Feb. 19, 2009

 

By Kevin Scheitrum
NCAA.com

The first time Cory Schaeffler met Bob Wahler, the thing that stuck with him was the smile.

After the Denver lacrosse team's banquet last spring, Schaeffler had, somewhat begrudgingly, agreed to drive with five of his teammates and two of his coaches from the DU campus to St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver to see his friend's sick father.

He got to the hospital and saw Wahler lying in his cold steel bed in the intensive-care unit, blinking after suffering a stroke that the doctors likened to shotgun pellets scattered throughout his brain. It struck in so many locations that it was almost impossible to pinpoint a localized area, Wahler's wife, Judy, said. It was his fourth stroke in two years.

That day, the doctors told Bob and his family to prepare for the worst. They weren't sure how much longer he'd be able to go on. Maybe a night or two. So Judy asked the team to stop by. Then, six lacrosse players, two lacrosse coaches and a wife held court, telling jokes and talking about lacrosse for an hour as a man in a bed lit up like the sun on the mountain peaks.  

"We were all kind of skeptical going over there, like any 21-year old guys would be," Schaeffler said. "Like, `We don't know this guy too well, we don't really wanna do it - this is gonna be awkward.' And when we got there, it was truly amazing.

"The most inspirational thing was seeing a smile on his face," Schaeffler said. "He was just beaming the whole time. Mrs. Wahler said it was the first time she'd seen him like that in years. ... Then you'd look down and at him and look up at Ben and [Ben] was truly smiling - he loved seeing his dad like that."

Twenty-three years ago, Wahler, the father of Denver lacrosse captain Ben Wahler, was given nine months to live. A brain tumor - a grade 3 astrocytoma - had invaded his right frontal lobe and was spreading. Fast. Surgery was required. Then radiation and chemo. Ben was six months old.

Then nine months passed. Bob was still alive. Then, a year. A decade. Two. And Bob Wahler made sure that his would not be a story of death and loss and tragedy, but life and growth and triumph.

"It's a miracle," Ben said. "He's still alive today because of who he is and the fight he has in him."

Bob has lost much. Treatment of the tumor involved the surgical removal of a significant portion of the right frontal lobe, the part of the brain chiefly responsible for mood and personality. The operation largely stole away the man his wife, Judy, said she married.

Over time, a legion of strokes and hemorrhages have stolen his voice, quieted his mind and cut down his body - the body that once, only 40 years ago, set California records in swimming- to a foreign mass of unused muscle and bone.

But with every loss, if taken correctly, comes equal gain. For Bob, his family and friends say, there's been no complaining. No time spent wading in the theoretical - no Why Me, no bargaining with the Great Unknown. No rallying against the cruelty of a body rebelling against itself. Just acceptance, adaptation and a fight to live on and make sure his son succeeds.

And in outpacing death, he's given perhaps more than he ever could have as a healthy man - he's inspired a wife, a son and a team.  

The second time Corey Schaeffler saw Bob Wahler, it was before a scrimmage last fall.  

Confined to a wheelchair and a distant memory of a voice, Wahler addressed the team in the locker room before a scrimmage last fall. With Judy and Ben by his side, he asked that Ben read his college essay to the team, in which Ben related his story of growing up with a father waging war against fate.  

And then a man who may not see the end of 2009 promised the team that he would be in the bleachers, cheering at every single home game this year.

"Now I have another fight," he told them. "It is about staying alive - and I fight every day to have another day with my son, Ben."



Ever since I was a young boy, I knew I was a good athlete.  Athletics seemed to come easy for me.  I always wanted to be on the winning side because those were the kids who always smiled the most.  So in the early stages of my life, I did not think about anything except being a winner, getting the prize, being the best. - Opening lines of Ben Wahler's college essay

Ben Wahler, co-captain and face-off artist on one of the nation's 20 best lacrosse teams, says now that he never understood when he was younger why his father couldn't be like other dads.  

"Growing up I didn't see my dad as this guy who's going through this unbelievable fight," he said. "I saw a dad that couldn't be like all my friends' dads. It was really difficult for me in that sense.

"My friends' dads were CEO's of companies or superstar athletes," Wahler continued. "I wished my dad had something like that."

