Sunday, January 6, 2013

0 Legacy of Notre Dame star Peter Demmerle, who died of Lou Gehrig's disease, will be rekindled with BCS championship vs. Alabama on horizon

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Kate Demmerle, a widow dressed in pink and white, crouches beneath a wooden chair in her Greenwich, Conn., kitchen on a recent afternoon.

She pulls open two white cupboard doors beneath the sink to an array of DVDs and VHS tapes ranging from her four daughters’ school plays to lacrosse games to her late husband Peter’s days as a Notre Dame split end. In the back left corner, six videocassettes are stacked atop each other in covers logged with water from a recent leak. She eyes each label, highlights reeling in her head.


“These are the best plays from the 1973 Notre Dame team,” she says.

She puts down one tape; she lifts another.

“This has the 1973 Sugar Bowl against Alabama on it,” she says. “Kind of a theme here.”

When Notre Dame meets Alabama in a celebrated rematch for the national title on Monday night in Miami, it will bring air into the lungs of Peter’s legacy five years after he lost an extended battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Inside a Gambrel-style house with green shudders, Kate and her youngest daughter, Nina, cue up grainy clips from the Dec. 31, 1973 contest, widely considered the greatest college game ever played. On the screen, Peter, wearing No. 85 in a white road jersey, his name emblazoned in navy on the back, cuts across the field, demonstrating uncommon skill as a receiver. Nearly 40 years later and more than 1,300 miles south, at Sun Life Stadium, his daughter, Tessa, a Notre Dame senior, will attend Monday’s game, carrying the family’s flag for the Irish.

“Peter really epitomized the Notre Dame athlete,” says Terry Hanratty, a former Fighting Irish quarterback and consensus All-American.

“He was the pinnacle.”

Demmerle’s feats from his breakout performance in prime time on that New Year’s Eve still flow forward on film. After his first catch — a 20-yard gain — Howard Cosell, ABC’s bombastic announcer, commenced praise of Demmerle on air:

They always used to kid Pete. They said he wasn’t fast enough for the position, like they used to say about a kid named Howie Twilley. But he’s always open and he has the hands . . .

There was a tornado warning earlier that night, but only Demmerle whirled across Tulane Stadium’s rain-soaked turf in the first quarter.

Former New Canaan football teammates Lenny Paglialunga, (c.), Brian Sikorski (r.) and Jack Zucco talk in the New Canaan football office with a memorial Demmerle shirt.

Passes from quarterback Tom Clements continued to come his way as the same offensive series rolled down field. On the next throw, Clements dropped another ball into Demmerle’s hands for a 26-yard catch. Then, they went for 16 yards, placing the Irish inside the five-yard line.

Cosell, familiar with Demmerle from his prep star days in Connecticut, interjected once again.

He is having a ball! He thinks he’s back at New Canaan High School!

Demmerle’s superb stretch set up a Notre Dame touchdown. He put himself in the official books a few minutes later. After freshman Al Hunter returned a kickoff 94 yards without an Alabama defender so much as putting a hand on him, Demmerle sprinted down the field, into a dog pile of Notre Dame celebrants. To punctuate his output, Demmerle hauled in the two-point conversion to take a 14-7 advantage, one of six lead changes that landed the Irish a 24-23 win and title under coach Ara Parseghian.

I don’t know how that Demmerle does it, but he does it!

Once capable of catching any ball he laid a finger on, Demmerle, known simply as “Hands,” lost all motor skills to the neurological disorder characterized by progressive degeneration of neuron cells in the spinal cord and brain. Blessed with an acumen that allowed him to serve as a partner for an international law firm, he eventually withered away in a motorized wheelchair and took his last breath through a ventilator on May 24, 2007. He was 53. His contributions to football and law are recalled under a golden dome in South Bend, Ind., on a silver tray in London and on granite in a New Canaan cemetery.

“He liked to say he was born under a lucky star,” says his brother, Mark. “Where he ended up was the dark side of the moon from where he’d been.”

Demmerle never loses his shine on tape. Standing in the kitchen that doubled as an intensive care unit during the winter of Demmerle’s life, Kate, now a compliance associate for an investment bank, looks at the 1973 title game film as natural light spills in the room.

“You couldn’t keep him on the ground,” she says. “It’s just exciting and sad.”

* * *

He was first deployed as a weapon at flanker for New Canaan. Coach Bob Lynch, a bold, charismatic play caller who drove a silver Jaguar XKE down South Ave. and chewed cigars on the sideline, identified a fearless streak in Demmerle. Together, they spurred the highest-flying offense to blow through Connecticut in the late 1960s. Local scribes labeled the pass-happy attack an “air circus” and “scoreboard stampede.”

