Patrick Reusse
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What had started a couple of years earlier for Chris Engler with an index finger that suddenly would not move was diagnosed as ALS this past May.

"I was keeping the information close to the vest for a few weeks, and then I read about David Tomassoni, the state senator from the Iron Range, having this disease,'' Engler said. "I was able to contact David through his office and we had a talk.''

The conclusion was what has been heard often from other ALS patients: The more light that can be shone on this progressive and fatal disease, the more momentum that might be maintained in discovering treatments.

Engler called Charley Walters, the irrepressible St. Paul Pioneer Press notes columnist, and told him of the diagnosis. There was an item in a Walters' column in early August, starting with: "One of the nicest guys you'll ever meet, Chris Engler …''

Which was not an overstatement. Since he was a 6-11 basketball star at Stillwater High in the mid-'70s, headed eventually for six seasons in the NBA, Engler has been quick with a quip and a smile.

The challenge to maintain that is now beyond immense, but he still was trying in a phone conversation this week. Cara Engler quit her job at Abbott Laboratories in June to help her husband full-time.

"I call her my 'Cara-taker,' " Chris said.

Of course he does.

The information on Engler came only a couple of weeks after Tomassoni released the news that he had ALS. He's been a newsmaker on the Iron Range for a half-century; first as a hockey player dating to Chisholm High School in the late '60s, then as a feisty state politician driven by anything that was interpreted as bringing jobs to the Iron Range.

Tomassoni also has served as the chairman of the board for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum in Eveleth. The board of directors wanted a way to raise money for ALS, in honor of Tomassoni.

The decision was made to make Saturday's Faceoff Challenge for women's hockey — Gophers vs. St. Cloud State — at Ridder Arena (3 p.m.) an ALS fundraiser. The plan was for a ceremony to honor Tomassoni between the second and third periods.

"It was David that suggested we also ask Chris Engler to be there,'' board member Doug Johnson said. "And then, Mike Bruss, a player on the last Gophers' baseball team to go to the College World Series (1977), and also my brother-in-law, was diagnosed with ALS.

"So, we will have three families dealing with this disease being honored on Saturday.''

And that's what ALS certainly is — a family disease, whether it be Engler's "Cara-taker'' and college-age daughter Carina; or Charlotte, Tomassoni's wife for 41 years, mother of three, grandmother of six, and with David saying, "It's really hard on her.''

That was understandable after Thursday's conversations with Tomassoni and Engler. Even though the timelines for ALS becoming public were similar, Tomassoni, 68, is considerably farther along in the progression than is Engler, 62.

"You can hear it in my slurred speech,'' Tomassoni said. "And my manual dexterity is starting to diminish. This started in the summer of 2020, when I was dropping things out of my left hand.

"I was told officially on June 2nd. Did you know it's the day that Lou Gehrig died? And it's also the day that my dad died. I hate June 2nd.''

Tomassoni was told by a friend that stem cell treatments had been effective in dealing with ALS. He went to Mexico for treatments.

"I can't truthfully say there's any evidence they were effective for me,'' he said.

Engler's voice remains clear and his mobility is such that he was able to play three rounds of golf last week on a trip to Arizona.

"There's a drug called edavarone that has FDA approval that's supposed to add more longevity against the symptoms,'' he said. "And there's another drug — AMX0035 — that is in a testing stage. It's made out of bear bile.

"You know bears … they can shut down the nervous system.''

Trying to hibernate ALS symptoms? "That's about it, I guess,'' he said.

It was mentioned to Engler that Tomassoni, his newfound friend in the war against ALS, was sounding rough on the phone.

"I know; he's done so much for me in our conversations,'' Engler said. "And try as I might, I can't keep away completely the thought that what David's going through now, that's where I'm going to be some day.''

On Saturday, it will be at center ice at Ridder Arena, three men and their families receiving gifts:

Bruss, presented by Gophers baseball coach John Anderson; Tomassino, by his friend Pat Micheletti; and Engler, by former Gophers basketball coach Jim Dutcher.

"I didn't play much for him in two years before I transferred to Wyoming, but it's going to be great to see Dutch,'' Engler said.

Ends with a quip. Chris Engler's still got it.