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March 7, 2012
Ryan Keith is used to the battle.
For the past five years, he's battled every day. Battled to get out of bed. To get his clothes on. Battled to brush his teeth.
Keith is in the throes of ALS - Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis - commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
That doesn't stop the head coach of Eagle's View Academy football team, from living each day to the fullest.
"It's not going to change my circumstances. It's who I am and there's nothing I can do about it," Keith said. "I just have to figure out a way to be productive and help out in this process.
"I want to help young kids understand that everyone goes through a time in their life where they have to face a tough challenge. Just do the best you can with what you have.
"I'm not going to say it's fun, but it is what it is."p> It all started in 2006, when Keith, who regularly worked out with his football team, noticed a decrease in his strength. Usually able to squat 315 pounds, he began to see a reduction in his ability.
"I chalked it up to getting a little older," Keith said. "No big deal." Then in 2007, a visit to Dr. Stanley Longnecker, a reknowned Jacksonville orthopedic surgeon, revealed something more.
"He asked me if anything else was wrong," Keith said. "He held down my big toe and told me to lift it. I couldn't."
Keith was diagnosed by a team of neurologists and also received a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic in 2008. His diagnosis was non-familial ALS. No one in his family had ever had any muscule or skeletal disorders.
The diagnosis was hard and the expected life span - three to five years from diagnosis - wasn't something Keith or his wife, Katie, wanted to hear. He is now in his fourth year after his diagnosis.
"No one knows how fast it's going to go in progression," Keith said. "Each person is different. I'm just thankful each day. I hear stories of others that were not given the length of life that I've had."
Keith counts every day a blessing, even if every day brings challenges.
"It's a very humbling disease. Especially being a coach - you want to have control of things," Keith said. "I don't like having people doing a lot of stuff for me - but I have to."
His wife of nearly 11 years, Katie, has to put the toothpaste on the toothbrush most mornings.
"In my brain, I ask myself, 'Am I being a hindrance? Am I becoming a burden?' That's what I really never wanted to be," Keith said. "No one ever strives for that. You want to have dreams and stuff, but it does bring you down to reality. I have to remind myself that all things work to the glory of God. Romans 8:28 is something I have to live by."
"God's blessing me," Keith said. "There's things I can't do and I've had to modify how I do things. I have to accept people helping me - by carrying things ... I'm having to modify stuff. It takes two hands to brush my teeth. You never think about these things. I have to use two hands to squeeze the toothpaste."
Opening doors, locking a door, even eating.
"It takes a little longer to eat," Keith said. "My wife helps me get dressed and those basic things."
Katie, meanwhile, has a strong belief that God has a special plan for her husband.
"I believe that the same power in the blood of Jesus that heals souls, heal bodies," she said. "Ryan and I claim this and I know Ryan is beating all odds. I do have to assist him in dressing, grooming ... but it's the commitment I made nearly 11 years ago to be there in sickness and in health. "
As a two-year starter for Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian during his high school days, Keith played for current coach Verlon Dorminey.
Dorminey remembers both Ryan and Katie very well.
"Two of the finest people I've ever known," Dorminey said of the Keiths. "I know them, I know their parents. They're just great people."
Dorminey received the news of his former player's diagnosis a month after receiving bad news about one of his assistant coaches' health.
"I found out my offensive line coach Danny Andrews had cancer in November and found out about Ryan in December (of 2008)," Dorminey said. "We just lost Danny. It was a sucker punch."
But Dorminey isn't surprised that Keith took the sucker punch and came back up swinging, just like any great fighter would.
"That's who he is," Dorminey said. "It's rewarding to watch him be successful in what he does. What's more rewarding is to watch his kids interact with him and see how much he cares for them and they care for him. He's leaving a lasting impact on these kids.
"Look how he's handled it. He loves the Lord and it shows. He is an incredible person. he never complains about anything. he's a work horse and he loves his kids. he's in it for the right reason. Being sick doesn't seem to bother him."
Katie said she's seen a transformation in Ryan's priorities.
"Prior to Ryan's diagnoses, he seemed more occupied in building athletes," she said. "After his diagnoses, his focus has shifted, whether he will admit it or not, he's turning boys into men that love the Lord."
Keith doesn't know how long the fight will last. He realizes with each day that his body is deteriorating while his brain is not.
"The kids have been super. They won't let me get stuff and that's great. The kids have responded very well."
Keith knows the disease he has is one that will eventually take his life. It's a reality that he and the rest of the Eagle's View Academy staff and team deal with every day.
"We tell the kids here at the school, 'Do the best you can with what you have,'" Keith said. "We're all different and God gives us each different challenges and gifts."
For Keith - every new day is considered a blessing, and a gift.
Editor's note: Approximately 30,000 people in the United States suffer from ALS. The average life span is three-to-five years from diagnosis. Currently, there is no cure. For more information, visit The ALS Foundation