Bob was functional, in most senses, for the first dozen years of Ben's life. He suffered from headaches that shook his skull like trains at night and seizures that gripped his body without warning. He couldn't work like he had. His moods, his personality changed. But he could still walk. He could still be the water guy and joke around with the guys on Ben's teams - and Ben played on lots of them.

He couldn't coach, but Bob could still cheer on his son - his very talented son, who would later go on to play varsity lacrosse and hockey at Hobart (N.Y.) before transferring to Denver. When the family moved from Orange County, Calif. to Colorado in 1992, Ben laced up skates, and it wasn't until he walked on to the Denver lacrosse team in 2006 that he took them off for good. So, as Ben took to hockey, so did the family.

"I personally felt that if we cold get him involved in Ben's life, sports-wise, it would give him something to look forward to," Judy said. "Since Ben was little, we've been taking Bob to Ben's games. He's been an incredible cheerleader on the side."

They'd sit up in the stands, Judy, Bob and Bob's best friend Paul Aaron, who doubles as Ben's godfather. They were a family, doing what families do: admiring their son as he skates through his childhood and barrels through adolescence.

Then a seizure would hit.

The game would stop as an ambulance rolled into the rink to wheel Bob to the hospital. And a son, a child clad in hockey gear that gave the appearance of a much older, much stronger man, would look on.

"It was awful all the time for Ben," Judy said. "Ben saw horror with his dad all the time."

At home as a young boy - Wahler forgets the age: six or seven, he says - he came downstairs to find his father foaming at the mouth and writhing on the floor. Doctors in coats had told him the possibilities of what could happen and what he should do in the event of an emergency with his dad. So, that night, Ben Wahler had to save his father's life.

"I had to put something in his mouth and hold him still and call for the ambulance," he said. "It was a lot for a little kid to go through."

To cope, Ben did what kids do, as much as he could manage to. He blocked it out. He didn't talk about it. Tried not to think about it. Dove into sports. And music. And, even business - he helped get a company off the ground at the age of 15.

Sports offered an outlet. On the field or inside the boards he could be in control. With the puck on his stick or ball in the cradle, chance loses its nerve. Fate becomes, for that instant, an illusion. On the field, Ben Wahler's life was normal. No, it was good.

"Everything - he was our everything," Judy said. "Ben became Bob's and my outlet for everything. But we wanted Ben to have a normal life. We'd do whatever we could. Even though he was exposed to such devastating [stuff], we tried to make his life as normal as possible."

"Ben actually had a much more normal life than you'd expect," echoed Aaron. "It wasn't like something where his father came back from war, where he was just a shell of his former self - Bob and Judy were probably more active mothers and fathers because of Bobby[`s illness]."

So Ben tried all of the sports he could find. Of the many things his father gave him, one of the greatest is the ability to make his young body follow his commands precisely. And Ben, like his father, he excelled at almost every game he tried.

He met Chris Bourque, son of NHL Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, as a standout hockey player playing in Colorado. With the help of Bourque, he earned his entry into Cushing Academy (Mass.), one of the nation's best boarding schools, and a breeding ground for hockey talent.

After years of growing up in a household in which he had to face the possibility of disaster almost daily, Bob and Judy figured a new locale would serve him well.

"He'd wanted to leave because he couldn't face it, because it was so devastating all the time," Judy said. "It was hard for Ben, and he wanted to go to Cushing for hockey, and we thought it'd be a good thing because by keeping some of it away from him it was a positive thing."

So, when Ben went East to boarding school, he knew a great deal of the story. But, admittedly, he still didn't have any idea.


'Then my father was diagnosed with severe brain cancer, and I was forced to watch his daily battle with the disease.  I saw that winning for him became simply the prize of another day of life and another kiss for me. '

It was late November, 1985, and a family of three drove out from Laguna Beach, Calif. to Lake Arrowhead. He was 33, she, 32. Married for six months, with a six-week old son, they were celebrating their first Thanksgiving together as a real family - the kind of family you see in movies.

He'd been in movies, you know. And after he spent his teenage years on podiums next to pools, he spent his 20s and early 30s on stages and in front of cameras. Singing, acting, performing. He had been in three feature films, appearing alongside Dennis Quaid and Natalie Wood. He was a man glowing with life, possibility, bursting with the beauty that glues artists to the world.  

