The pall of death does not follow Kevin Dorsey here. Not in the cafeteria at Poolesville High, where the Falcons improvise their wrestling room.
The school’s wrestling coach for nine years and counting strode past a perimeter of folded lunch tables, pillars of stacked desks and a pallet of paper products as he entered the space on the first Thursday in February. An exercise bike whirred, bodies crashed to the floor and Dorsey, wearing work boots and a dirt-stained jacket, sipped a bottle of sweet tea as he watched the boys grapple and dance.
Dorsey doesn’t wrestle anymore. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is attacking his nervous system. Weakness in his hands was the first symptom.
A neurologist first diagnosed Dorsey, 47, with ALS in August.
His fingers are still thick from years as a welder and mechanic, once for the U.S. Army and now for Make N Grade, the excavating business he owns with Dawn, his wife of 27 years. Dorsey’s fingerprints are all over Poolesville. His hands have graded, sodded and seeded playing fields, and they’ve shown a group of scrappy wrestlers how to push their bodies beyond preconceived limitations. Now those hands are failing him.
But Dorsey doesn’t need his hands for coaching. He needs his voice. That still fills a room. He needs his eyes. Those still command attention. He needs his teeth,which form a disarming smile Dawn calls his “rotten little grin.” It’s a little crooked because he removed his braces with pliers in high school. The wires were cutting his mouth during matches, and he would rather wrestle without bloody interruptions than worry about straight teeth.
At Poolesville’s practice, Dorsey needed his neck, as he thrust his head inside the crook of a student’s arm and explained the business end of a quarter nelson.
One day he won’t be able to walk, but as long as Dorsey is breathing, he’ll be coaching.
“They got pretty good wheelchairs,” Dorsey said. “I’ll be doing wheelies up and down this hall.”
Odds are Dorsey has less than five years to live. But here at practice, where he can instruct, intimidate and endear all at the same time, he is very much alive.
The Falcons had a critical dual meet at Clarksburg in two days. If they won, they would advance to the regional duals for the seventh year in a row.
Wrestlers ran in a circle as Dorsey stood in the center barking commands.
“I’m still just as loud and pushy as I’ve ever been,” Dorsey said. “I haven’t changed. Most of them still wrestle because of the way I am. Pushing them. Pushing them. Pushing them.”
A circus of conditioning drills ensued. The Falcons played leapfrog. They did push-ups. They hopped on one leg. At Poolesville, they call this the fourth and fifth period. Overtime.
By the end, heavyweight Kyle Wilkins was on the floor gasping.
“That’s what I want you to feel, Kyle,” Dorsey said. “That’s what I want you to feel from here on out. That’s what’s going to get you a win.”
Where other people see problems, Dorsey sees solutions, usually made of dirt, sod and concrete. According to booster club President Jeff Oyer’s estimations, Dorsey has donated at least $50,000 in time and labor renovating athletic facilities on his own.
Dorsey kept the diagnosis to himself for two weeks while he waited on test results. The disease that killed Lou Gehrig is difficult to diagnose. According to the ALS Association, as many as 30,000 Americans have the neurodegenerative condition at any given time.
Seeking a second opinion at Johns Hopkins didn’t change anything. Specialists there confirmed Dorsey had ALS in October.
The Dorseys gave themselves a month to grieve and make decisions. Kevin chose who would walk daughters Sammi Jo, 22, and Jessi, 17, down the aisle. He taught his son, Cody, 19, how to fix the construction equipment owned by the family.
Dorsey and Dawn worked on his to-do list. Dorsey doesn’t like the term “bucket list.” There was nothing extravagant. Dorsey wanted to hunt deer in Pennsylvania and wild pigs in Florida. He allowed himself time off for those trips. He texted his wife “Love you” more than he used to.
The hardest part for Dawn was imagining retirement without her husband. They had worked at their marriage, worked to remain friends. When Dawn’s mother needed a kidney transplant, Dorsey gave her his.
“I’m not supposed to be alone when I’m 50, and I’m going to be,” Dawn said. “He’s not replaceable.”
Coaching would be Dorsey’s treatment. So would digging basements and grading yards.
“I have fun doing everything. I’ve got the greatest job in the world,” Dorsey said. “Every boy played in the sandbox with a truck or a loader or something. I do it for real.”
He never considered changing his routine. Mornings were for moving dirt and concrete. Afternoons were for wrestling.
With the winter sports season approaching, Dorsey met with Athletic Director Ed Ross, and they decided to gather the boys for a frank lunch meeting. Dorsey would not accept any wrestlers dropping out on his account.
“I told them what was going on, told them I was not going anywhere, that they were not going to get that lucky,” Dorsey said.
Senior captain Luke Maher cried when he realized the toughest man he’s ever known was wrestling a match he couldn’t win. Then he thought of what Dorsey would say.
“He doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He’s just so selfless, and that’s just who he is. In a way, I’m glad I’m a senior, because I don’t know what I’d do without him on the team,” Maher said. “He’s the hardest-working person I’ve ever met. No matter what, he doesn’t let anything bring him down. He just keeps going.”
There are nine freshmen in the program this year. Dorsey hopes to see them graduate.
“What am I supposed to do? Sit at that house and worry when this is going to happen? It’s going to happen when it happens,” Dorsey said. “Nobody knows when that button’s going to be pushed.”
During his team’s dual meet at Clarksburg, Dorsey didn’t seem especially bothered by the divine finger lingering atop his button. These are the moments Dorsey lives for.
The dual meet was a seesaw, but Poolesville could clinch a win if Wilkins could pin Ben Fiscus. Dawn and Sammi Jo sat in the audience while Jessi handled the scorebook.
While the heavyweight forced his opponent’s shoulders closer to the mat, the Falcons hopped out of their chairs yelling “Squeeze!” The referee slapped the mat. Wilkins rose and shook hands with Dorsey before greeting a mob of teammates.
Four days later, Dorsey rested against a wall in the gym at Oakland Mills, the host of the Maryland 2A/1A South region tournament. A cracked rib he suffered after an icy fall kept his voice down. He used to pack three bags of cherry cough drops to every meet. He’d come home smelling like bad medicine.
Dorsey stood on one corner of a mat at Oakland Mills, making eye contact with his struggling wrestlers. He rolled up his sleeves and felt butterflies in his stomach before every match. Only two boys won.
Dorsey was encouraged by the crying that followed. Wrestlers who get upset get better.
“We’ll get them next year,” Dorsey said afterward. “I promise.”
The Falcons’ dual meet season was over, but individuals can still advance to compete at the state tournament in March.
Every year, Dorsey packs a suit and tie in his truck. He promises he’ll dress up for anyone who makes the championship round.
He’s never had an occasion to coach in the suit.
One more item for the to-do list.