“Peter never worried about the first tackler coming for him,” says Bo Hickey, a Lynch product who played one season in the NFL. “That guy wasn’t gonna get him.”

Demmerle’s disciplined approach sprung him into open fields. A masterful route runner, he could turn five-yard buttonhooks into 75-yard touchdowns, a collection of opposing cornerbacks left as detritus in his wake. So expected were his receptions that one afternoon in practice, Kurt Horton, the quarterback, threw a simple comeback to Demmerle. Somehow, the sure-handed Demmerle dropped it.

Lynch picked the ball up, spun it several times in silence and threw it over the fence. “Defective,” Lynch said.

Demmerle's No. 23 jersey is retired at New Canaan High School. Here he is wearing No. 89 earlier in his career for the Rams.

Lynch led his teenage troops through heady times. To celebrate a state-title win Demmerle’s sophomore year, parents flew the boys down to the Orange Bowl in Miami to watch Joe Namath buoy the Jets past Johnny Unitas’ Colts in Super Bowl III. It was the first time many of the players traveled by plane, but the ride continued the next two seasons as the streak extended to 33 victories and two more titles. He once made 18 catches for 316 yards in a single contest. By his final game, Demmerle established career marks for receptions (165), yards (2,550) and touchdowns (28).

“They should have an asterisk,” says Hanratty, who lives in New Canaan. “There was no spread offense then.”

Demmerle cut a wide swath. Classmates recall a serious, quiet student who devoured books. He was a member of the National Honor Society, and his parents bought him a leather-bound collection of author Miguel de Cervantes’ works in Spanish for graduation. In his senior yearbook, Demmerle cites Richie Havens as a favorite singer. His favorite quote reads, “If there wasn’t a God, people would have to invent one.”

“Peter was infallible to us,” Horton says.

Demmerle’s efforts remain everlasting in town, where his No. 23 is retired. On a recent morning, Hickey, superintendent of Lakeview Cemetery, where Demmerle is buried beneath a weeping cherry tree, walks out of his office, past a white barn. Between a white fence and brown dumpster lies a plywood board over a stone. New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli and Brian Sikorski, a former teammate of Demmerle’s, stand off to the side. Fallen leaves cover the inscriptions. On the rock is a granite plaque listing Demmerle’s accomplishments. Hickey, who also played for Lynch, sprays Windex and starts scrubbing.

“See the gold coming out?” Hickey says, tobacco juice dripping from his lip.

“You’ve got to put some real elbow grease on it,” Sikorski says.

Hickey looked for just the right stone at 20 construction sites from New Canaan to Ridgefield, Conn. to honor Demmerle. It weighs two and a half tons. Demmerle’s resume, ranging from state titles to his enrollment at Fordham Law School, reflects off the granite. It is 16 lines in all. Sikorski wrote the words, but Lynch, who died from lung cancer on Super Bowl Sunday in 2011, authored the schemes in Demmerle’s first act.

“The one we should be talking to is Bob Lynch,” Hickey says, throwing a wad of tobacco to the ground, “but he ain’t here no more.”

* * *

The first stop that Demmerle made each time he set out for South Bend was his quarterback’s hometown in McKees Rocks, Pa., five miles up the Ohio River from Pittsburgh. Once there, he connected with Clements. By day, they threw passes, refining their rapport, at a high school field. By night, they tossed back beers at local taverns, drinking in the final days before training camp under head coach Parseghian.

Kate Demmerle (second from l.) with daughters Tessa (from l.), Nina and Cara standing in front of banner that hangs in Notre Dame Stadium and honors husband and father Peter Demmerle.

Notre Dame’s golden dome was a beacon to Demmerle. His father, Theodore, made it through Our Lady’s university in three years as a civil engineering major, but Demmerle’s path demanded more patience.

As a freshman, he lived at Sorin Hall, an all-boys dormitory, with Clements and enjoyed a successful season on the freshman team. He also needed to learn blocking leverage, insisting that his previous approach was little more than wrapping himself like a wet towel around the ankles of larger linemen.

“Peter couldn’t run a 4.7 40 if he was charging downhill,” his brother Mark says. “But he was smart.”

He emerged in Miami during the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1973. Not to be lost in the Irish’s 40-6 loss to Nebraska was Demmerle’s first touchdown, the lone score for Notre Dame. He took the stepping-stone in stride the next fall, stretching out for shoestring catches. He developed an uncommon relationship with Clements. Tight end Dave Casper, a quiet, overwhelming physical player known as The Ghost, complemented Demmerle. Celebrations followed at Corby’s, an off-campus bar. They sang loudly on late-night walks back across campus.

