A special friendship
WINTERSVILLE – In the course of life, we encounter many people.
A handful of whom we call friends.
From that, a precious few emerge. The ones we can share our most special moments. The ones we can divulge our most treasured thoughts and feelings. The ones we can create our most vivid memories.
Mike Cottis and Matt June formed one of those special bonds.
Growing up in Jefferson County, Cottis and June developed a love for baseball at an early age.
The pair came up through the ranks together – Little League, Babe Ruth. You name it, Cottis and June were almost always near each other when they stepped on an area diamond.
So, naturally, when it came time for them to play for the local high school team – the Wintersville Warriors – they met up again.
June was two years older. But when Cottis arrived in the spring of 1989, he and June immediately became a force in the middle infield.
“My freshman year, I was fortunate enough to start on the varsity at shortstop for Coach (John) Retton,” said Cottis, now the head coach at Indian Creek High School, the result of the 1994 consolidation of Wintersville and Mingo high schools.
“My double play partner was Matt.”
The two were, in Cottis’ words, “inseparable.”
”We patrolled the middle infield of Coach Retton’s 26-0 team in 1990 together and always too great pride in being a part of that team,” Cottis said.
The Warriors reached the regional final that season, but fell to Austintown Fitch at Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton.
Following high school, the friendship between the duo only grew.
Through college, marriages, children and jobs, Cottis and June still found time to be a part of each other’s lives. And, at the same time, play a little ball.
Now while they might have traded in a baseball for a softball, the duo still played the infield with all the gusto of high schoolers.
“We were doing tournaments in the local area and in bigger places like Columbus,” Cottis recalled.
Eventually, Cottis said June moved to center field.
“Matt would tell me after games that he was wearing down and I never related it to anything other than we were creeping up in our 30s.”
But what Cottis thought was simply Father Time catching up with his friend was more, much more.
Fast forward a few years. Cottis caught up with June at a Back to School rally Indian Creek plays host to each summer.
His old friend approached him, using a cane to help him walk.
“I’d thought he’d had hip surgery to walk or something,” Cottis said. ”That’s when he broke the news to me.”
June had been diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The words hit Cottis like a ton of bricks. But, still, he had trouble comprehending exactly what it meant.
Eventually, he realized the ugly truth. There’s no cure. His friend was dying.
“Since then, I have slowly watched someone who I’ve looked up to and someone who took me under his wing since he was two years ahead of me in high school waste away due to this terrible disease,” Cottis said.
“It really hits home. Even though we were two years apart (in school), we were always on all-star teams, you name it. We just had that same connection. He still calls me his double-play partner.
“His mom and dad were always good to me all the way up through the baseball ranks and Matt always treated me with much respect. I just feel I owe it to him to honor him and help raise awareness for a disease that not many know about.”
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.
Gehrig is the most well-known person to have the disease. The famed New York Yankees Most Valuable Player died from the disease in 1941, two years after retiring from the ”Bronx Bombers” at the age of 36.
Most recently, New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason has been afflicted with the disease.
The life expectancy for ALS patients varies. For half, it’s three years or less.
“I’ll tell you what,” Cottis said. “Matt’s fought and fought. He’s made it five years now and that’s a testament to his character.”
June’s drive and desire to conquer the illness has made Cottis want to work that much harder to spread the word about ALS and help his friend.
Those desires were boosted thanks to a chance encounter during a trip to the annual Ohio state coaches clinic in Columbus.
“I was walking around and saw this exhibit for Playing Hardball Against ALS (PHAALS),” Cottis recalled. “It caught my eye. I immediately thought of Matt.”
Formed in 2012, the PHAALS Foundation (based in Ohio, phaals.org) serves patients and families stricken with ALS. It provides services to the ALS community, helps promote ALS awareness, raises funding for foundation services and provides families with the Diamond Dreams Program.
Cottis struck up a conversation with Jeff Swick, a PHAALS representative.
“I told him about Matt,” Cottis said. “He immediately agreed that Matt was a candidate for the organization’s ALS Hall of Fame.”
Swick also gave Cottis the idea of conducting a benefit game that would not only raise funds for ALS research, but inform people about the disease.
“We’ve set the date of Friday, April 25 to honor him,” Cottis said.
That night, the Redskins will play host to Edison and, at the same time, June will be indicted into the ALS Hall of Fame.
“Matt’s wife, Jackie, told me that April 25 is almost five years to the day that he was diagnosed,” Cottis said. “That’s completely ironic. I didn’t expect it.”
Cottis said June has been told about the honor. He lives in the Tampa, Florida area. He and Jackie have three children – Mitch, Dylan and Rachel. He also has two stepchildren – Josh and Abi.
“We’ve texted back and forth,” Cottis said. “At this point, I don’t know how much he’s able to text.
“Jackie’s been an angel for him. She’s always by his side.”
After June graduated from high school, he entered the U.S. Army where he served four years and was part of Desert Storm.
Upon his return, he worked for the United States Postal Service until his diagnosis.
Along the way, he was active in the Wintersville Baseball Association, Mingo Chiefs Football Team and Wintersville Elementary Basketball League.
Since his diagnosis, June has served on the Walk to Defeat ALS Committee and participated in the Ride to Defeat ALS.
Cottis said because June spent so much of his time giving back to the youth of the area it’s only appropriate the area give back to him.
“We’re trying to to help a good cause,” he said. “We figured we can recognize Matt and, at the same time, raise some awareness and money for research.”
Cottis said Edison’s head coach, Mike Collopy, was very eager to be a part of the game, which will take place at 5 p.m.
“Mike graduated from Steubenville Catholic, so we all grew up in the same area,” Cottis said. “He was all in.”
Both teams will wear shirts during the game displaying the slogan ”Playing Hardball Against ALS.” Creek will wear red, while Edison will wear black.
“We’re selling T-shirts right now that have that logo on them,” Cottis said. “All of the proceeds will go toward the ALS Foundation.
“PHAALS will also have a tent set up at the game.”
Cottis knows his effort can’t cure his friend, but he hopes it can provide a positive impact.
“If you take anything away from Matt, you appreciate the fact that since he’s been diagnosed he’s done as much as he can with his family and his parents.
“If I take one thing away from this it’s spend as much time as you can with your loved ones.
“It’s just shame Matt lives so far away now.”