On Dec. 14, 2011, Howard Bell was faced with a choice.
As a 47-year-old in a St. Louis hospital, he had just learned 50 was a long shot.
An incurable neurological disorder, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, would weaken his body over time and eventually take his life.
That part was out of his hands.
Nor was the choice to gamely fight the disease: An undersized ballplayer who grinded out a fine career by outworking others, his forthcoming fight was a given.
But while many ALS victims — or others terminally ill from any disease — become reclusive and cold, the Glendale High School baseball coach chose to never lose his warmth, wit or message.
He had lived a good life, and was a very lucky man until that unseasonably warm December day.
But Bell’s message remained positive. He wanted everyone to know he was OK, right up until his passing Friday in his Springfield home.
It’s only fitting that ALS is best known for it’s most famous victim, New York Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig, who is best known for his famous speech shortly after learning his ultimate fate.
“Today, I consider myself, the luckiest man on the face of the Earth,” Gehrig told fans on July 4, 1939, in Yankee Stadium. “And I might’ve been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.”
I could see Bell giving that same speech in the winter of his life.
Howard was teaching and coaching until the end — like Kickapoo girls’ basketball coach Stephanie Phillips, who died in July 2010 after a three-year fight with cancer.
Bell’s players said he molded them not just on the field, but into virtuous and tough young men off it.
During his fight with ALS — more than ever — he showed them how.
I was lucky enough to be among his many visitors at the house the past couple of years. I spent a half-dozen or so afternoons with him, some of my favorites in my three years in the Ozarks.
I confess now that each time, a part of me did not want to go. I worried this was the time where Howard would no longer be Howard.
It’s hard to see a friend in pain, and worse when their spirit is affected.
That was never the case, as I’d always leave warmed and amazed at the strength and grace of Howard and his wife, Kim.
Howard always had a game on TV. He mostly wanted to talk sports and thank friends and the community for recent showings of support.
He would talk excitedly about the next trip his oldest daughter Keshia was taking home from Las Vegas. Or, he’d relay stories about the tough love his sarcastic youngest daughter, Kameron, used to keep him in line.
I’d ask the tough questions at the end, but he was always reassuring … “It’s all positive” … “I’m going to be OK.”
I was at Bell’s house the day last spring when former NFL star Junior Seau committed suicide.
The coach was empathetic. This despite the younger Seau willingly giving his life, while Bell surely grappled with why his was being taken away.
“You never know what’s really going on in someone’s life,” Bell said.
That’s Howard, the Glendale freshman health teacher. He was always looking for the student who might be hurting, or needed friendly support. He had a gift of making students, and everyone, feel special.
During my visit with Howard last fall leading up to the Missouri State and Drury baseball benefit, Howard and Kim had a gift for me.
It was a promotional poster for the game, featuring a picture of his faded Southwest Missouri State No. 1 jersey. Howard had autographed the bottom of the poster.
That night, I hung it right next to my front door. Since then, it’s been the last thing I see before leaving my apartment.
It’s a reminder that no matter what goes wrong, we have to keep a positive attitude and remember the great things in our lives.
Because as Howard Bell’s time grew shorter and his heart grew warmer, he wasn’t just showing us how to act when our time comes.
He chose to teach us how to live.
Contact Matt Schoch at 417-836-1191 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MattSchochNL.