“Too many beers to remember who sang well,” Clements says.

Sobering moments ensued. The undefeated Irish finished the campaign against Alabama once again, this time in the Orange Bowl.
With less than four minutes left, Demmerle, an All-American and Rhodes Scholar nominee, caught a pass and turned toward the sideline. He was tackled by an Alabama player. Demmerle’s knee was hyperextended. He tore every tendon and ligament. It ballooned like a basketball.

“Might as well have amputated it,” Mark says.

With Demmerle forecasted to be a third-round pick in the NFL draft before the injury, San Diego selected him in the 13th round.
He arrived in camp with a scar that resembled a train track over his knee, but never received a full opportunity. The next summer, he accepted an invitation to Giants training camp. To reinforce the importance of ball security, Giants receivers were docked a quarter for each drop.

Demmerle displayed devilish skills, but was cut in the first week of September. He gave the team 75 cents.

His Giants experience proved priceless. According to his brother Mark, Peter was told by a member of the organization to apply to Fordham’s law school. Demmerle was confused. The semester was about to begin, but Demmerle did as told. There, on the first day, was Demmerle. Also in the class was John Mara, the son of Giants owner Wellington Mara. John Mara found it “somewhat odd” that a player could change courses so suddenly.

“We recruited Peter for our intramural flag football team,” says John Mara, now the Giants co-owner, “Peter declined.”

Fordham facilitated Demmerle’s career, but Notre Dame never left him.

Later in life, when ALS leveled Demmerle, doctors at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital scanned his brain for signs of the concussions he suffered as a player. They found no correlation to ALS, but his former teammates proved to be part of the support system surrounding him.

As Demmerle lost his voice and typed with a keyboard synthesizer as his sole means of communication, his home was a meeting place for Notre Dame ghosts. Casper stopped by three times and included Demmerle in his induction to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. From the 1966 Notre Dame team that won a national title came John Lium, Dick Swatland, Tom Longo and Pete Duranko. They introduced themselves as national champions, just like Demmerle. Demmerle, sharp as ever, typed a distinction. His team went undefeated; the 1966 boys tied Michigan State.

“Undefeated,” Demmerle typed. “Untied.”

The patio area erupted with Demmerle, unable to control his emotions by then, laughing the longest. He enjoyed shared memories, but it wasn’t just the past that elicited such vitality. He touched the future, too. On June 11, 2006, John Sullivan, then a Notre Dame center, brought quarterback Brady Quinn and two teammates. Filled with ambition and readying for pro careers, Quinn and Sullivan absorbed his condition.

“It was a privilege,” Sullivan says.

* * *

The Rectory was a room one space from Don Greene’s office on the lowest floor the firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, L.L.P. occupied high above Manhattan. Greene, a name partner, sat with first-year associates for progress reports. When he met with Demmerle, Greene recognized an “indomitable spirit.” Greene liked to play with fire. He goaded the former football player, ranking him third among three in his class.

“He deferred to me a little too much,” says Greene, now retired, “so I kicked him in the ass a few times.”

Peter Demmerle with his family, wife Kate and four daughters.

Demmerle was dogged. Greene mentored him, telling him to extricate himself from work in utilities to get into insurance. Demmerle was slow in doing so, but finally made the move. His work brought him to England, assisting with the workload related to Lloyd’s of London, the famed insurance market. Twice, Demmerle and his wife, also a lawyer, lived in London for two-year stints. He loved the pubs, poking fun at anyone within earshot, and debating the merits of English and American laws.

His greatest contribution came in preserving Lloyd’s trading position in the United States. His office was central command in an effort to restructure Lloyd’s, which was drowning in bad publicity for losses that tested its coffers. Demmerle was charged with buying time. It was an intense period replete with 18-hour workdays. Demmerle became the catalyst to cut through knots. Tom Dawson, a co-worker, noted strains.

“There were days when I think it took someone like Peter to withstand all of it,” Dawson says. “Unrelenting stress, mentally and physically.”

One afternoon, in the summer of 1999, Demmerle called home to alert his wife that he would take a later train. His speech was slurred. She asked if he was drunk, but he was insistent that he had not touched a drink. Life was on the upswing at the time. He and Kate had just purchased a 10-acre plot of land in Telluride, Colo. where they planned to ski their golden years away.
Instead, they visited a doctor at Columbia Presbyterian who diagnosed him with ALS, then sought a second opinion at Johns Hopkins and Mass General. Doctors agreed and asked him to donate his brain and spine to medical research.

He sat with Greene in his office to let him know his fate. Greene had always envisioned Demmerle as the future chairman. They cried together in private.