"He was an incredibly outgoing and young man who had a really wonderful voice and a great performing ability," said Aaron of Bob, whom he met 30 years ago when, working in production and talent management, he came to see Wahler play at a club in Laguna Beach. "Until he got sick, he had major opportunities in the music world for what could and would have been a very incredible career as a performer."

Performing led Wahler to meet his bride, three years earlier. Wahler was shooting a film in Hawaii when he met a woman from New York just two years his junior, the credits still rolling on a seven-year relationship she'd recently gotten out of.

"The second day I was there, I met this outrageous guy," Judy Wahler said.

"He was a magnificent guy," she said. "Smart, funny, beautiful, very athletic, over the top athletic. ... The full package - handsome, smart and funny and sweet, and just a sensitive, nice guy. Not a mean bone in his body, just a really great guy."

They dated for two years and were married in May of 1985. Ben, the first child for both of them, arrived in October. Their roots began to dig into the arid soil of Southern California. Then, November rolled in, and with Judy recovered from birth and Bob able to pull himself away from work, they stole away into the forests around Lake Arrowhead for Thanksgiving.

A night after they got there, Bob told Judy that he'd begun to suffer from these crushing headaches. At first, she didn't think much of it. Then he told her his vision was impaired.

"I threw him in the car with that baby, driving down from Lake Arrowhead," Judy said. "I didn't want the care given there."

They shot down to a hospital in Laguna Beach. The doctors explained to Judy that Bob had suffered a stroke.

"I said, `there's no way.'" she said.

So she found a doctor for her husband at South Coast Medical Center. Soon after, the news followed. A cluster of cells in Bob's brain had gone rogue. Attacking the astrocytes - star-shaped cells that act as supportive, mainly non-transmissive portions of the brain - the tumor had crept in silently, carving a lesion into his brain.

The headache would have occurred when the tumor grew large enough to raise Wahler's intracranial pressure, according to New York-based neurologist Jerry Goldberg. When a headache announces a tumor, the cancer's already in the advanced stages.

Astrocytomas, the most common form of gliomas (cancers of the glial cells, those of the brain and spine), are graded on a four-part scale, with 1 on the more mild side and 4 on the "grim" side, Goldberg said.

Wahler's was a 3. That gave him, the doctors said, nine more months. And when Bob was wheeled into surgery late in 1985, the doctors told Judy that there was a chance that Bob might die in surgery. If he didn't, there was a chance that he might come out paralyzed.

Judy broke down: "I was hysterical - you're telling me I'm gonna lose my husband, and I have a six-week old child," she said.

"I didn't know what I was gonna get back," she said. "But my husband had the most unbelievable reaction you've ever seen."

But here's where the second phase of Bob Wahler's life began.  Where, after 33 years of being Bob Wahler, the actor and the singer, the lover and the dreamer, he became Bob Wahler, the rock.

"This is probably why I stayed with him," Judy said. "He grabbed me and said, as they were wheeling him to surgery, `Judy, this is gonna be a journey.'

"He never cried," she continued. "He hugged me. He never cried. He said, `This is my journey and I have go to through it."

After surgery and radiation, he had to relearn to walk, speak, and become independent, but no obstacle seemed too hard for him.  He just pushed on and overcame it.

"This guy, it's the saddest thing," Judy said. "I've never seen anything like it. He goes 10 steps forward and then goes 15 steps back. Bob never gets a break, ever. But he lives with it and keeps going."

For Bob, there was no good time after surgery, Judy said. Just varying degrees of bad. The earlier times, the years before the onslaught of strokes and hemorrhages, don't look so bad, but only when viewed in the light of what came later.

"He was a different person after surgery," Judy said. "And then everything started deteriorating, from intelligence to personality.

"He was a stranger more than anything," she said. "Really, not the man I married at all."

Bob was treated in early 1986 at the University of California-San Francisco with an experimental, non-FDA approved drug designed to amplify the effects of radiation. As far as the cancer was concerned, the treatment worked. As of the next year, he was in remission.

