Truthfully? He wasn't that cognizant of the disease, not until it jumped him from behind and leveled him with a blow that leaves him staggering still. Red Sox pitcher Mike Timlin knew there was a dreadful affliction named after Lou Gehrig that did unspeakable things to its victims, but it wasn't until many months after his mother, Sharon Timlin, began inexplicably dragging her leg that he was forced to confront the nightmare called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
His mother loved to wake up early and watch the sun rise. She cherished her naps, enjoyed beading wedding dresses, and had taken up painting. The sudden laziness of her leg, a cranky back, and increasing fatigue were puzzling ailments.
"She probably had it a year before we realized it," said Timlin. "She was misdiagnosed. We thought it was her back."
He knows now this is not unusual. ALS often goes undiagnosed for long stretches. The disease breaks down nerve cells gradually, robbing victims of their ability to move, speak, and ultimately breathe. Lou Gehrig's disease is always fatal, always devastating.
"There is no definite test for it," said Rich Kennedy, president of the Angel Fund, a nonprofit charity that raises funds for ALS research. "In the beginning, it gets confused with multiple sclerosis or chronic fatigue syndrome. People don't want to look at ALS because it's such a horrible answer."
Kennedy, a physical therapist, lost his father to ALS. Then, in 1996, his 31-year-old brother Jimmy also died from the disease, leaving behind a devastated young family that had been forced to watch a vibrant man deteriorate before its eyes.
"It was excruciating to watch," Kennedy said. "You know he's in there, and he gets the joke, but he can't laugh."
Timlin's mother was diagnosed with ALS in May of 2001. She faced her fate with dignity and grace, holding her family close even as she slipped away.
"You don't realize until she's gone that she was definitely the glue that held Mike's family so close," said Dawn Timlin, Mike's wife. "She was the one that would egg Mike on and say, `Have you given your sisters a call lately?' Those phone calls have been more sporadic since she's been gone."
Sharon Timlin loved open spaces, fall in New England, watching her son pitch. She occasionally followed the Red Sox on the road, making friends with fans in the stands.
"My mom could talk to anybody anywhere about anything," Timlin said. "When she lost her voice in the latter stages of the disease, we got her a poke board, so she could drum up the letters, but she didn't really like it. You could usually tell what she wanted to say by looking at her."
During his mother's illness, Timlin became acutely aware of how underfunded ALS research is. Kennedy, who serves as the Angel Fund's president on a volunteer basis, points out, "For every dollar donated to ALS, there is $400 spent on attempts to cure male baldness."
Timlin's teammate Curt Schilling is a spokesman for the national ALS organization, while Timlin and his family have aligned themselves with the Angel Fund, which funnels money directly toward research at the Cecil B. Day Laboratory for Neuromuscular Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Dr. Robert H. Brown Jr. has made tremendous strides in attempts to find a cure.
Last season, Timlin pledged a $500 donation for every appearance he made in a Red Sox game. He wound up donating $40,000 to the Angel Fund, an amount the Red Sox graciously matched. The pitcher and his team will do the same again this summer.
In appreciation, the Angel Fund, along with the Hopkinton Running Club, will host the Sharon Timlin 5K Road Race to Cure ALS Sunday in Hopkinton. Dawn Timlin, a veteran of the Boston Marathon, will run with her 7-year-old son Jake. Her husband, as always, will contribute in more subtle ways.
"I don't do that much," Timlin insisted. "All I do is run out on the field and donate money. I wish I could do more."
"I have never seen a classier athlete," said Kennedy. "He's quiet, dignified, not showy. He has been the perfect spokesman."
Timlin's efforts came too late for his mother, who died March 12, 2002, surrounded by her family. Right up until her death, she still awoke early to watch the sun rise, to watch a new day begin.
Her son dreams of the day her legacy will be providing another morning for each ALS patient, to find a cure for a horror no family should endure.
The Angel Fund is a nonprofit organization that benefits the Day Neuromuscular Research Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. Donations can be made online at www.theangelfund.org or by mail to: The Angel Fund, 649 Main Street, Wakefield, MA 01880