May 27, 2007
By Pete LaFleur
Former standout football receiver Pete Demmerle - one of only six Notre Dame student-athletes ever to combine All-America, Academic All-America and NCAA postgraduate scholarship honors with playing on a national championship team (in 1973) - passed away on May 24 at the age of 53, following an eight-year battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the neurodegenerative illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.
A funeral mass in Demmerle's honor will be celebrated at 10:30 a.m. on Wed., May 30, at St. Michael the Archangel Church (476 North St., Greenwich, Conn.). The burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Demmerle's name to charities that support ALS research.
Demmerle was honored by the Notre Dame Monogram Club with its 2003 Moose Krause Award, in recognition of his distinguished service that included a successful career in insurance law while also serving as a tireless advocate for ALS awareness and research funding, with top research being conducted at Johns Hopkins and Columbia. As a former ALS Association advocacy chair, Demmerle led all aspects of ALS advocacy, including travel to Washington, D.C., for the annual National ALS Advocacy Day. The Muscular Dystrophy Association's 2002 Wings Over Wall Street gala benefit, held at the Marriot Marquis in the heart of Times Square, raised some $1.9 million for ALS research (the largest fundraiser in MDA history, at that time). Demmerle was honored at that event with the MDA's 2002 Spirit Award.
Recent statistical figures have indicated that ALS strikes only 1-2 people per 100,000 - but, tragically, the Notre Dame football family has seen two of its former greats (Demmerle and Pete Duranko) be diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease during the past eight years. Duranko, who was diagnosed in 2000, has followed Demmerle's lead as a top advocate for ALS research and recently received the ALS Association's Lawrence A. Rand Prize for his courageous fight against the disease and in recognition of his efforts to improve the lives of those with Lou Gehrig's Disease.
(Note: a feature story linking the stories of Demmerle and Duranko will be posted on und.com later this summer; see links at the end of this release for ALS websites.)
Demmerle spent most of his postgraduate life as a highly respected lawyer with the international firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, L.L.P. His many admirers grew exponentially as Demmerle became an inspiring advocate for ALS research, after being diagnosed in 1999 with the degenerative condition.
After starting his legal career in utilities, Demmerle later went on to become the senior insurance partner, chair of the insurance practice group and a member of the steering committee for LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae. Specializing in the areas of property and casualty insurance regulation and legislation, he directed LeBoeuf's preparation of a comprehensive paper that detailed the methods by which mutual property and casualty insurers can enhance their capital structure. He also served a stint as managing partner of the firm's London office and played a lead role in the successful reorganization of the Lloyd's of London insurance market.
"[Pete's] work at the law firm literally saved Lloyd's of London from bankruptcy - an insurance firm that had been in business since 1688," recalled his proud brother, Mark Demmerle, in a recent article written by Shaun Kelly (as part of Jim Walsh's 2006 edition of "Here Come The Irish").
The aforementioned 2002 Wings Over Wall Street benefit saw LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae - which, at that time, had some 750 lawyers practicing in 14 U.S. offices and in 10 countries overseas - served as a "Guardian Angel" sponsor of the gala. The 1,700 in attendance that night included representatives of the London insurance market who flew in exclusively for the event. Those international clients showed their love and respect for Demmerle by presenting him with a traditional London insurance "slip" showing those who contributed a total of $65,000 to ALS research, in his honor.
The four most recent phases of Demmerle's life - as an All-American football player, brilliant lawyer, loving family man and ALS advocate - provide for an interesting crossover, as many of those recently close to him were unaware of his status as a Notre Dame football star.
"Most of my dad's close friends at work didn't know he played football at all, until they were interviewed for an article about him and ALS," says Cara Demmerle, the eldest of the family's four daughters (as quoted in "Here Come The Irish").
Cara Demmerle, who graduated from Yale in 2006, plans to pursue a career in public health. With her father unable to attend the Monogram Club dinner back in June of 2003, Cara was on hand to accept the Moose Krause Award that was bestowed upon her father that night by former Notre Dame football player/assistant coach and current assistant athletic director Brian Boulac.
Cara Demmerle's comments that night recalled her father's upbringing as a Notre Dame fan who, nonetheless, still did not "grasp the true meaning of the Notre Dame family" until his illness was diagnosed in 1999, after which he was showered with letters, e-mails and visits from Notre Dame people throughout the world. Excerpts of Cara's comments - which displayed tremendous maturity, poise and insight and brought the crowd to its feet in appreciation for such an inspiring young person - follow below:
"At 19, I have known my father for nearly half of his life," said Cara Demmerle, at the 2003 Monogram Club dinner. "I have known the parent who yelled a little too loudly at soccer games, the lawyer who brought home packets and packets of perfect white paper and owned an army of identical black pencils. I have known the father who, despite his illness, has continued to sustain our family with his characteristic sense of humor.
