Benefit set for Wheaton man with Lou Gehrig's disease
Brian Schnurstein is one of those guys you'd want your daughter to date and your son to grow up to be.
He was a star athlete at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, a successful student at Millikin University and is now a family man.
That all began to take a back seat earlier this year, though, when the 29-year-old was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
Though the disease already has started to weaken his muscles, his attitude hasn't changed. If anything, he seems to encompass a spirit similar to the Hall of Fame baseball player whose name is forever attached to the illness.
It's that spirit, that refusal to surrender, that helps explain why his friends and family decided to host a charitable event in Wheaton in Schnurstein's name.
They will gather Friday, July 27, for a golf outing, dinner and silent auction at Arrowhead Golf Course to raise money for Brian and to celebrate his courage.
"He was a symbol of indestructibility - a Gibraltar in cleats."
- columnist Jim Murray on Lou Gehrig
In middle school, Brian was a stocky, broad-shouldered boy. He was bigger than most people his age, and when he played sports he usually moved up to the next division to compete with older kids. In the summer, though, he was able to play with friends on a traveling baseball team, The Green Waves.
His teammates quickly nicknamed him "The Horse." He was built like one, they said, and when they needed him most, he always seemed ready to put the team on his back and carry them to victory.
On the mound he was a powerhouse pitcher; at the plate he could hit it out of the park.
It didn't come as a surprise to Brian's friends when he chose to play baseball for Millikin University in Decatur. He still loved the game and wasn't quite ready to abandon his glove.
"I just always liked competition and discipline, and all those things that come with athletics," Brian said. "It was a no-brainer to decide to continue to play."
He missed playing with his childhood friends, but he enjoyed the atmosphere that surrounded college ball. The game was quicker, the athletes were stronger and the games were more grueling.
But here's the funny part: While Brian chose Millikan to continue his passion for baseball, he soon found a new love.
"I would not have traded two minutes of the joy and the grief with that man for two decades of anything with another."
- Lou Gehrig's wife, Eleanor
Brian found his wife, Lindsay, at college, though it wasn't quite as easy as it sounds.
When they met, Lindsay was attending Michigan State University. She had decided to visit her friend, Ashley, at Millikan during spring break. One night, they opted to stay in and play cards with Ashley's boyfriend and his roommate, Brian.
Brian and Lindsay wound up on the same team and hit if off instantly. Though they spent just four days together, a spark was ignited.
"I e-mailed him a week or two after and said 'I don't ever do this, but I'm thinking about you,' " Lindsay said.
Brian felt the same way and the two started an unwavering long-distance relationship.
Just three months in, Lindsay knew she had feelings she couldn't hold back. She had never told a boy she loved him, but was convinced what she had with Brian would last a lifetime.
They married in 2005, after Lindsay finished school, and now have a daughter named Kylie.
Brain's diagnosis has forced the young family to make some changes. Nowadays they're more focused than ever on living in the moment, taking advantage of the time Brian still has.
"It's all about making memories," Lindsay said.
And for Brian, those memories are what make him a very lucky man.
"I might have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
- Lou Gehrig
Brian was never sick. He had never broken a bone or even had an extended stay in the hospital. If he ever was hurt, he shook it off.
That may explain why he didn't want to go to the doctor when he noticed his left hand getting weaker. He figured it was carpel tunnel syndrome since he sat at a desk all day. He shrugged it off.
But when he developed a chronic cough, Brian couldn't put the visit off any longer. When he sat down with the doctor, Lindsay brought along a list of other things that had been hurting him, too.
It was hard for Brian to write.
He couldn't carry a gallon of milk.
It was difficult to open a bag of chips.
The doctor referred him to a neurologist. Brian went through test after test, but no one could figure out what was wrong.
When every other possibility was ruled out, doctors told Brian he had ALS.
According to the ALS Association, there is no test for the disease; it's diagnosed when every other option is eliminated. Most people tend to develop it between the ages of 40 and 70, and only 10 percent live for more than 10 years once diagnosed.
Brian knew he had to get a second opinion. He spent five long days at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., waiting to hear the prognosis. It wasn't any better.
Brian was crushed.
Now, he says, he realizes he has a difficult road ahead.
But he also has a caring wife, a playful daughter and an amazing group of friends who - once they heard the news - began planning a benefit golf outing just two days later.
"I'm grateful I have the opportunity to let them know how much I care," Brian said.
"There was absolutely no reason to dislike him, and nobody did."
- Fred Lieb on Lou Gehrig
When planning the Arrowhead Golf Course outing, lifelong friend Jeff Papp keeps replaying one memory in his head.
When Brian was younger, he would try to sneak into the middle of the fairway before teeing off - always trying to get an edge on his friends. Brian would always smile because he thought no one was watching him, but his playing partners always knew.
Papp hopes to see that same grin July 27. It was that playful personality and calm demeanor that kept the two friends.
Brian was always the type of guy who would drop everything to come and help a friend, Papp says. Call him with a problem and he'd be there in an instant.
Now Brian's the one who needs help, and Papp says he'll be there for him.
"You remember all those times you've had together and do everything you can," Papp said, "like you would for a family member."
If you go
What: Swingin' For Schnur, a charitable golf outing, dinner and silent auction
Why: All proceeds donated to Brian Schnurstein's family
When: Golf begins at noon July 27; dinner and auction follow at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Arrowhead Golf Course, 26W151 Butterfield Road, Wheaton
Cost: Golf is sold out; seating available for dinner only at $30 per person
Facts about ALS
• Nerve cells in the brain and spinal chord are affected by the neurodegenerative disease
• Symptoms include muscle weakness, twitching, difficulty projecting voice and shortness of breath
• Average survival time once diagnosed: three to five years
• Average age of person who develops the disease: 55
• Two in 100,000 people are diagnosed with ALS
Source: ALS Association
For the love of Brian
"One thing I've been telling myself through this whole thing is people die suddenly every day - car accident or some other kind of accident. And they don't get the opportunity to do some of the things they never got to do, or to say some of the things they never got to say."
- Brian Schnurstein
"He's never going to lay down. He's always been like that. He's an avid sports lover, sports player. In a game he'll be down six runs; he's not going to give up. I see him playing like that in his own life."
- Lindsay Schnurstein
"For every ounce of aggressiveness, the exact opposite was noticed off the field."
- friend Jack Kristie
"He's a true inspiration of how to handle adversity."
- friend Jon Beutjer
"He doesn't show too much emotion, but he's the type of guy that if you did get to know him and got into that inner circle, he would do anything for you."
- friend Jeff Papp
"This is the kid that I grew up with. I see him as a strong, burly kid that I had too many funny times with, and to see what is happening to him, it's hard to believe."
- friend Jon Schweighardt
"The kid hasn't been sick one day in his life, so to hear this, it was pretty hard. But we've come through it and now we are at the stage that we are going to fight it."
- mother Wendy Schnurstein
"A lot of things go through your mind: 'How can this be happening to him? How could this be possible?' But we need to stay positive for Brian, for his own psyche as well as our own."
- father Ray Schnurstein
"He had that desire to succeed. That pushed him above everyone."
- Green Waves coach Jim Kersten