ABSECON — Kelly Walsh feels close to her dad, Bill, when she walks the hallways of Holy Spirit High School.
Bill isn’t much of a physical presence at Spirit these days, but his soul fills the school.
Bill was the Spartans’ head football coach from 2003-07 and assistant from 2014-17. He was the school’s director of institutional advancement while head football coach.
He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — in early 2017. Bill has lost weight. He can’t talk and must use a feeding tube.
Kelly, 17, is a Spirit junior and a field hockey and softball player.
“When I was younger, I knew he was a big part of Holy Spirit,” Kelly said of her dad. “But I never realized how much of an impact he has here. I come to school, and I feel safe. I feel like he’s here.”
MARGATE — In life, as in football, Holy Spirit High School assistant coach Bill Walsh believ…
“The support we have is so humbling,” Kelly said. “But I think right now more than ever we need help. We need everyone to come together.”
A 1985 graduate, Walsh played quarterback and middle linebacker for the Spartans. The only thing those two positions have in common is that the quarterback leads the offense, while the middle linebacker leads the defense.
Holy Spirit was floundering when Walsh took over as head football coach in 2003. He pumped life back into the school by winning games on the field and raising funds off it.
“The best thing we can do now is everything he taught us: keep fighting,” said Joe Farrow, a 2005 Spirit graduate who grew up with the Walsh family.
Kelly is the only child of Bill and his wife, Cindy. But Farrow is like her brother. Farrow played for Walsh at Spirit. He came from a rough home life, so Walsh took him into his Galloway Township home.
Farrow, 33, now works as a federal corrections officer in Philadelphia and lives in Mays Landing with his wife, Gianna, and his 2-year-old daughter, Ava.
“He raised me,” Farrow said. “The hardest thing is to sit there and watch a guy who took care of you and made sure I was OK, now all I want to do is make sure he’s OK, and I don’t have any control over how to do that.”
The Holy Spirit High School football team wanted to retire Bill Walsh’s number.
Bill went for multiple tests and saw multiple doctors before the ALS diagnosis was made. He and Cindy broke the news to Kelly at a family dinner.
“He said, ‘It’s pretty sure we have ALS,’” Kelly said. “He’s always been such a positive person. I don’t think he knew how to explain to me, and how does one 14- or 15-year-old daughter take that? It was a lot to take in at once.”
Farrow and Kelly are in constant communication with each other. Kelly often researches ALS online to see whether there’s any new treatments.
“We’re always trying to figure out what’s new,” she said.
Bill’s treatments are expensive. The disease has taken its toll.
The ALS struck first in his chest and throat, making eating impossible.
But Bill still rises early most days, just like he used to. He spends time on the computer or reading.
He gets outside as much as possible, sometime sitting on a swing in the backyard and listening to music on headphones.
“He’s always listening to music,” Kelly said. “he listens to all kinds of stuff — country music, sometimes some sad songs.”
I can still remember those muggy days in August over a decade ago.
Bill doesn’t want the people around him to be upset. It’s hard for him to even ask for help.
Kelly and Joe are speaking out now about what Bill is going through in part because so many people want to know how he’s doing and to raise attention for the fundraiser. Bill can’t have too many visitors.
“His love is still strong,” Farrow said. “He’s like an elephant. He doesn’t forget. If you sent him a text five years ago, he doesn’t forget it.”
Last season, Bill sat in his truck and watched Kelly play. This season, in his current condition, that might be difficult, but the family plans to record or take photos of games to show Bill at home.
“Field hockey and especially softball are such an escape,” Kelly said. “It helps so much.”
Bill’s primary message as a coach to his players was that they had to learn how to handle adversity. That message got through to Kelly. She says she’s learning something new every day about life and how to face its challenges. Spirit softball coach Steve Normane said Kelly is focused at practice but also knows when to crack a joke to lighten things up when the team needs it. Like her dad, Normane said, Kelly is a tenacious competitor.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles joined another team a few days ago.
“She’s not just getting through things,” Normane said. “She’s enjoying everything.”
Meanwhile, Bill’s actions now speak louder than his words. He is showing the Holy Spirit community how to persevere through adversity.
“I think everybody has realized who he truly is because of this battle,” Kelly said. “He’s constantly fighting. He’s not giving up. He’s looking forward. He’s looking ahead.”