The Dallas Morning News
FIGHT LIFE a for
Stricken with deadly disease, son of coaching legend leans on faith and family
Gary Don Moore never has been one to talk much. Hard work punctuated by “yes sirs” and “no sirs” generally have sufficed. The fourth child and only son of one of Texas’ most revered high school football coaches — the retired G.A. Moore, whose teams won eight state championships — Gary Don followed his father into coaching.
Gary Don was the quarterback on G.A.’s 1995 Class 2A state champion Celina Bobcats when the team represented a town that was still a sleepy afterthought on the outskirts of Dallas’ exploding northern suburbs. Gary Don moved on to play quarterback and wide receiver at Oklahoma and Southeastern Oklahoma State. As expected, the strapping, 6-11/2, 205-pound Gary Don eventually moved to his father’s side as an assistant at Celina. When G.A. moved on to coach at Pilot Point and Aubrey, Gary
A bad heart forced Gary Autry Moore, now 79, to give up coaching in 2004 and retire to his 200-acre cattle ranch outside of Pilot Point.
Gary Don eventually moved on to serve as an assistant at two of the largest schools in Texas — first Plano West and then crosstown at Plano East.
Given Gary Don’s reputation for not wasting words, the mood was somber just before the end of fall semester when a meeting was called to allow the quiet coach to talk to the Plano East football family.
Something had been terribly wrong with Gary Don’s health throughout the 2017 football season. That was obvious. His speech had been deteriorating almost daily. He had unintentionally dropped 40 pounds. Untouched, he fell during practice. Once able to run a mile without taking a single stressful breath, he could no longer muster even the slightest strength in the weight room.
Now Gary Don had received a diagnosis that explained his predicament and screamed serious trouble was imminent. He believed it his duty to share it with those who had watched him suffer.
Gary Don, his wife, his parents and the rest of the tightknit Moore family barely had time to digest the news before he asked to talk at Plano East as Christmas approached. In an age when social media delivers news with lightning speed, Gary Don wanted to tell everyone personally before they learned it elsewhere.
Gary Don called on every muscle in his body to stand up and speak. First, he spoke in the past tense. He wanted to tell the assembled how much coaching had meant to him and emphasize the special place reserved in his heart for everyone in the room. Then he beseeched them not to feel sorry for him, not to worry about him. It was God’s plan for him. In the end, he talked about the future and the fight he was determined to wage.
Gary Don’s voice, which once had been perfectly capable of booming when necessary at football practice or during a game, had become so fragile over the previous months that he armed himself with a microphone before his speech. He believes he spoke for 30 minutes, the equivalent of a Gary Don filibuster. This much is certain: He spoke haltingly, seemingly gasping for breath between sentences.
In case his struggle to speak or his emotions got the better of him, he had brought along a video he had recorded. Turned out there was no need for props.
Gary Don told an audience hanging on every word that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It attacks nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement.
He was just about certain all anyone really knew about ALS was that several years ago, a wildly successful “ice bucket challenge” fundraiser spread across social media in hopes of raising money to fight the disease.
Now here he stood as one of approximately 20,000 afflicted Americans as a living testament to the vileness of ALS. He didn’t tell them ALS patients have a life expectancy of somewhere between two and five years. He didn’t tell them that no matter how much money a young family had managed to save, it could never be enough to pay for the medicine and care of an ALS patient.
By all accounts there wasn’t a dry eye in the room when Plano East’s soon-to-be-exspecial teams coordinator and wide receivers coach was finished. He mustered all his strength to hug the players one by one.
“Sometimes those who don’t speak much, when they do speak, have a lot to say,” said Joey McCullough, Plano East’s head coach, not ashamed to report he cried as well. “He moved everyone. He never questioned why him. He never mentioned the word ‘death.’ “He was amazing.” Gary Don is only 40. There is no family history with ALS, which sounds about right. Only 10 percent of ALS victims have mutated genes. The National Institute of Health reports ALS most often strikes men 55 and up.
The NIH also reports ALS is a progressive disease. The ALS Association reports in bold letters on its website that there is no cure.
Gary Don and wife Valerie, who live in Celina and are the parents of three young children, first heard the diagnosis after trekking to UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas on Dec. 18.
They learned how quickly life could spiral out of control.
When a doctor first broached the possibility of ALS the previous week, Gary Don wasn’t worried.
“I thought, ‘Nowadays they have a cure for everything,’” he said during a recent breakfast.
As they emerged to share the diagnosis with the rest of the army of relatives in the waiting room, neither Gary Don nor Valerie had to say a word. Their faces could not lie.
Gary Don recalled the scene with little emotion. His crying days are over. He paused frequently for sips of water as he spoke. Without the help of fluids, oral communication has become near impossible. He shared his story earlier this month.
“Everything has a cure,” he said.
Pause. Hydrate. Breath. “But I learned not ALS.” Several days later, one of Gary Don’s older sisters, Carol Lynn, in charge of the Celina schools’ program for dyslexic students, said she believed her immediate reaction to the news was “crazy.”
