Coaches can sometimes connect with their proteges on issues well beyond sports, and often better than anyone else can, including friends or family.

The outpouring of support Holy Spirit High School football coach Bill Walsh has received since he was diagnosed in February with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's disease, indicates his influence transcends X's and O's, wins and losses, or anything in the typical coach-player relationship.

Recently a group called Walshy's Warriors was founded to help Walsh deal with the debilitating neurological symptoms brought on by ALS, for which there is currently no cure. The group was organized by two of Walsh's closest friends, Joe Watson and Rip Reynolds, who have set a goal of $500,000 to be raised through donations and fundraisers.

Already the group has received donations of more than $100,000 — including two individual contributions of $10,000 and $20,000 — which could serve as a testament to how well respected and admired Walsh is within and around the Holy Spirit High School community.

Reynolds, of Brigantine, got to know Walsh through working with him in the restaurant business. The two remained close after Walsh left the field, ultimately to become employed by his hometown of Margate in the city's recreation department. He served as Holy Spirit's head football coach from 2003 to 2007, winning a state title with a 12-0 record in his final year, and tallying a 41-13 overall record in the head coaching spot. In 2015, he returned to Holy Spirit as an assistant.

“He was still working with me at the restaurant when he started coaching, and he's the kind of guy who was amazing at rallying people together to help a common cause,” said Reynolds. “Not all of the players on his teams were excellent students, but he'd have me calling schools to plead the case for a kid I'd never met before, trying to help find him a college to go to. And he always found kids schools that were good fits for them.

“Kids would come to him to play football, and he would help them get to college, help them find a job, help them buy a car,” added Reynolds. “He'd help fill in the gaps in their lives.”

Walsh, 49, was introduced to his wife, Cindy, through Reynolds, and Reynolds was one of about a dozen groomsmen in Walsh's wedding. One thing Reynolds noticed about the groomsmen in the wedding party was that they seemed to serve as a cumulative timeline of friends Walsh collected to that point.

“Of the 10 or 12 guys in the party, there were two of us who were his contemporary friends who worked with him at the restaurant, two guys he had gone to college with, two guys he played high school football with (at Holy Spirit), and it just seemed like every five to 10 years he had two guys who represented that part of his life,” said Reynolds. “I was honored to be asked, but I told him, 'Look, Walshy, I don't have to be in your wedding party. Don't feel obligated to ask me, but I would like the opportunity to speak.' He said, 'Why, do you plan to break my balls?' I said 'Absolutely.'”

When Walsh was diagnosed, he revealed the news only to his wife, their 14-year-old daughter, Kelly, and a few close friends. It was through the prompting of friends like Watson and Reynolds that Walsh agreed to accept financial support.

“Since there's no cure, there's also no standard or approved treatment,” said Reynolds. “So even though he has insurance, they don't want to pay for some of the treatments he wants to pursue, or they'll only agree to pay half or for a certain number of sessions. So he's left picking up the balance, which can be super expensive."

Walshy's Warriors set a 100-day goal of $500,000 to pay for Walsh's therapy and health care, everyday needs and money for his daughter's future education.

“A very conservative estimate is probably $250,000 per year for all that, and we want to create at least a two-year cushion,” said Reynolds. “One of the parameters we came up with is that if we can find 2,500 people with $200 each, that's $500,000. We've had individual donations of 10 and 20 thousand so far, which gave us a good head start.”

Two fundraisers are in the works. A 7-on-7 flag football tournament will be held May 20 at Holy Spirit's Ed Byrnes Stadium in Absecon. Walshy's Warriors 50th Birthday Bash will be held June 18 at Laguna Grill & Rum Bar in Brigantine. For details, go to walshyswarriors.com or Facebook.com/walshyswarriors.

John Bewley is a 2004 Holy Spirit graduate who played for Walsh during his first two seasons as a head coach. Bewley posted this on his Facebook page:

“Coach Walsh is a second father to me. He was my coach in high school, he got me into coaching when I was failing in life, and I discovered it to be the passion that gave my life purpose. He has always given me advice and encouragement, he helped drive me to want to go back to school and get my degree, he's always provided an ear, and when I get my college grades he is the first person I send them to. Without Coach Walsh's impact on me, I don't know where I would be today. And for that I owe him a debt that I could never repay.”

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