What frustrates William White more than dying from a terminal disease is struggling to unscrew a light bulb.
Death happens all the time. True, White is facing it sooner than a 52-year-old should; there is no known cure for ALS, the progressive neurodegenerative disease that has dogged the former Ohio State defensive back since 2016. But he shrugs it off like an easygoing commuter stuck in traffic — not thrilled by the situation, yet understanding there is nothing he can do and that every driver is in the same position.
“When Dr. (Kevin) Weber told me I had ALS, I was like, ‘Oh, OK,’” White said this week, recalling his accepting reaction to the diagnosis he received. “He says, ‘You don’t understand, there is a 100 percent chance you are going to die.’ I told him, ‘Well, everybody who is born, there is a 100 percent chance they’re going to die. And no one is going to live into their thousands.’”
Such logic is based more on White’s beliefs than on any practical approach to the inevitability of the grave. A man of faith, he finds comfort in knowing his current condition is sealed with a promise, “That for those who love God, all things work together for the good.”
What is working so good about ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease? White stresses it is the wrong question. Better to ask what the preordained plan is going forward.
“Would I like to get healed? Yes, but for what?” he said. “This is life. It’s reality. Why not talk about stuff that is real?”
So White talks about it. With a woman in Dayton dealing with ALS, who needed words of encouragement. With young athletes whose perfect bodies trick them into thinking they will live forever. With Ohio State football players who require broader perspective when learning how to persevere, which gets back to the frustrating part of ALS.
White also talks about his arms, saying they belong on stick figures more than on a formerly gifted athlete.
“The muscle is about gone,” he said. “I can do maybe two pushups now and had to have my son take light bulbs out for me. That part gets frustrating.”
The challenge in dealing with such aggravation is to focus on the person you are and not the professional athlete you were. White was a four-year starter at Ohio State from 1984 to ’87, then spent 11 seasons in the NFL with Detroit, Kansas City and Atlanta.
“I love smacking people in the mouth; that’s the fun part,” he said, smiling. “Now I play golf with my son. I don’t hit the ball like I used to, but who at 52 hits it as far as they did at 42? It’s worse since the diagnosis, but no one is going to be kicking it at 90 like it was at age 25.”
White left the NFL in 1998 and owned several businesses before Ohio State hired him in April as director of community and corporate engagement in the College of Engineering. He graduated in 1992 with a degree in metallurgical engineering.
If only his body could hold up like the metal structures he learned how to manufacture in college. But there is no “Woe is me” in the man.
“Zero reason to worry,” he said, comparing his health forecast with the weather. “It starts raining and storming, you’re not in control of that, so why worry about it? What you can do is bring awareness to (ALS) and motivate others. That’s all part of the ministry, of what I am called to do.”
White said that his family — wife Nikol, sons William Jr., Brendon (a sophomore defensive back at Ohio State) and daughter Brea, a senior at Olentangy Liberty — don’t dwell on his health. They know the deal, and with whom they are dealing.
“Why not be joyful and hopeful,” he said. “I have no complaints with life.”
As long as he gets to live and not just exist.
“The day I want to be gone is the day I can’t have any effect on others,” he said. “I don’t want to see another day just to see it. I don’t need to be living, but I don’t want to just exist.”
The body is weakening but the mind and spirit remain strong. William White knows who he is, whose he is and where he is headed.