"Although I have come to better know my father, an important part of his character remained beyond my understanding. Despite my superficial exposure to all things Notre Dame, I have never fully grasped the nature of my father's experience here, an experience I know that affected him greatly. Tonight, in witnessing this display of kindness and compassion, I believe I have come a little closer. So, thank you for this opportunity to better understand my father, I am very grateful."
Upon his arrival on campus in the fall of 1971, Demmerle quickly caught the eye of Ara Parseghian and his Notre Dame coaching staff. The promising split end scored the only touchdown in a devastating loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, at the end of his sophomore season, but the second half of his career would feature 21 wins and just two losses.
Demmerle was the favorite target of quarterback Tom Clements during the 1973 and '74 seasons, leading the team in receptions each season - including 43 during his senior year (then the sixth-highest reception total in Notre Dame history. His favorite game took place during the 1973 national championship season, as the Irish avenged a humiliating 45-23 loss from the '72 season by defeating the defending national champs USC, 23-14. Demmerle added to his reputation for being a clutch player with several key catches in that game while Erik Pennick ran for 118 memorable yards, as the Irish halted the Trojans' 23-game winning streak.
The Sugar Bowl showdown with Alabama then saw Demmerle make three first-quarter catches and later add a two-point conversion, helping spark the 1973 team to a 24-23 victory over the Crimson Tide that delivered the program's ninth consensus national title. That exciting back-and-forth game featured plenty of heroes, as the Tulane Stadium crowd was treated to a 93-yard kick return by Al Hunter, big second-half catcher by Demmerle and his All-America roommate Dave Casper, and a 19-yard field goal by Bob Thomas that provided the final margin.
One year later, Notre Dame again topped Alabama (13-11, in the Orange Bowl) but Demmerle suffered a knee injury in that game - essentially ending his shot at a pro football career. The consensus All-American's injury dropped him to being a 13th-round draft pick of the San Diego Chargers and he went on to graduate from Fordham Law School in 1979 before working his way up the ranks at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae.
Casper echoed the comments of Cara Demmerle, in regards to the outpouring from the Notre Dame family. "Peter has been very touched by his Notre Dame professors, roommates from Sorin Hall, and his teammates," said Casper, in the recent "Here Come The Irish" article. "All have made enormous efforts to visit him and stay in touch.
"Pete could run, catch, block, and was smart. He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He was the ultimate teammate and friend."
In recent years, Casper went out of his way to make sure that Demmerle was in attendance at the Walter Camp national awards banquet and at Casper's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Demmerle, a second-generation Notre Dame student, was known as an articulate and thoughtful member of the class of 1975. An English major and voracious reader who was considered for the Rhodes Scholarship, his mind remained sharp over the past few years as his body battled a terrible disease, confined to a wheelchair and communicating via a keyboard synthesizer.
"I have learned many things about living with ALS," said Demmerle, in a 2003 e-mail to a local newspaper reporter. "I have learned to live within increasing limitations. I have learned life is not possible without the care and support of my wife and children. I have learned that friendship brightens my day and sustains my desire to participate in life. I have learned from countless acts of kindness from perfect strangers that, on the whole, the human condition is good. For these reasons, I am deeply grateful."
Peter Kirk Demmerle, son of Barbara Ann Murtha and Theodore Eugene Demmerle, was born Sept. 6, 1953, in Syracuse, N.Y. He attended St. Aloysius Elementary School and New Canaan (Conn.) High School, where he played on three state championship teams and still holds several Connecticut high school receiving records (among them his 102 receptions during the 1970 season).
He married fellow lawyer Kate LaFleche in 1981 and the couple settled in Greenwich, Conn., where they raised their four daughters: Cara (22; a 2006 Yale graduate), Alice (20; currently a freshman at Vanderbilt), Tessa (15) and Nina (14).
As detailed in the article that is included in the 2006 "Here Come The Irish" book, each of the Demmerle daughters have gained tremendous strength through their father's courageous battle with ALS. Says Alice, "When I was first told of my father's diagnosis, I could not have possibly imagined the strength and willpower I would learn from his experience."
And from the younger Tessa: "Years ago, my father could have quit. But still, every day, I see my father living, breathing and smiling. This strength he possesses, this will to live, overwhelms every possible aspect of the disease in the end. Dad has shown to me that one's will to live can be much stronger than any obstacle that may come your way. And for this, I am truly grateful."
Links to ALS websites and the Maple Street Press website (publisher of "Here Come The Irish") are included below: