Scott Cody / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- “Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” - Lou Gehrig, July 4, 1939.
Lou Gehrig's famous words can be perplexing once one learns about the disease that bears his name. Lucky is not a thought that is conjured up if the body is a candle. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is the flame, slowly melting away its form and function, but unlike the flame, ALS cannot be blown out.
Jay Rink was always bigger, stronger, faster. He stood out among a group of standouts, the ‘85 Brother Martin football team that sent four players on to Division 1 football, including Entergy CEO Rod West, who later starred at Notre Dame.
“Jay was literally was the heart and soul of our football team. He was just south of crazy,” West said. “I do believe this: football meant more to Jay Rink than anybody on that football team.”
The only loss that ‘85 team would suffer was in the state semifinals to St. Martinsville, a disappointment that 25 years later is now cloaked in nostalgia but still sprinkled with "what if's."
“When you think of some of the people that are on that team, that’s what stands out the most is the loss, is that we couldn’t take it one step further,” Jay said.
Jay would get his state title just a few months later. On a whim he joined the wrestling team at Brother Martin. It was his senior year and the first time Rink had ever wrestled. All he did was win the state championship in the heavyweight division, a remarkable feat that over time taught Jay perhaps the greatest lesson of his life.
“It really digs down into your gut, and it proves who you really are as a person, and it challenges you as an individual,” Jay said. “So when things are down and things aren’t going your way, that’s the kind of sport that you can really, really go back on and pull experiences and say I can accomplish anything.”
June 28, 2010, Michelle Blister had a premonition that her last name would soon change. She had been dating Jay Rink for two years and the proposal on that night, on their two-year anniversary, was a certainty.
But Jay would not pop the question that night. Instead he and Michelle were hammered over the head with the news they had feared: the stiff joints, the muscle twitches, the weakness, the fatigue they had prayed was something else, wasn't. Jay was diagnosed with ALS.
“That was rough. That was a rough day,” Michelle said.
Jay and Michelle were married six months later.
“He said I wanted to be able to walk you up the aisle, and I want to be able to dance with you, and whatever time we have together I want to be able to spend it, our quality time, while we have it, so that’s when we decided to get married in January,” Michelle said.
The destination wedding, melding together not only his disease with her understanding, but his six kids with her two kids.
“We had four bridesmaids and four groomsmen built in, which were our children, which was great,” Jay said.
For now the everyday routine is doable but taxing on jay. His motor skills are deteriorating and so are his muscles.
ALS has no timetable, although some people have survived more than 10 years with the disease, but Jay also understands he cannot fight the inevitable. He knows he will soon be unable to work and to provide as he's always done. Soon he will need help.
Rick Crozier has a calling. He swims, rides and runs for those who can't. Triathlons are his challenge of choice. He trains, they gain. Through donors and sponsors Rick raises money for their needs, his wet suit a testament to his dedication.
“And the first two kids we did two years ago, Maggie Hebert and J.D. Bloom, we ran and raced for them. And the next two kids we had Aidan and Matthew, two wonderful kids again,” Rick said.
No cause is more important than the other, but his most recent inspiration was a little more personal. Rick has known Jay since they played football together at Tulane. That's also how Rick ended up marrying Jay's sister.
“So I met her, and I’m like, I didn’t say anything to him, because he was big, strong, and faster than me, and I didn’t know him that well, so I didn’t want to say his sister was cute,” Rick said.
Rick seemed to always know when to ask permission and when to ask forgiveness with his brother in law. He chose the latter when it came to his next triathlon campaign.
Eventually, Jay’s Defensive Line was formed, and Rick would not be alone in his training.
As the word got out donations flowed in, and wannabe triathletes flew in. At last month’s iron man competition here in New Orleans, there were 2700 participants. Thirty-six were competing for Jay's Defensive Line, from Maine to California, from Minnesota to Florida. Some knew Jay from Johnny Bright Playground, some were classmates at Brother Martin or Tulane, some were co-workers. All were attacking a challenge and a disease.
In all, the weekend raised more than $100,000, and just as important it showed Jay Rink how lucky he truly is.
“You hear Lou Gehrig’s speech, and you wonder why he says he’s the luckiest man in the world. You get it a little bit now, I get it. I get why he said that. It helps me understand a little bit,” Jay said. “He’s the luckiest man in the world because the family, the support and the people he’s been around. You’re fortunate enough to be able to appreciate that.”
A recent study at Boston University has discovered a possible link between the head trauma associated with contact sports and ALS. Jay says he's already arranged to donate his brain to that study in hopes of one day finding a cure.
For more info on Jay's Defensive Line, head to their website, http://makethebankpay.com/