Teammates helping Scoggins in ALS fight

Times Staff Writer

TRACY, Calif. -- The first indication that something might be horribly, irreversibly wrong with Eric Scoggins materialized nearly two years ago.

Decorating his new home, the once-robust former USC and NFL linebacker realized he no longer had the strength to lift a hammer over his head.

Someone else would have to hang pictures for a man who 30 years ago helped USC win a national championship, who was the defensive player of the game in a season-shaping victory over 1978 co-national champion Alabama, who was a part-time starter for teams that ranked among the Trojans' all-time best.

"That's when he really, really knew," his wife, Shonta, says, nodding toward her husband, "that there was something serious going on."

Scoggins' worst fears were confirmed in January 2007, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease -- a progressive, usually fatal malady caused by the degeneration of motor neurons, the nerve cells in the central nervous system that control voluntary muscle movement.

Eventually, most ALS patients become almost completely paralyzed and lose their ability to speak. Typically, reports the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., they die within three to five years of their diagnosis, usually from respiratory complications.

Scoggins, 49, knows the score.

"It's been very hard to cope with," he says from a wheelchair, struggling to make his slurred speech understandable during an interview in his spacious, well-appointed home. "My mind is sharp, and physically I don't feel bad, like people would think. It's just that all my muscles are dying. I don't have any movement. I can't write, hold a pen or paper or even pull the sheets up on my bed."

He falls silent.

"I try not to feel sorry," he continues, the sadness evident in his misty eyes, "but it's real hard. The hardest thing is, I can't hold my wife."

As Scoggins speaks, his wife interpreting, it's mid-July. Within weeks, he'll lose his voice altogether, another symptom of his rapid physical decline.

But he vows to carry on.

A father of four, Scoggins last year founded Eric's Vision, sort of an adjunct foundation supporting Augie's Quest, a research initiative focused on finding treatments and a cure for ALS established by Augie Nieto of Corona del Mar, a Life Fitness co-founder who was diagnosed with the disease in 2005.

Says Scoggins, a successful businessman before he got sick, "We're on Augie's coattails, to support him in his quest."

Last January, an Eric's Vision fund-raiser held at the San Francisco 49ers' training facility in Santa Clara -- Scoggins played briefly for the 49ers in the early 1980s -- pulled in $250,000. On Sept. 20, Scoggins will take part in another ALS fund-raiser, the Tradition of Hope Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Mostly, though, he copes with the realities of his everyday situation.

"It's very taxing," his wife says. "For a long time, I was in denial about it all. But after meeting Augie and kind of coming to a conclusion that this is what it is, that this really is what's happening, I went into the positive mode of live everyday to the fullest because nobody knows when their last day is.

"It pains me to see Eric in this state, but I'm trying to enjoy every moment I have with him here with me. Whatever state he's in, I'm glad he's here with me."

Support from friends helps.

Former teammates Ronnie Lott and Keena Turner have been especially supportive, one or the other attending every one of Scoggins' medical appointments, his wife says. "The doctors used to be like, 'Can we talk in front of these guys?' " Shonta says. "Now they're used to it. I'm taken back by these guys."

Lott, on behalf of Scoggins and Augie's Quest, is raffling a Mercedes-Benz. He hopes to raise ALS awareness through his blog, and he and Turner are playing host to a golf tournament to benefit the cause Oct. 23 outside Stockton.

Says Lott, who played with Scoggins at USC and with the 49ers: "This is how Eric would treat me, and I think Keena feels the same way. We want him to know he's not alone."

Witnessing his former teammate's decline, Lott says, "is probably the toughest thing I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of tough things in my life."

Scoggins, a former Inglewood High quarterback, was an auto-industry executive before Lott and Turner brought him on as a partner in their Mercedes-Benz and Toyota dealerships in Medford, Ore., and Tracy, a San Joaquin Valley community about 20 miles southeast of Stockton.

A self-described workaholic, Scoggins had grown overweight after a bitter divorce but vowed to get back into shape after returning to California from Detroit.

"What was ironic was, right before my diagnosis, I was going to the gym and working out," says Scoggins, who wed Shonta three years ago. "So, right before I got sick, I had lost about 60 pounds and was really getting into it."

But he got no stronger.

"I was lifting 200 pounds one month, then 150 the next, then 100," he says. "I was getting weaker. I was going backward."

Then one day he couldn't lift a hammer, and soon he knew why.

Still, he tries to remain upbeat. Says his wife: "I try to tell Eric, 'Don't embrace the things you can't do; embrace the things you can.' "


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