But the effects lingered - Judy hints that the medication led to side effects that have, in turn, led to strokes and hemorrhages in Bob down the line. From the moment he left surgery, Bob suffered from headaches and seizures that sent him to the hospital "every week for 15 years," Judy said. He was given Demerol, a heavy narcotic, to kill the pain. In time, Judy was taught how to inject Bob with the drug.

"She has taught me just as much as my dad has," Ben said, calling his mom `the best I could ask for.' "Watching her and the way she's been with this and her willingness to never give up on him - my dad had to give away his life, but my mom has, also. She had to give up everything so that he could survive."

There were times, Judy says, when she wanted to run away - that many people would have. But then she'd see her husband and remember what he told her before being wheeled into surgery. That this - even this, yes - was part of the journey.

"I had to get on board," she said. "He wanted me to fight the battle with him, so I didn't leave. I had to do it. I had to fight the battle because of him. He's the good person. He's the tremendous guy."

So she would fight. She would fight because she was taught that commitment meant she had to, and even though she was forced to love Bob in a different way ("more like love for a human being" she said), she still loved all the same. She would fight because she had a son to teach. And she would fight because Bob was fighting. Because now, in the second phase of Bob Wahler's life, fighting was what mattered.

It was the only thing that mattered.

"He puts thing into perspective," Ben said. "He feels his purpose is now to be an inspiration, and to show people that no matter what you face, you can never stop trying and realizing the great things in life."

And, with his family next to him, Bob began to teach. He didn't need words. In a sense, he was stronger without their crutch. He needed just to show his family the way to live by, well, living. For years, he shone in front of the camera and in front of audiences. Now, he had a new medium through which to give himself to the world: a battle with death. And, for 22 years, he'd been winning.

"If Bobby has any overarching purpose in his life, it's to affect others," Aaron said. "Whether music or lyrics, and now in this kind of way it's through his life, which is just part of his poetry."

Gradually, winning wasn't about "getting the prize" and "being the best" for me anymore.  Winning was about making the most of each day.  Now, when I am in a lacrosse or hockey game and I fight to control the ball or puck and put it in the net,  I see it as more than just playing to win.  I ask myself, did I play full out, did I play fair, did I make the team better?  All of these traits I can say I honestly understand better from sharing my dad's joy at even the smallest victory in his struggle.

It wasn't until late in his time Cushing Academy that Ben fully understood his father's life.

And for Judy, it seemed to click right around the same time.

During Ben's freshman year at Cushing, Bob's behavior started getting more erratic. He was less inhibited, more prone to strange behavior, Judy said. He got worse and worse over the next two years and, in Ben's junior year, the strokes began.

Everything he had worked to recover was suddenly shattered. But Bob would collect the pieces and get to work again, regaining his ability to speak, to walk, to swallow. Then, another stroke would tear through his brain, sending him back to intensive care.

"We constantly rehabbed, we never stopped with rehab because I always felt he'd get better," she said. "It was a lie I was telling myself, but I always thought I could get better. It was denial, not wanting to see him die, and I wanted Ben to have a daddy."

About five years ago, with the strokes and hemorrhages becoming more and more frequent and her son across the country, Judy finally gave up the dream of Bob's ever returning to the man she met in Hawaii. Almost 18 years after her husband left surgery, she worked on embracing the new Bob.

Things are no easier, she said. But life is fuller. Last year, she finally got hired help, placing Bob in an assisted-living center, where his needs can better be met. She's back into filmmaking, her passion - a film she worked as an assistant producer on, Skills Like This, has pulled down a host of international awards.

She still goes to see Bob every day.

"This guy's unbelievable," she said. "I have a bad day and I go in and he straightens me out. That's the gift Bob has given me. It's like `Hellooooo, the big things you think are big aren't that bad. This is big. He's made me a better person."

And together, they can admire their son, who, when he saw his father deteriorating, couldn't stay East at Hobart, where he was playing varsity hockey and lacrosse. In 2007, Ben transferred to Denver to be closer to his family.

"There've been so many times that my dad has almost felt sorry for having to put me through this," Ben said. "And it was only a few years ago when I was really able to be old enough to understand that I wouldn't have it any other way."

He walked on to the team in 2008, quickly becoming the Pioneers' face-off specialist and ranking first in the GWLL in ground balls per game and third in face-off percentage. This year, he was named captain.

