BERWICK — Snow dusted parts of Crispin Field on a cold Friday morning. Inside the office at the fieldhouse sat George Curry. In the same room where he plotted Berwick’s football success, the legendary football coach talked about the biggest battle of his life.
“I thought I was in great shape,” Curry said. “I lost 110 pounds. I was running four miles a day. I felt great, eating healthy, going to church every morning. I don’t chew (tobacco). I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. And you know what, then all of a sudden. It got worst.”
It was ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Curry, 71, was diagnosed midway through this past football season with the progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
Curry sensed something was wrong just before official practice started in August. He was moving well in late June when he attended an eligibility hearing for two Nanticoke transfers at Dallas High School. But by the middle of August, he had trouble holding his head erect and his ability to walk had changed dramatically.
Doctors conducted various tests on the coach and began treating him for myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that creates muscle weakness and fatigue.
“But it wasn’t that,” Curry said. “He said, ‘You got ALS.’”
Curry is being treated locally and is in a research program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. His once powerful voice has been reduced to a raspy whisper, a side effect of a medication Curry said.
“It creates extreme hoarseness,” Curry said. “Sometimes it feels like there’s a lump in you throat. I know I got it. I know every minute of the day what’s coming. It’s something everyday.
“I’m going to try to beat it.”
Dealing with the disease: Curry told only a few people about his ALS during the season, but word quickly spread though it was never made public. He had trouble standing at times late in the season, often sitting on a Gatorade cooler to coach. He said it wasn’t because of ALS but due to a past medical condition.
Curry beat prostate cancer years ago. In order to prevent the urge to need a restroom during a game, he wouldn’t eat or drink from mid-morning on. It led to dehydration and weakness.
“That wasn’t all ALS,” Curry said. “Many years ago, I had cancer. My prostate, they took it out. From 10:30 in the morning I didn’t eat or drink. By the fourth quarter, I was done. I was cramping, I couldn’t move. I had to sit. The ballboys followed me with the Gatorade jug. In the fourth quarter, I told my trainer to give me two bottles of water.”
Curry also had to delegate coaching duties to his assistant coaches. He used a voice amplifier – a device with a small microphone attached to a speaker on his belt – so he could be heard.
“The voice is shot. I’m not as good with my movements,” Curry said, “but the brain is sharp.”
He demonstrated that by sketching out offensive and defensive fronts on paper and showing how the Denver Broncos attacked differently against the last two quarterbacks they played – New England’s Tom Brady and Carolina’s Cam Newton.
“I love scheming,” Curry said. “It’s too bad. I’ll probably be in a wheelchair next year.”
Back at Berwick: Curry returned to Berwick in 2012 after Gary Campbell Jr. resigned abruptly about a month before official practice was to start to return to Wahconah High School in Dalton, Massachusetts.
Campbell recommended Berwick consider Curry, who retired from coaching for a second time in 2008 after three years at Wyoming Valley West, because there wasn’t enough time to accept applications and conduct a thorough interviewing process.
Curry returned on an interim basis with the intention of staying no more than three years. He coached four years, led the Dawgs to four consecutive appearances in the District 2 Class 3A championship game and brought the title back to Berwick in 2013.
He also became enamored with the current group of juniors, a class he believes has the ability to be champions in 2016. He would have loved to coach those players as seniors, but knows physically he’s unable to do so.
“What pisses me off is we have 18 starters coming back from a team that was in the championship,” Curry said.
Frank Sheptock, former head coach at Wilkes University and current Berwick athletic director, was hired as Berwick’s new coach. Curry has great faith in Sheptock, citing his standout career as a player at Mount Carmel High School and Bloomsburg University.
“He’s a worker,” Curry said.
Stunning numbers: Curry’s 46-year coaching career ended with a 37-7 loss to Scranton Prep in the D2-3A championship game. His 455 career victories are the most by a Pennsylvania high school football coach. But he’s not done teaching the game he loves. He will be conducting his annual quarterback camp at Crispin Field on May 28.
“Here’s how I look at it,” Curry said. “I didn’t get worse.”