The Fifth Horseman of Notre Dame

On May 24, 2007, one of the greatest football players in the history of the University of Notre Dame passed away after a courageous, eight-year battle with ALS. In the fall of 2006, nine months before Peter succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s Disease; I wrote an extended piece on him for the Notre Dame Football Annual. To honor him and those who continue to fight such an unforgiving disease here is that original article in its entirely.

He sits in a solitary wheelchair in the kitchen in the center of action so he can wordlessly observe the comings and goings of his beloved family.  During the day, he receives regular nourishment using a peg lodged in his stomach. He breathes through an incision in his windpipe that has left a permanent opening in his throat. His tracheostomy and his feeding contraption keep him alive. If the weather is nice, he is moved outside where he often listens to music or a book on his iPod. On special occasions, he may be transported to the local theater to view a movie of interest. At dinnertime, he is moved back to his bed where he watches television until he habitually goes to sleep at 11:00 pm.

Peter Demmerle, consensus All-American wide receiver, an integral member of the 1973 Notre Dame national championship football team, co-chairman of the insurance department at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in Manhattan, the father of four energetic daughters and an equally spirited wife, has moved nary a muscle in four years. As his devoted spouse, Kate, admits, “Peter is considered ‘total care’ in that he can do nothing for himself these days.”

ALS will do that even to the strongest of men.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” is a swiftly progressive, intrinsically fatal neurological malady that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. When a person contracts ALS, the upper and lower motor neurons completely degenerate, halting any messages to an individual’s muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, degenerate, and tremor Eventually, the ability of the brain to start and control voluntary movement is lost.  

Total paralysis – of all limbs and such major muscles as the diaphragm – occurs in every case, frequently with unrelenting haste. Incredibly, such an unbending disease does not typically impair a person’s mind, personality, intelligence, or memory, nor does it affect a person’s ability to see, hear, touch, or taste.

The cause of ALS is not known; scientists do not yet know exactly why ALS strikes some people and not others. While most ALS patients succumb fairly quickly, Peter Demmerle has hung on for an astounding seven years. The gifted wide receiver who persistently battled for each and every ball tossed his way at Notre Dame back in the glory years of the 1970’s is now fighting a far more imposing opponent.

The disease came on with little warning. During the summer of 1999, Demmerle began having difficulty pronouncing certain words. He also noticed that when he turned his head to back his car down the driveway, his neck would often go into excruciating spasms. As the summer turned to fall, he realized that he could not stick his tongue out straight – it began to veer to the side. Somewhat alarmed, he went to doctors, had the diagnostic tests, and was told that he was incurably ill.

His brother, Mark, recalls: “Peter asked me to join him for coffee at the Darien (CT) Starbucks which was very unusual given his work schedule. He told me that he had been diagnosed with ALS and that the illness was terminal. My brother then informed me that he had to resolve matters with his partners at his law firm in New York. Pete explained to me what causes the disease and briefly explained the new course his life would take.  I was speechless.”

The initial days of the illness were, in some way, the most trying. “We watched a lot of very scary movies those first months because that was the only thing that would take our minds off of what we were processing,” remembers his wife, Kate.  “Peter says that he eventually came to terms with the disease because he had no choice – ‘it was the card I drew,’ he said at the time.”

Before the diagnosis, Peter Demmerle had drawn a number of winning hands over the first forty-six years of his life until ALS stealthily crept into his system seven years ago. Because his father and uncle had both attended the University of Notre Dame, Pete Demmerle was weaned on the inimitable, cherished traditions of the Fighting Irish almost from the moment of birth. His brother, Mark, affectionately recalls a picture taken of Peter at the age of five clad in a Notre Dame sweatshirt while holding a football. A native of New Canaan, Connecticut, young Demmerle gradually evolved into the quintessential scholar-athlete by the time he hit early adolescence. In the end, Pete Demmerle seemed destined to play football at South Bend.

The future All-American wide receiver began to learn the fundamentals of the sport in middle school even as he developed a genuine love for the game when he played Pop Warner Football for the New Canaan team in the mid-1960’s. While he had a number of athletic mentors early on, his most influential instructor growing up turned out to be his high school coach, Bob Lynch. As Mark Demmerle fondly remembers, “Coach Lynch stressed the fundamentals of football; he refined the level of playing to a honed sophistication rarely seen at the high school level. New Canaan High School won consecutive state championships; some of Peter’s receiving records still stand in the state of Connecticut today, including his 102 receptions in the 1970 season.”   

As his graduation from New Canaan High School neared, it was anticipated within the Demmerle family circles that Pete would head off to Notre Dame. Scores of representatives from the customary “jock schools” also appeared on the front steps of his house in Connecticut. Ultimately, Pete Demmerle was inundated with scholarship offers from a multitude of colleges. However, because he was seeking a rigorous academic institution that equally emphasized creditable intercollegiate competition, Demmerle felt that Notre Dame, more than any other institution, suited his particular needs. In the late summer of 1971, he headed off to South Bend.

