By Geoff Morrow
It wasn’t their finest juncture, but it would be unwise to judge the Kirchhoffs from this indubitably human moment:
Tom Kirchhoff, confined to his electric wheelchair by the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was unhooked and exiting the family van as wife Staci and son Tommy began walking toward the house.
Behind them, Tommy and Staci heard a crash.
They turned, and there was Tom, splayed upon the ground, breathing machine detached, the result of a fall off the wheelchair access ramp.
A frightening situation, but mother and son, their minds unfortunately so in tune with the look and sound of genuine devastation, realized everything was OK.
“Well, that’s an unfortunate way to get out of the car,” quipped Tommy, at this point barely a teenager, at least according to his birth certificate.
All three broke into a much-needed bout of laughter.
“It was a very serious situation,” Staci said years later, “but Tommy has learned to find the humor, to find the everyday moments in all of the awful brutality of the disease.”
Tom Kirchhoff, the onetime Cedar Cliff High School (Class of 1989) and Lafayette College star quarterback who even earned an extended tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles, was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in 2010.
At age 44, the disease took his life in March 2015 when Tommy, the oldest of four, was a freshman at Trinity High School.
Tommy Kirchhoff, now 17, just entered his senior year with the Shamrocks. He is the starting quarterback for head coach Troy Jensen’s club, which opened its season with a thrilling 36-34 victory over Annville-Cleona last Friday.
And thanks to his best friend, Cedar Cliff junior QB Bobby Whalen, the young Kirchhoff will play his senior season with added purpose. Not that he needed it.
LIVES TURNED UPSIDE DOWN
The Whalen and Kirchhoff clans are into their third generation of friendship.
As Cedar Cliff Colts, Bob Whalen (Class of 1988) served as the bruising fullback playing alongside the hyper-talented Tom Kirchhoff at QB. Their parents were already friends.
Together, they won a District 3 title in 1987. Then, in 1988, Kirchhoff led the Colts to another district crown and a berth in the state finals.
“He had a really strong arm,” Bob Whalen said, “but I think the best thing about him was just how smart he was as a football player. He controlled the huddle. He really was a leader on our team.”
At Lafayette, he started 33 straight games, established myriad records, served as team captain and led the Leopards to a Patriot League championship. He was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame.
Undrafted, Kirchhoff earned a tryout with the Eagles, made it through training camp, where he got to hand off to childhood hero Herschel Walker, but ultimately lost out to Bubby Brister in the bid to become Randall Cunningham’s backup.
He wouldn’t play organized football again, instead joining the job force. He helped Harrisburg-based Cleveland Brothers Equipment Co. flourish as a provider of Caterpillar equipment.
He met and married Staci Danner, a Bishop McDevitt graduate, and they would have four children: Tommy, Sam (now 16), Brynley (13) and Ty (11).
Tom happily served as a coach as Tommy and Sam graduated through the ranks of youth football, soccer and baseball, and he was an active father to all four, toting them on various trips and vacations.
Then came the ALS diagnosis in September 2010.
Six months later, Staci learned she had stage 3 melanoma.
Suddenly, the lives of this entire family were flipped upside down.
“It was tough being 11 years old having to deal with all that pressure,” Tommy said from Trinity football practice this week. “I definitely grew up faster than I think I would have liked to, but I’ve learned a lot along the way.”
After surgery and chemotherapy, Staci was bedridden for months. Tom, meanwhile, was learning to cope with his own terminal illness while his muscles progressively atrophied.
Though Staci’s cancer was cleared, it came back three years later. By this time, Tom was essentially immobile, the disease having ravaged his once athletic form into something nearly unrecognizable.
“The second time it came back was the most difficult time for the kids because we were both very sick,” said Staci, who again was bedridden but is again currently free of cancer.
“Tommy just sort of put on that shield and was like, ‘Let’s do this again.’ He’s not a kid. He never was a kid. It’s hard to say, ‘Hey, you go get to be a kid now,’ because his role is different. He has the father role now. He’s never been a kid, and he wears that proudly.”
Unsurprisingly, Tom Kirchhoff built a new reputation as a fighter against the horrible disease, and he triumphed many times against it.
He skied. He threw football. He wakeboarded. He lived to see his oldest son play a varsity football game in the fall of 2014.
But, in the end, this disease remains undefeated, though Tom Kirchhoff, before his death in March 2015, helped conceive and build various strategies, many through Project ALS, to change that narrative.
Sisters Meredith, Valerie and Jenifer Estess formed Project ALS based out of New York City in 1998 after Jenifer, a 35-year-old theater producer, was diagnosed with the disease.
Though Jenifer ultimately succumbed, her sisters carry on the fight. The design of Project ALS is to raise funds for research and to bring together scientists, who were primarily working separately, in efforts to find a cure.
Tom Kirchhoff hooked on almost immediately, donating cells to researchers so they could test various medications.
“Project ALS was fundamentally changed upon meeting Tom Kirchhoff and his family,” Valerie Estess said. “Tom wasn’t hot air, ever. He meant what he said and did what he said he’d do. Tom was everything that each of us should strive to be. He’s a light that will shine always.”
