How a Bucket of Ice Water Inspired the World

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped."
Robert F. Kennedy

Rarely does a person, though stricken with a debilitating disease, manage to launch a global campaign to raise awareness about one of the world's least-understood and most ravishing illnesses.

But Pete Frates is no ordinary person. I found that out by getting to meet him personally.

They say the eyes are the window into one's soul. Though confined to a wheelchair, there is nothing limiting in the look Pete Frates can deliver with his eyes. They are expressive, piercing, direct, and can bore a hole right through you.

This week I was part of a delegation, led by NCAA President Mark Emmert, who traveled to Beverly, Massachusetts - Pete's hometown - to present him with the Association's annual Inspiration Award. And no one is more deserving of this award than Pete Frates. Dr. Emmert summed it up best when he said to Pete: "For all that you've done and continue to do for all of humanity, thank you so much."

Because he would be unable to travel to Nashville to accept the award next month, we brought the recognition to Pete in front of the entire Boston College baseball team, his family and friends, his congressman, and a whole battery of cameras, microphones, and reporters. It was a day and a celebration I will not forget.

Five years after the end of his stellar playing career as a captain of the BC baseball team, Pete was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Ironically, last year's Inspiration Award went to another former student-athlete stricken by ALS - O.J. Brigance.

Pete's brother, Andrew, told me the family was honored to learn of Pete's award this year after O.J.'s recognition last year because the ALS community is just that - the Brigance and Frates families have bonded together, brought closer through the shared experiences of watching a loved one endure the inexorable degeneration of motor skills.

But Pete's physical decline did nothing to stop his insatiable desire to raise awareness and help find a cure for the disease that threatens his own life. The phenomenon that became the Ice Bucket Challenge raised more than $220 million in the summer of 2014 alone. Sports teams, celebrities, families, even world leaders - everyone it seemed - got into the act and learned what the acronym ALS meant and willingly supported the cause. Brad Bates, director of athletics at Boston College, noted: "When the Chancellor of Germany [Angela Merkel] pours a bucket of water over her head, you know you've made an international impact."

Lou Gehrig - known as the Iron Horse of baseball for his 2,130 consecutive games - was like Pete Frates in that his athletic career, and his physical abilities, were cut short at their apex. During my remarks at the ceremony in Pete's honor, I noted that there is another personal connection between Pete and the institution where I now serve.

Almost every day, I walk past a larger-than-life portrait of one of Lou Gehrig's teammates - Earle Combs - which hangs in my office at Eastern Kentucky University. As a fellow Yankee and friend to Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of a disease which would come to be named after his teammate.

Mr. Combs was the leadoff batter for the 1927 New York Yankees - menacingly referred to as Murderer's Row - and featured Babe Ruth batting 3rd and Lou Gehrig hitting fourth. Imagine a line-up today in which four of the first six batters were to become members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That was the 1927 Yankees. A very well-deserved moniker indeed.

As I pass by the portrait of Mr. Combs - who was a graduate of Eastern and served as member of our Board of Regents for 12 years - I think about Pete Frates. And I think about the Ice Bucket Challenge. And I think of the thousands of people who have been positively impacted because of a life well-lived despite all the inherent challenges he has faced.

At the conclusion of the ceremony honoring Pete with the Inspiration Award, Nancy Frates talked about the day of her son's diagnosis as the lowest point of her life. Since then - through this journey she and her family have traversed and the experiences they have shared with the entire world - she observed: "We see the light at the end of the tunnel. We just have to get there."

Thank you for inspiring all of us, Pete Frates.