“I wished Gary Don had a brain tumor,” she said. “That could be removed.”
G.A. Moore gave up coaching 13 years ago because he no longer had the energy to get out of bed at 5 a.m. to be at his job by 6. A visit to a cardiologist, a drive down to a Dallas hospital, the insertion of a couple of stents to relieve blockages around his heart, and his problem was solved.
Today, he has enough energy that in addition to working the ranch and pastoring at Pilot Point’s Mustang Baptist Church, he also laments he may have been too hasty in getting out of coaching.
“It was a miracle,” he said of his rebirth after the stents were implanted.
He hoped against hope and prayed for a similar outcome in Dallas on the trip down to the hospital with Gary Don in December. Almost any other finding would have been welcome. All the ALS diagnosis left G.A with was a broken heart.
“We were all pretty devastated,” he said. “For a couple of days, we could hardly talk. We always have been blessed. But now … ”
His voice trailed off. G.A. Moore, whose 426 victories once stood as the most for a Texas high school football coach, paused to fight back tears.
He was speaking via cellphone last week from a clinic in San Clemente, Calif. After church last Sunday, G.A. flew to the West Coast with his wife, Lois Ann, and daughters Pam and Tona as well as their husbands to be with Valerie and Gary Don when his son started two weeks of experimental stem cell treatment.
Gary Don plans to soon start on Radicava, a medicine infused intravenously to help slow down the disease. Approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 2017, it was the first ALS drug authorized by the FDA in 22 years. It is not a cure. He also had begun a specially prescribed gluten-free diet.
The very expensive two-week treatment in California began Monday.
Only his middle sister, Carol Lynn, and her husband remain home in Texas. They and Valerie’s mother are caring for Gary Don and Valerie’s three children, daughters Faith, 8, and Blakely, 5, and son, Gary Autry, 3.
“You should have seen the doctors out here in California when they heard they would have to talk to us all,” G.A. said. “They kept bringing in more chairs for the herd from Texas.”
At the breakfast interview the previous week, Gary Don said his father had told him “he would sell the ranch” if necessary to help with the medical bills.
“We will do whatever we have to do,” the father said.
“I would never let him do that,” Gary Don said.
For now, the Moores have been overwhelmed by the financial and emotional support they have received from the good people of Plano, Celina, Pilot Point, Aubrey and beyond.
Unsolicited checks totaling about $30,000 began funneling in to help with medical expenses. A youcaring.com page reports that $96,000 has been raised online. A barbecue dinner and auction on Feb. 10 in now-Class 4A Celina High School’s 10-yearold building raised $170,000. A football autographed by G.A. Moore and the late Gordon Wood, who put in 46 years as a high school head coach, was auctioned off for $3,500. A golf tournament is scheduled in Sherman next month, and there will be a fundraising run at Plano East in April.
Gary Don and his family have been overwhelmed by the community support. He insists they have been “blessed,” and they are “thankful.”
“God has big plans for us,” he texted on Saturday from California.
One item on G.A. Moore’s “we will do whatever we have to do” list was a call to Sam Harrell, once a highly successful coach at Ennis. Harrell led his teams to three state championships in the early 2000s before he was forced out of coaching by multiple sclerosis
Harrell’s story has become gospel in the insular world of high school coaching.
He was diagnosed in 2005, a year after he coached his final state championship team. He was 50 at the time. Not long after, his multiple sclerosis was so severe he was forced to “sit at the house and get around with the help of a walker.”
“I had little hope,” he said. Harrell said his lifesaver was experimental stem cell treatments in Panama that ran $25,000 each. He was 55 when the treatments began. He says he was feeling better at 58. Today, he is back on his feet coaching as an assistant at Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie. His doctor says he still has multiple sclerosis, but it no longer affects him.
Harrell emphasized he visited Panama three times before he began to feel better. He’s been back twice “for maintenance.”
He never gave up, and MS is not quite as dreadful as ALS.
Harrell is now a much-indemand speaker at Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ meetings as well as American Football Coaches Association meetings.
Before a FCA meeting this month at Plano Senior High, Harrell spoke privately with Gary Don and Valerie, a dental hygienist.
“My mission now is to give people hope,” Harrell said.
Harrell also told the Moores about Allan Trimble, an iconic coach at Jenks High in Oklahoma whose teams have won 13 state championships. Diagnosed with ALS on the eve of the 2016 season, he coached two more seasons. He’s 54, and he won’t be back next season. ALS, he told fellow coaches at a recent convention, is undefeated.
The good fight
On his cellphone from California, G.A. Moore called on Thursday to report how well he thought things were going.
“The doctors laid out a plan for us like a football coach would draw up,” he said. “They told us exactly what they would be doing, and they are doing it.”
While Gary Don is going through the rigors and pain that go with transplanting stem cells, G.A. has been leading his family in prayer.
“There is a first time for everything,” the old coach said, referring to beating ALS. “We are hoping for a miracle. But however all this comes out, we will be all right. No one will ever know how blessed we are.”