Before his senior season at Cedar Cliff in 2012, then-Penn State tight end recruit Adam Breneman, once coached by Kirchhoff, initiated Catch The Cure, a fundraising project that raised more than $200,000 for Project ALS.
“Tom’s impact on the community and his impact on many individuals, including myself, is huge,” said Breneman, who just began his senior season at Massachusetts as one of the top tight ends in the country. “Tom’s legacy continues to live on and affect so many others, and it will forever.”
At no time was that more evident than this summer, when Bobby Whalen sat alone at home, racking his brain trying to think of something to do for his best friend, Tommy Kirchhoff.
The boys have known each other their entire lives, spending countless hours at each other’s homes, on vacations together, in athletic pursuits.
“He knew firsthand what it’s like dealing with the disease and my dad, and we both felt the pain that came with that,” Tommy Kirchhoff said of Whalen, now 16 and verbally committed to play baseball at Louisville. “He wanted to do something because we didn’t want that to happen to anyone else. We know it’s an awful feeling, that no family should have to go through that. We wanted to stop that.”
Whalen’s idea, which he first pitched to his mother, Mandy, before relaying to Tommy: “We Will W1N 4 ALS.”
The 1 and the 4 in the title are significant. Tom Kirchhoff wore jersey No. 14 throughout his playing days, just as Bobby and Tommy do now as starting quarterbacks.
The plan: For each touchdown Whalen and Kirchhoff are involved in (running or passing) this fall, a donation will be made that benefits Project ALS. So, if you pledge $5 per touchdown, and the boys combine for 30 touchdowns, you will donate $150.
The goal is $50,000, and they’re already estimated to be more than halfway to reaching that goal. Whalen’s Colts haven’t even played a game yet.
“It makes you proud that they’re thinking of other people,” said Bob Whalen, Bobby’s father. “They’re lucky enough to be talented athletes and get a lot of recognition, but it’s nice to see them doing important things for other people.”
Though there was initially a speck of hesitation from the Whalens, fearing the idea might jolt Tommy into the doldrums of lifelong grief, that soon passed. And Tommy was 100 percent on board from the jump.
“I came into this season, first-year starting quarterback, excited,” said young Kirchhoff, who aspires to study business management in college with designs on perhaps one day joining the Cleveland Brothers family like his dad. “But then he brought that to me, and it gave me kind of a bigger purpose, a deeper purpose, to help not just me and my team but also those in need.”
Both head coaches, Jensen at Trinity and Colin Gillen at Cedar Cliff, hopped on board as soon as they learned the details.
“To see [Tommy] mature and be there for his family while his dad battled this terrible disease was inspiring,” Breneman said. “Bobby and Tommy will score lots of touchdowns this year and, with the community’s support, will help Project ALS take a big leap forward toward finding a cure.”
‘I KNOW HE IS PROUD’
For Bobby Whalen, inspiration struck at Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah. It was Christmas Day 2013, and the families were again on vacation together.
Tom Kirchhoff was more than three years into his disease, and movement was becoming more difficult, especially at elevation.
Yet the Silver Buck trail on Flagstaff Mountain called once more.
“He had no business being on skis; he could barely walk,” Staci Kirchhoff said. “But he just wanted to ski with the kids one more time.”
His oxygen tank and breathing apparatus were connected. They chaired to the top of the trail.
And down the mountain they went.
“We skied really slow, but it was special,” Tommy Kirchhoff said. “It was emotional all the way down.”
That’s because everybody knew it was the last run for Tom, an avid skier throughout his short life.
“Nothing could ever beat him,” Bobby Whalen said. “Inside I know he was in so much pain, but he would never let the disease beat him. He was always at sporting events. He was walking bleachers when doctors said he’d be paralyzed. Just unforgettable that he would never give up.”
Tom Kirchhoff’s impact remains as strong today as it did in his athletic heyday.
His children, especially Tommy, had to grow up much faster than their classroom counterparts.
“What it’s done for all the kids is really given them such a better perspective,” Mandy Whalen said, including her own kids, Ashton (23), Brett (21), Cole (19) and Bobby, in the mix with the Kirchhoff crew.
“Every day is precious, and to say that sounds like a cliché, but it really is. It’s real. This was something that was so wrong, went on and on and on, and good times became fewer and fewer. But it made them understand life’s short.”
Tommy Kirchhoff now comes home from school or football practice or lacrosse practice or his school musical, and he sits with his siblings and talks about everybody’s day. Staci calls him "very pragmatic," adding that "he has a maturity about him and understanding of life that most 17-year-olds don't."
Despite playing the same position and wearing the same jersey number as his father, there’s no pressure to live up to Tom Kirchhoff’s name as a star athlete. Tommy has progressed far beyond that in so many other ways.
“I don’t feel the pressure some people might think I have being his son,” he said. “I hope to make him proud, and I know he is proud of me. I do my best to live on and continue my life without him.”
The Sentinel is a partner of 4th Down Magazine. For more Mid-Penn football coverage, go to cumberlink.com.