For as long as anyone can remember they've called him "the Big Man" because of his 6-foot-5 frame that carried 250 pounds. But Dick Edell has never been about outward appearances; with him it is what's inside that matters most.
And if, as the Wizard of Oz told the Tin Man, the size of a heart is judged by how much you are loved by others, then Edell's heart is just as big as the massive body that betrayed him.
After 18 years and 13 NCAA berths at the University of Maryland and 34 years as a lacrosse coach (including 20 NCAA bids in 29 years on the college level), Edell resigned last September. He contracted inclusion body myopathy, a rare and incurable condition that gradually incapacitates its victims' arms and legs by wasting their muscles.
Edell, who likely contracted the disease in the late 1990s, could no longer bear the stress of walking the sidelines. Eight months after his retirement, the 58-year-old Edell struggles with stairs, has difficulty standing for more than short stretches and is stiff after sitting for long periods. Before long, he's expected to need crutches. Then a wheelchair. Then the once-vigorous man will be bed-ridden at his home in Glenelg, Md.
News of such an illness would stir even the most cynical of souls, but Edell, who always asked his players to play with heart and guts, has experienced a tremendous outpouring of affection. He was the guest of honor at a Nov.14 dinner organized by his former players. He'll be inducted into Maryland's Athletic Hall of Fame tonight and honored for his career achievements Tuesday by the Teewarten Foundation, which annually recognizes college lacrosse's top performers.
"I love the guy," Georgetown coach Dave Urick said. "Fortunately my son played for me, but if he hadn't, I would have wanted him to play for Dick Edell."
Those who did experienced more than just a coach. He was a mentor, teacher, friend and confidant, someone players could talk to about problems and not always the kind that came up on the lacrosse field.
"He's one of the people on your list to call when you have a baby. He treats everyone the same, from the All-American to the fourth-stringer to the equipment manager. His core values are integrity, honesty, a strong work ethic and a passion for lacrosse, his family and your family," said Todd Ensor, a senior on Edell's 1987 team that was unbeaten until losing to archrival Johns Hopkins in the NCAA semifinals.
Brian Burlace, the nation's top defenseman as a Maryland senior in 1992, was one of the organizers of the November salute to Edell.
"When I first talked to him after he retired, he said, 'Don't worry about me. I'm great. How's your mom?'" Burlace said. "That's coach. And he doesn't just ask about my parents. He remembers the names of my nieces and nephews and asks about my sister-in-law who plays at Virginia. And she wasn't even part of my family when I was at Maryland."
Edell's family extends way beyond his wife, Dolores, their four children, and his mother, Mary. It encompasses not only his former players and assistants, but seemingly everyone in lacrosse, from opposing coaches to referees to reporters. And don't forget Edell's bowling buddies from 30 years ago. More than 100 people were turned down for the dinner because the room couldn't accommodate more than 450. Edell attended reluctantly.
"You wish you had a night to talk to each one of them," Edell said. "You touch a lot of lives, and you sort of don't realize it until something like that happens."
Edell didn't know what was happening to him three or four years ago when he began having trouble getting out of the low-slung family car as well as walking up stairs. He kept postponing a medical checkup. But when Edell fell off the pulpit following his eulogy for assistant Dave Slafkosky's son in January 2001, his wife demanded he see a doctor. Three months later, after a series of often-painful tests, Edell was told he had the slow, degenerative disease. But he didn't let on to many people how sick he was.
"It's not life-threatening; it's quality of life-threatening," said Edell, who couldn't stand up for lengthy periods last season and leaned against the goal during practices. "During games, your adrenaline's racing so it didn't hurt as much, but afterward I would collapse. I didn't want to admit it, but after [the season-ending loss to] Towson, I knew I couldn't do this anymore."
But after coaching for 34 years, retirement wasn't easy for Edell to accept.
He didn't know what to do with himself, so he and his wife, never one to mince words, had a heart-to-heart talk.
"She said, 'Let's talk about some of the things you can do instead of the things you can't.' This isn't a bad life. I go see [daughter] Erin play lacrosse at Delaware. We're going to San Francisco to see [son] Gregg. We're planning [daughter] Krissy's wedding on Sept.21. I go to the library and get on the computer. And my players and compatriots are constantly calling.
"I get a lot of joy talking to those guys. I don't have any hobbies besides my job and my family. But I'm not bored. I have enough to keep me busy. I can never say I don't have time anymore. I'm trying to squeeze in as much stuff as I can because I don't know when I'll have to stop."
Edell will never stop battling, something he taught his teams to do so well.
"Maryland was always as physical a game as we were going to have," said Virginia coach Dom Starsia, a longtime Edell friend. "Dick's teams always played with a lot of emotion, sometimes to their detriment. They would get so worked up they would sometimes take bad penalties, especially if they were getting frustrated like against Princeton [the 1998 final that marked the seniors' third title game loss in four years]."
Edell agreed but offered no apologies. He was just an emotional guy who once accidentally hit an official with his water bottle.
"I coached with emotion, and I asked my players to play with emotion," Edell said. "Sometimes emotions boil over. Maybe my teams didn't always play well, but they played hard and they played together. They got as much as they could get out of their abilities. We recruited people who bought into the team concept. We never were based on a superstar. We were a bunch of parts pulling together to create something special. I always got a tremendous satisfaction out of that."
Edell believed so much in heart that sometimes he signed recruits without even seeing them play lacrosse. He watched them play aggressively on the football field, and that was good enough.
"We didn't have the player-of-the-year types," said goalie Brian Dougherty, who led the Terps to the 1995 final. "Coach recruited athletes and made them into lacrosse players, Dick Edell players. Coach is also the best motivator I've ever met. After every pregame talk, he had 35 guys ready to run through a wall for him."
It has been nearly a year since Edell fired up a team to take the field, but he can look back at his 34 years of coaching with satisfaction and say, "There's not a whole lot that I would change."
Except maybe winning a lacrosse national championship to go with the Division II soccer crown he captured at the University of Baltimore in 1975.
Edell ranks fourth all time with 282 victories and second with 17 NCAA appearances, but he was 0-3 in title games.
"I'd be dishonest if I said I didn't want to win a national championship," Edell admitted. "I wanted to win it for the kids, for me, for the school. You put too much into it to come in second, but we gave it our best shot. There's no void now."
And championship or no championship, Edell's place in lacrosse history is assured.
"The body of the man's work over the years is what counts much more than losing or winning one game," Starsia said.
Said Slafkosky: "Dick knew the game and he cared for people. That's why he was a [darn] good coach."
Edell badly wanted Slafkosky, his right hand for 25 years, to succeed him, but Maryland hired Loyola's Dave Cottle. Edell handled that disappointment with equanimity, too.
"I hope that when Cotts leaves Maryland, he feels as good about his time there as I did," Edell said. "After I retired, [former Terps women's lacrosse coach] Sue Tyler wrote me a note that said, 'When I think of Dick Edell, a smile comes to my face.' I know when I think of the University of Maryland and Maryland lacrosse, a smile comes to my face."
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