No attractive way exists to explain what Lou Gehrig’s Disease does to the afflicted.
In the beginning, daily activities like walking and running suddenly become more challenging because of weakness in the legs, feet, and ankles. The strength of a person’s hands declines, and the ability to speak, and then swallow, evolve into life-threatening issues, and the disease never quits attacking until forcing the final breath.
Mark Nardone initially experienced odd sensations in his legs while running and then when walking, and at first he didn’t say much to anyone because he believed he must have injured something during one his workouts. Mark was a self-proclaimed fitness freak, and if not counseling a student or coaching a kid or spending time with his family, he could usually be found in a weight room or jogging along River Road.
When his problems with mobility worsened instead of improving, Mark made a doctor appointment, and while there is not a single test utilized to diagnose amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), there are several that produce supporting results that provoke that doctor-to-patient conversation for more than 5,600 Americans each year.
Such a discussion took place between Mark and his physician a little more than two years ago, and on Christmas Day this year at 10:55 a.m., the ghost of Gehrig welcomed him to the next step.
“The way our family is looking at this is that Christmas Day was sad, and it was emotional, but at the same time it was relieving to know he wasn’t going through it anymore,” said Nick Nardone, one of Mark’s and Sudie’s three children. “The real sadness hit us when the diagnosis was delivered. That’s when the sadness was very real, and the anger was pretty raw, but the two years since the diagnosis … watching him go through it … was a tough thing, too.
“Yes, we are going to miss my father very, very much because he was everyone’s best friend. He was my best friend. But there is relief in knowing that there’s no more suffering for him,” the son continued. “He never complained, and that’s the part that really blows my mind. When you look into everything ALS does to someone who is suffering from it, it’s really scary stuff what they go through. But he never complained.”
He was a football player at Wheeling Park High and then at West Liberty University, and then in 1985 Mark became a coach on two levels at his alma mater on the hill. Whether someone encountered him inside the classroom, on the football field, when he was the Patriots’ assistant athletic director, or while Mark served as a color commentator during high school football broadcasts on AM 1600 WKKX, most learned quickly he always was an unrelenting instructor on life.
His son says his father never changed.
“My dad never acted like he was hurting from any of it even though you knew he really was,” Nardone said. “To me, that was the most unbelievable part of it all. He never made you look at him like he was miserable, but you knew he had to be. You knew he had to be suffering, but he never let anyone see his spirits weak. Never.
“My father was a grinder, and he was always in great physical shape. That’s how he was, and he worked hard to accomplish it,” he continued. “He loved lifting, and he loved being strong, and to see what this disease did to him was a terrible thing to witness because you know he felt it, and he realized it. But you know what? He never let the disease take his mind. He was my father up until his death, and you knew that because you could just tell. It was always a thumbs up from him. He was ready to go all of the time.”
Nick is the Nardones’ middle child; Eleni graduated from Wheeling Park High in 2013 and is attending WVU; Nick collected his diploma in June 2016 and is enrolled at West Liberty; Tino is 11 years old and soon to start the second half of his fifth grade year. Mark and Sudie were married for 25 years.
A “great man;” “the best teacher ever,” “a true friend to everyone he knew;” were all phrases used to describe him on Facebook since his death, but Nick was touched by something said by one of Mark’s former Park players.
“It was a week or so ago when he came to see him, and I think he put it the best,” Nardone said. “I don’t remember exactly what he said to my dad, but it was something like, ‘You put a lot of good people in all the right places.’ To think about that is kind of amazing in itself.
“To watch what the disease does and to see how it changed your father’s life, that really sucked; it did,” he said. “But at the same time you see him, and you feel his energy and the positives he gave to you all of the time. That’s when my sister and my brother and I would look at each other and just know that we have what he had inside of us, too. And at the same time, he had us to take with him into his battle against that disease.”
Mark was the defensive mastermind for former head coach Ron White, and then he took over the program in 1998 for 11 seasons during which he collected a 75-44 overall record and seven playoff berths. During that time period, the Patriots did not complete a season with a losing record.
A few years after Mark handed over the reins to Chris Daugherty, Wheeling Park advanced all the way to the W.Va. Super Six Football Championships at Wheeling Island Stadium, and the opponent was perennial powerhouse Capital High. On offense, sophomore quarterback Cross Wilkinson guided a unit featuring senior running back Savion Johnson and senior receiver Elijah Bell while Nick, also in his final season, was one of the team’s leaders on defense.
With his father watching closely from the east corner of the north end zone, Nick and the Wheeling Park Patriots captured the school’s first-ever triple-A title with a 23-15 victory.
“It was the best day of my life,” Nardone said. “For him to be there and be able to watch me be a part of the first team to win a state football championship for the high school will always mean everything to me. I grew up in his locker room. I was 4 years old when I was first inside there as a kid, and every year, every season ended the same way. There were always tears, and the seniors always felt like they failed after that final loss of the season.
“So, for my final season not to end that way and being able to go down to where he was behind the end zone to see him and realize with him that Wheeling Park had finally won that state title? It was the best day of my life, and I will never, ever, ever forget it,” he explained. “It was incredible, and he and I will always have that.”
There will be no funeral home viewing for Mark Nardone, but instead Sudie and the children have invited family, friends, and fans to the J.B. Chambers Performing Arts Center at Wheeling Park on Monday at 11 a.m. for a “Celebration of Life” with Mr. Barry Bullman officiating. Memorial contributions may be made to the Nardone Family Trust, c/o Wells Fargo Advisors, 2001 Main Street, Suite 7000, Wheeling, W.Va., 26003.
“Obviously the disease had a big physical impact on my dad, and we didn’t think he would want to be remembered by some people during a normal viewing like most people have for their family members,” Nardone said. “That’s why instead of a normal viewing, we decided to avoid the sad factor and do something special for him at the place he really loved the most, and that’s Wheeling Park High School.
“So we’re going to celebrate his life, what he did, and the people he impacted in the best ways possible,” the son continued. “He was strong for us through it all, and he didn’t have to be. But he made it about us and not about him, and there’s nothing greater I can say about my father.”
(Cover photo by Steve Novotney; additional photos provided by the Nardone family)