Hoke coach battles ALS courageously

tstevens@newsobserver.com April 26, 2013 

Hoke County baseball coach Mike Ray, who is coaching this season despite being diagnosed with ALS, will receive the N.C. High School Athletic Association’s Courage Award next week during its annual meeting at Chapel Hill.

Ray, 52, uses a walker and is coaching baseball from the dugout this season as the symptoms of his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) become more severe. Last year, he thought arthritis was causing the limp that required him use a cane, or occasionally a fungo bat.

He learned in November that he has ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Former East Carolina baseball coach Keith LeClair and former New York Yankee pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter had ALS.

“Coach Ray has been an inspiration to all of us.” said Gary Brigman, the Hoke athletic director. “He certainly didn’t want all of this attention, but I thought it was important to share his story with everyone.”

Ray said he was humbled to receive the award.

“I think the boys are really proud and it is good for the school and community,” Ray said. “Everybody at school seems enthused by it. But for me, I know I couldn’t be coaching without my assistant coaches (Buddy Currie, Bobby Britt, Terry Amaral). They do a lot.”

Ray is still teaching in his classroom for exceptional children, but he can’t do many of the things high school baseball coaches usually do, throwing batting practice, hitting fungoes, raking and shoveling the field.

But Brigman said Ray is doing more than ever. The coach is inspiring the community, the school and the entire region.

The baseball teams in the Southeastern 4A conference, of which Hoke is a member, have started a fund to fight ALS and every time Hoke plays a conference opponent on the road, Ray is presented with a check for ALS research.

“It isn’t a lot of money, but it has raised awareness and shown Ray how much everyone cares for him,” Brigman said.

Brigman said one of his favorite moments in sports is seeing the opposing team seek out Ray after a game to shake his hand, pat him on the back or speak to him.

“Watching the kids do that has been incredible,” Brigman said.

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