Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dick Sanderson article from The Observer

Davidson players are his big fans
NCAA-bound Wildcats gain inspiration

DAVIDSON --Dick Sanderson's widening eyes show his appreciation for the Davidson Wildcats.

That subtle movement is one of the only ways the Davidson resident can express himself. Sanderson, 55, has ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a neurological condition that has immobilized him and made him unable to speak.

He can't get to Buffalo, where Davidson will play Maryland in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday, though he'd be there if he could. He made every Davidson home game this season and even took the three-hour trip to Charleston to see Davidson win the Southern Conference championship this month.

The disease that has ravaged his body couldn't stop that. Sanderson breathes through a ventilator and uses a computer keyboard on his wheelchair to communicate. He guides a laser light from his forehead to the keyboard to slowly type how much the team has meant to him:

They are my arms and my legs. I live vicariously through them. They make this disease a little more tolerable.

And, with one gesture in Charleston, the Wildcats showed Sanderson how much he's inspired them, too.

Their bond began eight years ago, when Sanderson met coach Bob McKillop. The two coached their sons together in a coach-pitch Little League baseball program in Davidson. Soon after, Sanderson became a season-ticket holder. He always had been involved in local sports, coaching son Trey and daughters Amy and Melissa in sports such as softball and soccer.

He coached them all in basketball and also liked to play the sport. Sanderson became a fixture in pickup games in Belk Arena almost every day.

That changed in May 2004, when he first felt a twinge in his left shoulder. Four months later, doctors determined he had ALS, a disease that pushed Sanderson, a 6-foot-2 man who once played Division II college basketball in West Virginia, into a wheelchair within a year.

"My dad has always been a big inspiration because he is a strong person," Melissa Sanderson said. "He handles everything so well. When he was first diagnosed, he pulled all of us kids aside one-on-one to talk about it. He didn't want us to be scared about what was ahead."

Sanderson has not been able to speak in more than a year, and last summer his wife, Dawn, was afraid she would have to put him in hospice care.

The Wildcats' unexpected success this season has inspired her husband to fight. Davidson lost nearly all its top players from last season, but has won 25 of its past 26 games.

"That's one of the things he really looks forward to," Melissa Sanderson said. "When there is a game coming up, you can see him get excited."

Bond grew stronger

The Wildcats dedicated a win to Sanderson a few months after his diagnosis, but their bond with him has grown stronger this season. The team briefly visited his home in December, giving him souvenir programs, a T-shirt and an autographed basketball. Since then, they have become more comfortable around him, joking with him and often hugging Sanderson when they see him."For someone like Dick to have so much taken away, and yet to be such a light of courage and inspiration, that sends a powerful message to everyone," McKillop said.

`We're fighting for him, too'

That resonated at the Southern Conference championship game March 3 in Charleston. Davidson forward Thomas Sander peeked up into the stands during warmups and was stunned to see Sanderson.

"You see a guy like that fighting to overcome what he has to be there for your team, and you think `I can't be tired,' Sander said. "That just meant so much to us."

The Wildcats rallied from a second-half deficit to win 72-65. After the game, Davidson players cut down one of the nets in North Charleston Coliseum in a traditional championship celebration.

What came next was unconventional, but also unforgettable. Sander hustled over to the other net and cut it down, and the Wildcats knew where it was going.

"He's always fighting for us, and we wanted to show we were fighting for him, too," guard Jason Richards said.

Davidson players ran up two flights of steps and placed the net in Sanderson's lap.

When the players ran up the steps I about lost it. It is a good thing I had a ventilator, because that team took my breath away.

It was a bright moment in a dark fight. No one is sure what the future will bring, but his family is optimistic.

They said Sanderson has things to look forward to after this season ends. Trey will graduate from North Mecklenburg High in June, and the Davidson team will start practice again in October. Next season's team could be better than this year's, because all of Davidson's scholarship players will return.

But the focus for now is Thursday's game. Sanderson gave a faint yet unmistakable smile when asked about the Wildcats' NCAA tournament prospects.

An improbable triumph? He can see it.

How to help

The Sanderson family hosts a golf tournament each April that helps raise funds for ALS research. This year's tournament will be April 26 at River Run Country Club in Davidson. For more information, visit

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