who is still an air reserve technician at Dobbins Air Force Base. “It was no pain. Just really weird.”
He took a break from running, but two weeks later, it happened again. He got muscle relaxers. Saw a chiropractor. Got an MRI. Ruled out sciatic nerve damage. Got back injections. Got a spinal cord stimulator injected. Nothing changed.
“In January 2011, my right arm got real weak and got spasms in my left hip,” he said.
Finally, a neurologist suggested he get checked by an ALS specialist.
He went alone. The doctor told him he had Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
“I went in there having no idea that I was gonna receive a diagnosis like that,” Marcella said. “I watched the movie on Lou Gehrig and I liked it, but outside of that, I had no clue. It was not even in my vocabulary.”
He drove home — in silence — to tell Janet.
“It was hard telling my wife. We cried and talked about how to tell the boys,” Marcella said. “It took me about a week or two to finally accept the diagnosis and not get emotional.”
Some days are better than others. Aside from a regime of medicines, Marcella takes B12 daily to feed his nerves. He says coconut oil on toast helps reduce muscle aches and improves muscle elasticity. He goes to the VA twice a week for physical and occupational therapy and sleeps about four hours a night.
He can’t play tennis with his 11-year-old son Jacob, or basketball with Addis, a 6-year-old adopted from Ethiopia. His 74-year-old father, who moved in to help out, still runs six miles a day.
“My boys understand, and they have their good days. But when they think about it, they get sad and worried about me. My oldest won’t let me see his emotions,” Marcella said. “And it is painful to see my father go out and run. But it is what it is.”
“Every day that I get up and walk, I think about it,” Marcella said. “About my family caring for my basic needs and being in a wheelchair and being totally dependent on my family. But I try not to dwell on it, because I get depressed. And I don’t listen to the radio.”