SEATTLE – They came from near and far to see Jeff Files. They came out of hazy memories of a time when his days were easier, when his body cooperated with his mind – in fact it performed athletic feats in front of thousands as a starter on the Washington State football team.
They came in T-shirt replicas of Files’ No. 41 jersey with his name on the back.
They came to say hello to an old friend, and almost certainly to say goodbye.
Files has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare but deadly neuron disease that causes muscles to rapidly atrophy. The median survival time for those diagnosed with ALS is just over three years.
So generations of Cougars ranging from Jim Walden, his old coach, to Jack Thompson – the record setting quarterback of 1978 – to last year’s kicker Andrew Furney, spent four hours before the Rutgers game in the parking lot of a nearby Salvation Army celebrating Files with beer, hot dogs, hamburgers and good friends.
“A lot of these guys haven’t seen him in 25, 30 years, haven’t seen Jeff,” said Ken Collins, who played with Files at WSU before embarking on an NFL career. “It’s just awesome to see him and it’s a great tribute to Jeff, and his life and we all love him, obviously. Everybody does. He is such a class act. To see Scott Pelluer, and Jack Thompson and Dave Harrison – we went through the wars together.”
There was no guarantee that Files, who was a successful dentist in Redmond, Washington, would make it to the tailgate party. Traveling is always difficult these days and Files had ALS-related surgery just two days prior. But with a community of Cougars out in support, he pulled through.
“He didn’t want to miss it,” his wife, Lisa, said. “There have been a lot of obvious illness challenges trying to get here but he wasn’t going to miss it. We made it and we’re thankful he’s here to see everyone.”
“A lot of people are here in spirit,” she added, noting that letters and phone calls have come in from those who were unable to make the trip to Seattle.
Files played two seasons at cornerback for the Cougars, collecting four interceptions for the 1981 team that won eight games and played in the Holiday Bowl that was WSU’s first postseason game in 50 years.
ALS is a rare disease that for most Americans is still associated primarily with the athletes it has afflicted – in the vernacular it is still known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease” after the famous Yankees outfielder.
In recent years, former WSU football and baseball player Steve Gleason has been the public face of the fight against the disease, and his Team Gleason foundation has brought the disease to the forefront of public perception in a remarkably short time since Gleason announced in 2011 that he suffers from ALS.
Awareness of the disease has skyrocketed lately, particularly due to this summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in which thousands of participants challenged their friends to donate money to fight the disease and to submit to having a bucket of ice water dumped on their head to provide a brief shock to the nervous system, and a moment of commonality with those whose nerves are under constant attack.
At WSU, computer sciences professor Dave Bakken has taken up the cause and will be advising a Team Gleason Club, of which Files’ son will be a founding member.
“ALS is so bad, we have to do something about it,” Bakken said. “You see young kids with their headphones and you don’t know what planet they’re on. But the ones that see ALS up close, once they see it they just say, ‘this is horrible, we have to do something.’ I’ve been really moved and inspired by that.”
And before Thursday’s game 50-100 people were inspired to come and support Jeff one last time, and to give generously to an ALS Association donation bucket that was passed around again and again.
“This speaks volumes as to the person that he is, to have this turnout,” Thompson said. “I got out of a bus about five blocks from here and I was already late and I actually ran, because there is no way I was going to miss it and everyone else feels the same.”