Youth soccer coach battles ALS

LYNNWOOD — When he was healthy, Dan Porter lived a vigorous, vibrant life.

A former soccer player himself, he loved coaching youngsters. He loved it so much that he kept on coaching even after his own son decided not to play anymore. He devoted hours to the game and to his team, and it was so much fun that he never imagined giving it up.

But then, who imagines getting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease?

In less than a year — 11 months to be precise — the 59-year-old Porter has gone from being an active coach to a homebound patient. The man who once paced the sideline during games, hollering encouragement to his players and jumping around like a kid himself whenever they scored a goal, can no longer move his arms or legs. The booming voice that carried easily across the field has been reduced to weakened grunts.

“Our family has always been healthy,” Suzanne Porter, his wife, said. “There we were, just trotting along through life and never getting sick, and then we were blindsided by this.”

Her husband’s illness “has been so aggressive that we really haven’t had time to wrap our brains around it,” she said. “It’s just been horrible. And surreal.”

Terrible diseases are a fact of life, as other families unfortunately know. But of all the dire maladies, there is perhaps none so cruel and relentless as ALS. Though still alert mentally, Porter’s body is shutting down. No longer able to speak, he communicates with a letter board and a laser light attached to the bill of a baseball cap; by moving his head, he can aim the light — a small red dot — at the letter board to spell out messages to his family and friends.

Though ALS victims sometimes live 10 or more years, the average life expectancy from the time of diagnosis is a little more than three years. And unlike diseases such as cancer, where medical breakthroughs give victims increasing hope, ALS always gets the last word.

Said Suzanne Porter: “We’re just taking this one day at a time. One hour at a time.”

A 1972 graduate of Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, Dan Porter played soccer as a boy, which eventually led him into coaching. “It became his passion,” Suzanne Porter said. “For his whole life, soccer has been everything. Soccer sometimes even came before his family and that’s just how much he loved it. He put his whole self into it, and now I think it really bothers him that he can’t do it.”

Last May, in the midst of coaching the FC Edmonds U15 BooYahs, he began experiencing pain in his right wrist which he thought might be carpal tunnel syndrome. Then he felt a strange sensation on his face and wondered if he had Bell’s palsy. A few weeks later he began slurring his words, causing his family to think he had maybe suffered a stroke.

In August, he still felt well enough to take his teen-age son Spenser to Mexico for two weeks. But his symptoms were becoming more pronounced, and after returning home he underwent a series of medical tests that resulted in an ALS diagnosis in early October.

Porter, a construction contractor, had to quit working in mid-December. He soon started missing team practices, and when he did show up he needed someone to drive and then to help him get from the car to the field. He attended his last practice in February, and by then Gary McIntosh, the athletic director and men’s head soccer coach at Northwest University in Kirkland, had become the BooYahs head coach with Michael Fitch of Edmonds becoming the team manager and assistant head coach.

As a coach, Fitch said, “Dan was special. He demanded respect for the team and for the game, but he also really loved the players. He was just a dedicated coach and his heart was huge.”

Porter could be very intense during games, Fitch added. “But I’m telling you, when that ball went into the net, he was jumping in the air and clapping and shouting. … Dan was not a quiet man. And he was not afraid to use his voice, so you always knew where he was.”

“I always let parents know that I was a screamer,” Dan Porter said, spelling the words out on his letter board.

But if his messages were sometimes delivered with high decibels, his affection for the kids was never questioned.

Trey Little of Edmonds, a 14-year-old eighth grader at Lynnwood’s College Place Middle School, said Porter “was fun loving and always excited about the game. He was passionate about the sport and always wanted everyone to get better. He wanted us to succeed.”

“He’s one of my favorite coaches,” added Tanner Ptacek of Edmonds, also 14, an eighth grader at Lynnwood’s St. Thomas More Parish School. “He took the game seriously. … He was just a great guy. He wanted people to have fun and enjoy the sport, but he was strict. If you were not on focus and not on task, he’d correct you.”

The players and their parents occasionally visit Dan Porter at his Lynnwood home, and Fitch makes it a point to stop by once or twice a week for some soccer talk.

“It’s a chance for him to think about what he loves,” Fitch said. “We diagram out formations, draw lists of players that we want to keep, talk about recruiting (new players), and talk about the tournaments he thinks we should do this summer.”

Maybe someday there will be a cure for ALS, or at least treatments that can enhance and prolong life. Who knows when that will happen, or even if it will happen. But in the meantime, the spirit of a courageous man remains firm as he continues to battle and, above all, to hope.

“I am not giving up that the Lord can give me back my life,” Dan Porter said, spelling out the words on his letter board.

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