Dec. 4, 2013
by Mady Salvani
National Lacrosse Hall of Famer Dick Edell, affectionately known as "Big Man," is one of collegiate lacrosse's all-time winningest coaches. However, the battles he fought on the sidelines are nothing compared to what he's faced every day since being diagnosed in 2001 with Body Myositis -- a wretched disease that gradually destroys muscle fiber and tissues.
The disabling medical condition hasn't changed Edell's zest for life, though. He always has a story to tell, a smile on his face and a laughter that comes from deep within. That makes you forget his illness as you listen to him spin a yarn from his treasure chest of stories.
One of the most respected and beloved coaches in the game of collegiate lacrosse, Edell spent over 29 years on the sidelines at West Point and the University of Maryland, reaching the NCAA Final Four six times and playing in three NCAA Finals. During his seven seasons at Army and 18 at Maryland, he coached in two of the largest rivalries in the nation -- Army vs. Navy and Johns Hopkins vs. Maryland.
When Edell was elected to the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2004, he became the 11th member associated with the Army lacrosse program to be so honored. His 282 career wins ranked fifth on the all-time NCAA charts. He patrolled Army's sideline from 1977 to 1983, posting a 66-24 mark and leading the Black Knights to the NCAA Tournament four times overall, including each of his final three seasons at West Point.
The two-time national Coach of the Year, once at Army and once at Maryland, was never an assistant coach. Edell made his coaching debut as the freshman mentor at Towson University, his alma mater. His first head coaching position was at the University of Maryland- Baltimore County (UMBC). Edell left his mark at Army as a leader and mentor to cadets at an institution that breeds leaders.
"When I first came to West Point in 1977, the lacrosse position was under the Office of Physical Education," explains Edell. "I interviewed with Jim Anderson and his deputy, Al Rushatz."
Edell was hired, but in addition to coaching, he would also serve as a physical education instructor in one of four sports -- boxing, wrestling, gymnastics or swimming -- and it entailed working six days a week, Monday through Saturday.
"At 6-5 and over 220 pounds, I couldn't see myself in gymnastics," Edell recalls. "Since I was managing a pool that summer, I was sent to Denny Forbes, head of the swimming committee, to be tested. I told him I didn't have a suit. Denny threw me a rubber band (Speedo). I changed downstairs and set a speed record from the locker room to the pool. I would have dropped dead if I was seen. After the pool test, I was told I would be a good wrestling instructor."
Edell got a reprieve the following year with the arrival of Gen. (ret.) Ray Murphy as the head of West Point's Office of the Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. Murphy wanted Edell to take over the soccer program with the retirement of Army's legendary head coach Joe Palone. Murphy had checked out Edell's resume that showed he was equally successful in that sport, having led UMBC to the Division II national title in 1975.
"I agreed to do both sports and it was one of the hardest things I ever did," says Edell. "For three years I was the head coach for two sports and was going all year long between in-season and out-of-season sports. They were the three fastest years of my life. My kids went from ages three to six and I don't remember four and five."
West Point proved to be a special place for Edell and his family. He felt privileged to coach the kind of young men that West Point produces, and as a family man, there was no better place to raise his children.
"I never before or never after coached kids that played the game as hard as they did at Army," adds Edell. "This was a group of kids that was so close, and that closeness is still evident today."
When Edell took over as Army's lacrosse coach, he retained the coaching staff because all were in the military. He inherited Dave Slafkosky and former Army attackman Tommy Cafaro, one of the most prolific scorers in school history.
"It was a blessing because I had Tommy, who lived it as a student and an athlete, and `Slof,' who had already worked it. They helped me bridge the gap from a civilian college to West Point, and I don't think we skipped a beat.
"The best piece of coaching advice came from Mike Krzyzewski (Army basketball head coach from 1975-80). He said `Remember one thing -- the first tendency when you see these guys at 4 o'clock is to put your arm around them and comfort them a little bit because they have been hassled all day. You want to be the loudest voice they hear that day. You have to fight off that impulse to ease up. You want to be as demanding.' Had I not heard that from Mike and gone off to practice, especially with the `Plebes,' we never would have achieved what we did."
With the success Edell enjoyed at West Point, Maryland came calling and would not take no for an answer.
"The hardest decision I ever made in my life was to leave West Point," he states. "Maryland gave me everything I asked for at the interview, and it was a chance to come home. My dad had passed away prior to that, and to come back for my mom and give her a chance to watch her grandchildren grow up was a part of that decision. It was very tough to leave West Point, and it is a place that will always be a part of our life even though we were only there for seven years."
Edell continued that success for 18 years at Maryland, leading the Terps to
six Final Fours and three National Championship games. It was a different environment for Edell and his family at College Park. But at the height of his success at Maryland, Edell started noticing how difficult it was to get in and out of his car. Walking upstairs became very challenging and he started losing his balance at times.
"My leg would give out and I would fall down," admits Edell. "I was embarrassed to talk about it, sort of hiding it. I fell down a few times and my wife, Delores, saw it and said that we have to get this checked out. It was in the fall and I said I would check on it during Christmas vacation. When that time came,
I pushed it back to the summer."
Edell's situation worsened. When Slafkosky's oldest son was killed in an automobile accident, Dick was asked to
do the eulogy for the coach's son.
"I was in the pulpit of a Catholic Church in Gainesville, Md. -- foreign territory to me. I thought I would be struck by lightning. It was very emotional and after I finished and stepped down my leg gave out and I fell out of the pulpit. Delores said, `That's it, you are going to the doctor tomorrow.' "
Edell wanted to keep his condition a secret, so the Maryland athletic trainer set up an appointment in Baltimore. On the first weekend of May 2001, Edell, his wife and his mother heard the doctor's prognosis.
"The good news is it is not going to kill you, but it is going to cripple you," said the doctor. "The bad news is there is no cure."
Over the summer Edell made a decision that he would step down from coaching.
"I have always asked for 110 percent of anyone who has ever played for me, but also I have always been willing to give 110 percent to them. I could not do that anymore."
In the fall of 2001, Edell resigned, leaving the sport he loved with a great deal of dignity.
"Honestly it was a relief when I made that decision in a lot of ways. It was the greatest weight off my shoulders that I carried for over a year as I kept trying to hide something. Now, I could focus on the situation.
"I enjoyed coaching and miss doing something I loved for 35 years with people I enjoyed doing it with. Do I miss it? ... Damn right! But you deal with what you are faced with and that is what I am doing."
Edell worked with a Maryland radio station for a short period, an enjoyable time for him. But even that became difficult as his condition worsened, forcing him to use a motorized wheelchair.
The "Big Man," who underwent a heart procedure in the spring of 2012, still enjoys every day, helped by his family, four children and five grandchildren, his former players and friends. If you think you are having a bad day and need someone to pick you up, just make a phone call to Edell. He will find a way to cheer you up with his captivating sense of humor.
Even the wicked disease that has claimed many of his past motor skills cannot steal that away.
Stay tuned tomorrow for RICH ELLERSON: Answering The Call.