From the start, fabled Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian recognized that he had something truly unique in the wide-receiver from Southwestern Connecticut. As Mark Demmerle recalls, “Peter was blessed with extraordinary motor skills as a young man.”  

Coach Parseghian and his coaching staff quickly discerned that the unpretentious kid from New England was inherently talented, smart, and industrious. During his first months on campus, Demmerle could often be seen after practice, polishing his skills as a wide receiver. Looking back at that time through the lens of perspective, Mark Demmerle now believes that, “Peter simply capitalized on his strengths and focused on his weaknesses.”            

It was not just the Fighting Irish coaching staff that became aware of the unique qualities of the new wide receiver from Connecticut. Dave Casper, a burgeoning star on the team at the time, noticed straightaway that the freshman with the imposing talent and the impeccable work ethic had the potential to serve as one of the building blocks to a future championship team. “Pete could run, catch, block, and was smart.  He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” Casper remembers, thirty-four years after he first played with Demmerle. Casper, who would later blossom into a celebrated All-Pro tight end with the Oakland Raiders, calls Demmerle, “the ultimate teammate and friend.

“I lived with him in Sorin Hall the last three semesters I was at Notre Dame,” recalled Casper recently. “Pete was a great player, a great guy, and a terrific person. He spent the time and effort to be a great player and spent time in his room studying to be an excellent student, and yet, he still found time to be a friend to many on campus.”  

Beyond all of this, what truly drove Pete Demmerle to succeed was his conspicuous passion for the game of football. “Natural ability and expert coaching are simply not enough to excel at the level of consensus All-American,” states Mark Demmerle.

Like most freshman, Pete Demmerle paid his dues during his first year on the Notre Dame football squad, learning the intricacies of the game from Ara Parseghian and his staff. Demmerle began to play regularly by his sophomore season and soon became a favorite target of quarterback Tom Clements.

In the concluding contest of the season, the up-and-coming wide receiver scored the only touchdown on a five-yard pass by Clements in a devastating loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.    

Peter Demmerle and his Fighting Irish teammates were determined to do better the following season. After a series of encouraging spring practice sessions, Coach Parseghian knew that he had assembled a special squad for the 1973 season. In the end, his team would not lose another game for a year-and-a-half. The legendary Parseghian would win his last national championship in the process.

While Notre Dame would secure its collegiate title on New Year’s Eve, longtime Fighting Irish fans point to the game that was played in South Bend on Saturday afternoon, October 28, as the defining moment for the 1973 squad. On that day, the best two teams in college football, Notre Dame and USC, faced off in a nationally televised contest.  

The previous year, Coach John McKay’s USC squad had not only humiliated ND by a score of 45 to 23 but had won the national title as a result. On this afternoon, however, Irish running back Eric Pennick sprinted for 118 hard-earned yards in a 23-14 victory that snapped USC’s twenty-three-game winning streak, with the Irish limiting the impact of the Trojan’s explosive running back, Anthony Davis. Not surprisingly, Peter Demmerle hauled in a handful of clutch catches in the contest as well, cementing his reputation as a “go-to guy” on the Notre Dame side.

“The 1973 USC game has always been Peter’s favorite game that he played in at Notre Dame,” remembers his wife, Kate. “After all, playing for the Fighting Irish had been a boyhood dream of Peter’s. He used to tell me how amazing it was to run onto that field and hear the incredible roar of the crowd.”  

Two months after the USC game, the undefeated Irish met the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl for a shot at the national championship on the last day of 1973.  

The Tulane Stadium crowd saw the lead change a handful of times during the spirited contest, highlighted by Al Hunter’s 93-yard kickoff return, key second half grabs by both Pete Demmerle and David Casper, and a 19-yard field goal from kicker Bob Thomas that put the Fighting Irish ahead in the contest, 24-23. Late in the fourth quarter, an Alabama punt pinned Notre Dame inside the Irish one-yard line, but Coach Ara Parseghian’s intrepid call resulted in quarterback Clements’ lobbing an unanticipated 38-yard pass to backup tight end Robin Weber to ice the game.

Peter Demmerle, the kid who had dreamed of playing football in South Bend, could now claim to be an invaluable member of a Notre Dame national championship team.

The next year as a senior, Demmerle would achieve All-American and Academic All-American status.  

Sadly, he would blow out his right knee in the 1975 Orange Bowl, a contest in which Notre Dame defeated Alabama for the second year in a row, 13-11. As he was helped off the field that day, Peter Demmerle’s seamless playing career for the Fighting Irish had come to an end.