"From [finding out his dad was sick] onward, I was like `God, this kid's incredible,'" said Denver coach Jamie Munro. "How hard he's working and how good his attitude is, that kind of adversity would bring somebody down."

"[When I was younger] I wasn't mature enough to see the impact of my dad's life on me, and on him," Ben said. "Then as I got older, I went through a transition and realized how much of a part of his life that I am, and how much of him I have in me. I never necessarily thought when I was younger that that would turn out as a good thing, then I got older and realized how fortunate I was to have the dad I did."

I wonder, "Could I have learned these lessons as well if he had been like all the other kid's dads?"  Of course, that was what I most wished for when I was growing up.  But now I like to think his brave battle is what made me special.  

The human brain craves answers. It searches, dutifully and ceaselessly, to make sense of the random, to impose rhythm an order to daily chaos. And if left unchecked, it will search forever for the elusive "why" - why does this happen, why doesn't this, and why would a body turn so violently against its owner?

For Bob Wahler, the resignation of the "why" might be his finest lesson. Because for "why," there are no answers. But the future - and the fight - are in our control.

"I've never for a moment sat with Bob where the discussion involved `Why me?'" Aaron said. "Bob has absolutely no self-pity. People think, `oh, poor me.' He has accepted and evolved into whatever happened. He accepted this was not a choice he made but something made for him. His only choice is how he's gonna live with it, not if he's gonna live with it."

So Bob's sole ambition these days is to watch his son - a son about as special as they come - play lacrosse, his wife says.

It takes Bob two hours to brush his teeth and get dressed to be able to leave the care facility and get into the car with Judy for the 40-minute drive. Once there, every game he goes to poses a risk to his health, being so far from critical care.

"If for whatever reason an incident did happen, whether he fell or broke something or worse, I believe he'd tell you it's totally worth it," Ben said. "That's how important something this little is - that's how big it is for him."

"I wouldn't want to live if I were Bob," Judy said. "He has no quality of life. The only quality of life he has is going to see his son play lacrosse."

Ben's responded. His need to fill his life with everything, from sports to work to love to writing is not necessarily a Thank-You, per se, to his father, he said. But he does feel some obligation to pick up where Bob left off.

That's why sleep is optional. Why, after managing a bar in downtown Denver until 3 or 4 a.m., he'll be at practice the next day at 9 a.m. and then class later and, in the summers, working as a manager at a marketing company where he's in charge of people twice his age.

"I don't know how he has the energy to do all this," said teammate Joey Murray. "I'm beat after practice and class."

"I want to be different," Wahler said. "To stand out at being great. The drive and the passion and the heart I put into things, that itself is enough to show them I'm very thankful for what they've done for me."

And, over time, Ben got more comfortable talking about his dad. He doesn't bring it up too often, but he'll still talk about it to anybody who asks. More, he's writing about it. And, with the urgings of a professor, he hopes to make it a book.

"Before, I didn't want people to know my dad was sick, to be treated any different," he said. "I kept it to myself. But this started a transition to grow up a little bit."

He's always loved seeing his father in the bleachers, Ben said. But now, regardless of what happens on the field, it's a win. Bob's presence calms his son, but at the same time, it makes a kid that will already sacrifice layers of skin for the ball work even harder.

So, when coach Munro invited Bob into the locker room before the team's scrimmage with BYU last fall, Bob didn't have a choice. That day, what he'd lost meant nothing. It was what he could pass on to a group of young men that would be his legacy.

"You don't think about it in the locker room right away," Schaeffler said. "You take it in, and then late at night, lying in bed, you think that this guy has gone through hell and back and all he wants to do is support our team now at the University of Denver."

That day last fall, when Bob promised he'd be at every home game, the team scrimmaged BYU later in the day. Bob stuck around with Judy to watch the game, wearing a sweatshirt and blanket to ward off the mountain cold. And as the sun began to set, Ben won a face-off. He took the ball outright and sprinted down the field. He loaded, fired, and scored.

He looked up, and there was Judy jumping and Bob, sitting, smiling.

And as he sits in the stands at the cold lacrosse field on a cold winter's day or in a hockey rink, all I want is for him to be able to turn proudly to a total stranger sitting next to him and say, `See that kid down there, number 38?  His name is Ben and he is my son.'