Beyond the Scoreboard: ALS football deaths include a link to WNC

Bob Waters, Western Carolina Football
Former Western Carolina football coach Bob Waters died of ALS at age 50 in 1989. (Photo credit: WCU)

The sad news that former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark passed away last week is another tragic reminder of the possible link between pro football, head trauma and the fatal illness ALS.

And it includes a link to a pair of local football legends, WNC Sports Hall of Fame members who died nearly 30 years apart from Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

A rare neurodegenerative disease that afflicts just five in 100,000 people in the U.S., amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is being diagnosed in former NFL players at a rate four times more than the general population.

In a well-researched article last week in the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, writer Elliott Almond noted that federal researchers began studying the link between ALS and football players six years ago.

From data collected from more than 3,000 former NFL players who spent at least five years in the league from 1959-88, Almond wrote that players had triple the chance of risk of death from brain diseases as compared to other people.

There are 13 former NFL players who have ALS or died from the disease.

Among them are Bob Waters, who played for the 49ers and went on to become the beloved all-time winningest football coach at Western Carolina.

Waters, who coached up until a few months before his death at age 50 in 1989, received a lot of attention and helped fundraising to fight ALS with his very public battle to keep coaching despite the disease.

Gary Lewis and Matt Hazeltine, teammates of Waters’ on the 49ers 1964 team, also died of ALS a month apart in 1986-87.

Mickey Marvin, who starred at Brevard High and West Henderson High and was an All-American lineman at the University of Tennessee, died of ALS at age 61 last year.

Marvin, a popular figure in WNC after his retirement from the NFL, played 11 seasons for the Oakland Raiders and won two Super Bowl titles.

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