The young man who had held on as firmly to his academic textbooks as his ND football playbook felt thoroughly equipped for the challenges that faced him upon graduation. “Peter majored in English literature,” remembers his wife, Kate. “He felt that Notre Dame prepared him academically for anything that he would want to pursue. I think that he felt that he had great professors and loved the campus life there.”

While he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the 1975 NFL Draft, Demmerle was determined to follow a different path in the end. Within a year, he began attending Fordham Law School. As his brother reflects, “Peter had goals and a sense of direction in life. He lived in the present while keeping a responsible vigil towards the future.”

After passing the bar exam in 1979, Demmerle joined the famed international law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in New York. While he began his career in utilities, the enterprising lawyer soon became actively involved in the insurance practice of the firm.  

Utilizing the same astuteness, resolve, and leadership skills he had exhibited on the football field at Notre Dame Stadium, Pete Demmerle eventually became a lead insurance partner and ultimately chaired the Insurance Practice Group. His work centered mostly on property and casualty insurance regulation and legislation.

In time, Demmerle played an indispensable role in the winning reorganization of the Lloyd’s of London insurance market. “His work at the law firm literally saved Lloyd’s of London from bankruptcy – an insurance company that had been in business since 1688,” recalls Mark Demmerle proudly.

Just ten years after his last game for Notre Dame, Peter Demmerle was considered a national leader in both the legal and business communities.

In the interim, he had met an engaging and elegant lawyer, Kate LaFleche, whom he married in 1981.  Within three years, they would have their first child, Cara. Over the next nine years, three more daughters, Alice, Tessa, and Nina, would form an integral fabric that would redefine the lives of both Peter and Kate Demmerle. During Pete’s work on the Lloyd’s account, his family would reside in London twice but would eventually settle in Greenwich, Connecticut, not far from Demmerle’s head office in Manhattan.

In the fall of 1999, he was considered a model lawyer, husband, and father when ALS so suddenly took him down. The world for the entire Demmerle family would change beyond comprehension almost overnight.

Pete’s once powerful body began to decline as the disease took hold. Soon, his ability to communicate also became a complicated issue. During the first year of his illness, he did have the use of his speaking voice, though he began to slur his words as it got harder for him to talk. Gradually, his personal computer became the most efficient way to reach out to his family, his friends, and to his fellow ALS patients. Early on, he and Kate became leaders in the Connecticut chapter of the ALS Society. As he had done throughout his entire life, Peter Demmerle took the ball and ran with it.

Today, according to his devoted wife,“ Peter can communicate needs and basic thoughts by moving his left arm very slightly to answer a yes or no question if he is in his wheelchair. Otherwise, he has to spell out anything else. We will hold up a plexiglass letter board, and he focuses on one of six letter groups. Then we ask him to shift his eyes to the left for yes when we read out the correct letter.” Some his friends claim that Peter has the soul of a poet. Despite the tragedy, Peter Demmerle will simply not be stilled. His eyes have now become the way he best expresses himself.

Not surprisingly, he has continued to take an incredibly active interest in the lives of each of his four children. In a real sense, they have not only grown up within the shadow of his paralysis but have also taken on his voice as well. Ultimately, Peter’s and Kate Demmerle’s greatest legacy are their four incredible daughters.

Cara, the oldest, graduated from Yale this past spring. Cerebral and unpretentious like her father, Cara plans to pursue a career in public health. She points to her father’s genuine modesty for being as grounded as she is. “Most of my dad’s close friends at work didn’t know he played football at all until they were interviewed for an article about him and ALS.”

The understated manner that he became so renowned for among his circle of friends was also not lost on his eldest child. “Dad once described his condition as ‘poor, but not awful’ – when he could not breathe, speak, eat, or move on his own – and I think many people find that unflinching commitment to stay alive to be very inspiring.”

Cara Demmerle also credits her father with something even more vital – that how one treats others matters more than anything else. “Dad has taught us all to be more patient, understanding, and committed. Whatever the precise lessons we have each learned, these lessons will impact those in all of our lives as his children. To me, this is what a “soul” – is – the impact, however small, that one person has on another, the change that one person can cause in another, and the ripples that change causes in more and more lives as a result.”

All four daughters stress their father’s self-effacing sense of humor and his ability to laugh at the absurdities of life. Peter’s second daughter, Alice, credits her father’s marvelous wit as one of his greatest attributes. “Dad’s humor played such an important role in our family; I feel that he has taught us all to take life a little less seriously as a result.”  

Alice, a freshman at Vanderbilt, has the athletic dexterity and academic acumen that Pete possessed at a similar age.  Still, she recognizes that her mother, Kate, has taken a palpable burden with love, grace, and humility – as has her three sisters. “My mother has always emphasized our need to carry on a ‘normal’ life, despite the literal and figurative handicaps of my father’s disease.  She works so hard to let us live the lives we want.

