When he fell during a basketball game, his teammates teased him about being a middle-aged jock. When the resulting limp didn't go away, when it became worse, when the foot-drop developed, the teasing stopped and the long ordeal began.
Ernie Wallengren, junior varsity coach at Calabasas High School -- Coach Ernie, his players called him -- had developed ALS and it would soon sideline him from basketball, the passion he shared with his three sons and his teams. He had enjoyed a long successful career as E.F. Wallengren, writer and producer of television series -- everything from "The Waltons" to "Baywatch". But he chose to put his profession on hold to found a traveling team, the Blue Eagles, that included not only privileged neighbor kids, but troubled youths he pulled off the streets, kids with no place to go and no one to counsel them.
If his players couldn't afford fees, uniforms or trips, Ernie provided them. If they didn't have a place to stay they were always welcome at his house where there was a place to hang out, shoot hoops, swim and study. Ernie's wife Cheryl provided the food, their five lively kids the fun. As a long-time Lakers fan, he shared his season tickets with them.
The Blue Eagles won their share of trophies but beyond that their grades improved; they learned teamwork and discipline. When ALS relegated Ernie to a wheelchair on the sidelines, he continued to coach. Even after he became completely paralyzed and unable to speak or cheer, he attended their local and out-of-town games.
He was presented with the Courage Award at the annual pre-Jerry Lewis telethon gala and was the subject of several documentary films. Calabasas High paid tribute to him at a game, asking everyone who had played under Coach Ernie to come onto the floor at halftime. It almost emptied the stands. Today two basketball tournaments are still played in his honor -- one of them called the Ernie Tourney.
He never gave up. The month he died he consulted on the final episode of "Touched by an Angel", considered another coaching job, went to church, saw the latest movies. Friends and family continued to fill his life with laughter and encouragement as he had filled theirs, and they were there, standing room only around his bed, the night he died. His teams attended the funeral in their uniforms.
Each spring for the past eight years Ernie's family and friends have hosted a day of basketball at Calabasas High School, raising money for the E.F. Wallengren Fund which helps support The ALS Association's ongoing research efforts. In spite of the disease that eventually took his life, he never stopped believing that dreams don't die. We share his dream -- and we invite you to join us in our struggle to find a cure for a disease that all too often takes our loved ones.