“I don’t want to paint him as an idol or god,” Greene says, “but he was popular with everyone in every way.”

Still, Demmerle worked. There was a certain amount of time he needed to put in to assure financial security for his family if and when he was to die. He lost his ability to communicate, but that never slowed him. He lost his ability to walk regularly, but that only brought him to find new means. When he commuted into Manhattan on the MTA’s New Haven line, he carried cards in his pocket that read simply: “Please take me to Grand Central” and “Please take me to West 55th Street.” He handed them to cab drivers.

“It’s amazing what you can do when you have to,” Kate says.

His name became synonymous with ALS. He was an advocate for improved research against an undefeated disease. In 2002, at Wings Over Wall Street, a charitable fundraising dinner in Manhattan, Demmerle received the spirit award for his efforts in raising awareness. Over $225,000 was raised at the auction, with the London insurance community presenting a check for $65,000 dedicated to research in honor of Demmerle.

“At the end, with all the suffering, friends didn’t know which way to root,” says Peter Barrett, chairman at Bell and Clements Limited. “He fought the whole way.”

Demmerle is buried in Lakeview Cemetery.

Co-workers, including Greene, packed the pews inside St. Michael the Archangel Church in Greenwich for Demmerle’s funeral on a sunny day. He was buried in a private ceremony at Lakeview Cemetery. His brother Mark left last, watching as gravediggers filled the hole with dirt swung by backhoes just feet from their mother’s grave.

Memories are rooted in various places. Peter’s brain and spine were donated to Columbia Presbyterian. The voice he took on through the synthesizer continues to carry, as well. Dawson hears it when he clicks on to certain web sites every now and then.

“Eerie,” Dawson says.

The firm they fought for is all but gone now. On May 28, Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, filed for bankruptcy protection, effectively ending what was at its height a 1,300-lawyer global enterprise, marking one of the largest law-firm failures in U.S. history.

“Thank God he never lived to see that disaster,” Dawson says.

There’s a place where Demmerle’s legal legacy glitters. In a boardroom at Lloyd’s, a collection of silver objects commemorates moments in history. There, on a silver tray dedicated to those who helped keep Lloyd’s afloat during reconstruction is Demmerle’s name.

Kate and the kids were shown it on a trip to London after his death.

“He used to comment to me from time to time that he thought his work was thankless,” Dawson says. “I miss laughing with him. I haven’t been able to replace that.”

* * *

On Aug. 21, Edward Hums, a bespectacled professor at Notre Dame, walked to his Accountancy I class inside 317 DiBartolo Hall just before 9:35 a.m. Leading into the semester, he noted “Demmerle” on his course’s sign-up sheet. He wondered whether it could be Peter’s daughter and scanned the room when he walked in. To the right, sitting on the end of a row, was Tessa, Peter’s third born. Hums recognized her father’s features.

“My heart leapt with joy,” Hums says.

Hums waited. In the next class he mentioned the national championship ring that he wore from the 1973 team, for which he served as a student trainer. Tessa was intrigued. She approached him after class and asked if he had known her father.

“We’re forever frozen in our hearts and minds at 21,” Hums says. “Her face was as if you ran Peter’s through a Xerox.”

The professor is the last living link to the 1973 team on campus, but Tessa has come across more reminders of her father. There’s his banner inside the stadium, emblazoned with a photo of him looking a ball into his hands. When Tessa visited campus during the application process four years ago, her mother suggested they visit the basement room her father lived in at Sorin. Tessa was attracted to the idea of leaving Greenwich then. She noted that she was known as “the girl with the sick father” in town, and hoped for broader horizons in the Midwest.

She will graduate in May with degrees in English and economics. She has accepted a position with a re-insurance company in Chicago.

“I finally feel at home now, and oh gosh, I’m going to have to move on,” she says.

Her father embraced scene changes throughout his sickness. On weekends, Kate and his daughters drove him around. One winter, they were invited to a party near their home. They pushed Peter’s wheelchair and loaded him into their van. One problem: the house was not as accessible as the owner believed. Kate told the girls to stay.

Upset with herself for not making perfectly certain that the house was good to go, Kate brought Peter home. Once there, he pointed to the letters on his board.

“You must really love me,” he spelled out.

Kate believes Peter is smiling down on them still. Their eldest daughter, Cara, a health insurance specialist at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was married at St. Michael the Archangel Church last January. In December, Tessa entered the lottery for student tickets when Notre Dame reached the title game and won a spot.

“I never win things like that,” Tessa says.

She arrived Friday and met up with friends. She is not as spiritual as her mother, but Tessa does not rule out an invisible hand reaching out once more.

“Maybe dad’s pulling some strings,” she says.


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