“Often, I feel like I overlook all that she has done for our family, working tirelessly just so that we feel less situationally affected by his disease. My sisters have all amazed me with their ability to carry on, despite the draining sadness they were all experiencing.”

Tessa, the third of four daughters, is a Renaissance figure worthy of her father’s standing at Notre Dame. A diligent student, proficient athlete, gifted stage performer, and conspicuous student leader at The Greenwich (CT) Country Day School, her recent performance in the leading role of Jesus in an ambitious local production of Godspell was dedicated to her dad. Like her sisters, she has been inspired by him over the years. “When I was first told of my father’s diagnosis, I could not have possibly imagined the strength and willpower I would learn from his experience,” she admits.

“Years ago, my father could have quit, but still, every day I see my father, living, breathing, and smiling. This strength he possesses, this will to live, overwhelms every possible aspect of the disease, “states Tessa emphatically. “Dad has shown to me that one’s will to live can be much stronger than any obstacle that may come your way. And for this, I am truly grateful.”

The Demmerles’ youngest daughter, Nina, was only six when her family was so suddenly struck down.  Despite the tragedy, she is her family’s ray of sunshine, a luminous beacon of light in her father’s daily existence these days.  “My dad continues to play a paramount role in my life. He has made me recognize what I have, and how much I need to treasure it,” she acknowledges.  

Nina continues to spend countless hours each week with Peter, caring for him, watching his favorite TV programs alongside, and sharing amusing anecdotes about her days as a seventh grader in school. Her mother has such confidence in her youngest daughter’s skill as a companion and caretaker that she can leave her husband in the loving hands of thirteen-year-old Nina for brief periods of time.     

Every morning he wakes up and tries to make the best out of the state he is in,” relates Nina.  “Dad never focuses on the negatives, but is always trying to look for the positives.”

While Pete Demmerle’s illness has brought out the very best in each of the members of his family, his extended Notre Dame family has also been an invaluable source of inspiration and strength for Peter, Kate, and their family.

Kate Demmerle declares, “Peter has been very touched by his Notre Dame professors, roommates from Sorin Hall, and his teammates. All have made enormous efforts to visit him and stay in touch.”  Fellow Notre Dame All-American Dave Casper has been there in particular for Peter throughout the past seven years. Casper came to the hospital when Demmerle had a risky procedure completed, he made certain that Peter was in formal attire and appropriately acknowledged at the Walter Camp Awards, and he made it possible for Pete to be present in Canton, Ohio when Casper was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Pete’s a great friend,” says Casper simply.

Another one of Demmerle’s classmates, Art Moher ‘75, reflects on Peter Demmerle, the man. “Although there are many of our classmates who knew Pete better than me, I doubt very much that any are prouder of him and the way he has handled this unspeakably bad break. Pete’s remarkably clutch play on the football field pales in comparison to his fight against ALS. In his daily ordeal, he has elevated the moniker ‘Fighting Irish’ in his private and painful struggle even more than his stellar football career at ND.”

The love, support, and encouragement that Peter Demmerle continually gave to his Fighting Irish teammates have been returned in spades.  In a now-famous email sent when he still had the capacity to type, the Notre Dame legend wrote:  “I have learned that friendships brighten my day and sustain my desire to participate in life. I have learned from countless acts of kindness from perfect strangers that, on the whole, the human condition is kind and good. For these lessons, I am deeply grateful.”

Like any great winner, Peter Demmerle has always accepted – even embraced – life’s challenges. In doing so, he has experienced the exhilaration of victory in his fifty-three plus years.  

Three decades ago, he was a flawless wide receiver for the Fighting Irish.  Today, he clings to life itself even as his condition has worsened to the point of total paralysis. As his astonished family and friends have witnessed over the past seven years, the bookends of bravery and faith have sustained him while inspiring scores of others.     

“As an athlete, my father will always be the untouchable football player, captured in photographs soaring through the air in order to make a perfect catch,” reflects Pete’s daughter, Alice. “His scrapbooks and newspaper clippings will always remain an important documentation of his healthy abilities and personal dedication to the game he loved.

“As a father, he will always be the kind, thoughtful, humorous, and determined man I have known my entire life. His approachability and understanding will undoubtedly guide me in my own decisions as a parent in the future.

“As a man, he will always be the honorable and admirable fighter who never gives up, despite the magnitude of the difficulties with which he is faced.”

Peter Demmerle’s second eldest daughter concludes, “My father’s legacy is layered with his so many characteristics. I cannot decide what I am more proud of – his ability, his kindness, his dedication, or his fight.

“I am amazed by it all.”

 

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