Golfstat founder Mark Laesch stays positive as his time runs out

Golfstat founder Mark Laesch stays positive as his time runs out

College

Golfstat founder Mark Laesch stays positive as his time runs out

INDIANAPOLIS – Mark Laesch and two of his siblings were standing in a row at their 74-year-old father Daniel’s bedside when doctors revived him at a Bloomington, Ill., hospital in 1985. A groggy Daniel looked up and down at his grown children.

“You brought me back to life, didn’t you?” he asked.

Daniel stared a hole through his kids.

“Next time, don’t,” he implored. “I can’t tell you what that was like.”

For a man who spent his life’s work dealing in the black-and-white world of numbers, Mark Laesch always was a man of faith. That statement from his father after a near-death experience was all the confirmation he needed about what comes after this life.

Daniel Laesch succumbed in 1986 to the ravages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, an incurable disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Daniel’s brother, Delmar, died of the disease at age 53. Mark’s sister, Diane, was diagnosed with it in May and died four months later at age 70.

• • •

Now Mark, a 62-year-old father of three, is the one confined to a wheelchair in his elegant red brick home in Fishers, Ind., determined to make everyone around him feel at ease about the ugly truth: He’s dying.

“I happen to believe that the instant we die,” Mark said, “is probably the greatest single moment of our life.”

Laesch uses his left index finger to control a motorized wheelchair, the same finger he now uses to type. In recent months he has lost the ability to use his legs and his right arm. His left arm is going. His analytic mind, however, remains as sharp as his wit.

“I want everybody to be in heaven,” he said, “even my ex-wife.”

Laesch founded Golfstat in 1984, and his programs essentially took the guesswork out of college golf. From live scoring to detailed statistics and rankings, Golfstat provided new methods for NCAA coaches and committees to advance the game.

“In 1980, you had eight guys under a tent,” joked Golf Coaches Association of America CEO Gregg Grost of the All-American selection process. “Today, you have every shot by every player in every tournament. The people who make the decisions have all the facts.”

Laesch’s love affair with statistics began at age 7 when his dad taught him to keep score at baseball games. As a freshman on Indiana University’s baseball team, Laesch charted every pitch of every at bat.

“Nobody was doing stuff like that,” he said.

Only it wasn’t helping. One day Laesch was pouring over statistics from his first two seasons at IU when he asked himself a question: Why did that pitcher think he could get me out in that situation?

In trying to answer the question, Laesch opened the floodgates. Almost overnight he turned into a power-hitter, setting the single-season home-run record at IU his junior year. Injuries plagued his senior season, but he still made All-Big Ten.

“Statistics don’t give you answers,” he said. “Statistics give you questions. Then you have to personally answer that question.”

• • •

After earning an MBA, Laesch went to work for Ross Perot at Electronic Data Systems in Plano, Texas, before eventually returning home to help automate the family’s dairy plant. Laesch hated working for the family business but played a lot of golf in that time. When he began writing programs to keep his own golf stats, a friend suggested he try to sell the service to local Illinois State. Laesch charged the Redbirds 25 cents per round.

The next year he sent 100 letters to schools across the country and received only one bite – Mike Holder at Oklahoma State.

“Everybody thought (Holder) had a magic touch,” Laesch said.

He was in.

Live scoring went on to become a staple at marquee events. Before scoring became an Internet-based system, coaches would come by Laesch’s office at the turn to see where their teams stood.

Updates ultimately moved from leaderboards to computer screens and then handheld devices.

“This was college golf’s breakthrough,” Grost said, “and Mark was the one who figured out how to do it.”

The first symptom appeared Dec. 27, 2015. Laesch ran sprints at the Junior Orange Bowl in Coral Gables, Fla., and got cramps so bad he could barely walk.

By New Year’s Eve he had a noticeable limp. He grew oddly uncoordinated, but a neurologist said he was fine.

Things got worse.

“With ALS, you keep wiping out things you hope it is,” Laesch said.

Friend Arlene Dunn of nearby Zionsville, Ind., a fine and generous cook, made it her mission to save Laesch. She scoured the Internet looking for hope and found a stem cell procedure in Beijing that wasn’t approved in the United States.

• • •

Laesch, willing to try anything, booked two coach tickets to China in July with fiancée Jennifer Porter in search of a miracle. Mercifully, someone upgraded them to first class.

Laesch stayed 18 days in a private Beijing hospital, being doted on by nine young nurses and a doctor they named “Barbara” because they couldn’t pronounce her name.

“They treated me like an emperor,” Laesch said of the staff who fed him grapes and massaged his swollen trunk. Most of the time, he was their only patient. He said the treatment helped stave off disease progression for about a month.

Back home in Indiana, the effects of the stem cell therapy long gone, a friend comes over nightly to help put Laesch to bed.

“I reside in this wheelchair and bed,” Laesch said. “Those are the only two places I exist.”

There are times at night when Jennifer is on the road for Golfstat and Laesch is alone, and he works himself into a position in which he can’t move. He recalled one night in particular when, feeling trapped by his own body, he began calling out for help. Alex Martin, who was sleeping downstairs, woke up and moved him.

Martin, a former Hoosier golfer who runs the Golfweek Junior Tour, is the man who will oversee Golfstat when Laesch is no longer able. The two had a conversation about a succession plan last December, before Laesch had any inkling something was wrong.

“He’s continuing to put in 10-hour-plus days,” said Martin, who spends considerable time in Fishers these days soaking up as much as he can.

Laesch hasn’t bought lunch in six months. His IU Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers gather frequently at his home for what they call “board meetings.”

Jimmy Crews, a childhood friend and longtime college basketball coach, comes over from Carmel, Ind., to take Laesch out for a spin around the neighborhood.

“I’ve never had so many grown men tell me they love me,” said Laesch, breaking down with emotion.

• • •

Laesch doesn’t have a bucket list, but he was set on flying to Las Vegas for the annual golf coaches’ convention. The men’s and women’s associations planned to honor Laesch for his longtime contributions to the game Dec. 12.

“Mark made sure there was nothing self-serving for either side,” said FSU men’s coach Trey Jones of Laesch’s balanced approach. “He was never tainted toward one team, one conference, one person. It was simply for the betterment of college golf.”

Laesch wants to do two things as long as he can: work and profess his faith in God.

Minister Lewis Galloway of Second Presbyterian in Indianapolis has helped calm any fears. Only 10 percent of ALS cases are hereditary, but Laesch and his family are cruelly familiar with the disease. The calm, matter-of-fact way in which Laesch talks about the impact ALS already is having on his ability to breathe is the reflection of a man at peace.

“This is an awful disease,” he said. “It takes away everything from you.”

Except the one thing even death can’t touch: faith.

• • •

ALS facts

  • ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, usually strikes people between the ages of 40 and 70.
  • Approximately 6,000 people are diagnosed each year.
  • Every 90 minutes someone is diagnosed and someone passes away.
  • The estimated out-of-pocket cost for caring for a person with ALS is $250,000.
  •  The estimated cost of developing a drug to slow down or stop the progression of ALS is $2 billion.
  • There are no effective treatments for ALS.
  • The Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS resulted in 17 million videos. In the U.S., 2.5 million people donated $115 million to the ALS Association in an 8-week period in 2014.
    – ALS Association

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