For a wrestling coach and a daughter of an NHL icon, 'ALS stands for A Love Story'

ByJohn N. Minton III ESPN logo
Monday, October 18, 2021

ON FEB. 7, 2018, 33-year-old Randel McCoy sits in his car, alone, in an empty parking lot. He's processing the life-changing news he has just heard, contemplating a world in which he will slowly lose everything -- his strength, his freedom, his life. Through tears, he reaches for his cellphone. He calls his brother. Then he dials the person he knows he can't do this without, despite having known her for only six months.

Brianna LaFontaine, a daughter of New York Islanders legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, grew up in the seaside hamlet of Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Randel was raised by his mother, a hairdresser in a nearby town. Their paths converged after college: He was an assistant coach on the high school wrestling team where Brianna grew up, and she was a special education teacher at a neighboring school. They met in a chance encounter through a mutual friend and soon became inseparable.

For six months, it has never been difficult for Randel to pick up the phone to call Brianna. It's the best part of his day. But this call, from the parking lot, is different. When Brianna answers, Randel is beside himself. She can't understand him as he struggles to catch his breath. When he finally finds the words, it still isn't much more than three letters.


WRESTLING MEETS ARE loud. You can hear everything and nothing at the same time. The shouts of parents trying to will their children to victory bounce off the walls and merge with the grunts of athletes exerting themselves to their limits. For Randel -- Coach Rans, as his wrestlers call him -- the symphony can be a challenge. His voice isn't as crisp as it used to be, but it's as purposeful and impactful as ever.

"He would say 'You got six minutes in a match. You don't know how much time you have in your life, but you got to give it your all, all the time," says Jacob Bruno, a former Cold Spring Harbor wrestler who graduated in 2020. "You've got to keep fighting. You've got to keep pushing.'"

Randel attained that wisdom at an early age.

His mother, Evelyn McCoy, raised him and his older brother, Tahid, in a small house in Huntington Station, New York. Her lessons on morals and manners have never left her sons. "She raised gentlemen," says Tahid, a 42-year-old father of four who works as a custodian in the Cold Spring Harbor Central school district.

Randel's grandmother and two uncles were fixtures in his upbringing, almost as much as sports. Whether it was lacrosse, track, football, basketball, baseball or wrestling, Randel had the natural talent to be the best athlete on any team. His mother was a constant at all his games, always cheering him on, until she no longer could.

Randel did not know that his mother was living with HIV. She was diagnosed with the virus in 1993, when he was 8 years old. Soon, her trips to the field to watch Randel play were replaced by doctor's appointments. But in his young mind, they were just checkups, even when the appointments turned into hospital stays.

"I had no idea. And even telltale signs, as a kid, I didn't recognize," recalls Randel, who learned the truth in his mid-20s. "There was a slow transition of us moving from our house to my grandmother's, which was supposed to be until Mom gets better."

Randel's grandmother would take him to the hospital to see his mother often. He would climb into the hospital bed and lie next to her. On one visit, he was startled as his mother kneeled down to vomit into a nearby garbage pail. She was just sick, he thought.

Randel's last day with his mother isn't a vivid memory for him; he never expected it would be the last. He can't remember whether his mother said goodbye as he left her hospital room. It's possible he was too distracted by the excitement of his 9th birthday that was just a few days away.

His mother wouldn't be there to see it. Evelyn McCoy died on Jan. 21, 1994. She was 36 years old.

THERE WERE ALWAYS blueprints for home remodeling projects strewn around Brianna LaFontaine's house. It's part of the reason she believed that her father was an architect growing up, one who just happened to play hockey in his spare time. Brianna's father didn't fight that narrative. He didn't want his kids to feel different because of his real profession. As parents, Pat and Mary Beth LaFontaine made it a priority to be nothing more than Mom and Dad to Brianna, her older sister, Sarah, and her younger brother, Daniel. But at some point, the kids started to notice the random requests from fans when they were out in public, like the time a man asked their father for an autograph on a Chinese takeout menu.

Pat was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003, with 1,013 points and 468 goals scored over his 15-year career. Hockey provided a comfortable life, but Pat and Mary Beth always pushed compassion over privilege.

"I always would always say, 'Listen, guys, score your goals when you're young, because in life, it's about the assists, the assists are bigger and they matter more,'" Pat says now.

That left an impression on Brianna, who was an assertive child with a quiet confidence. Her parents called her an M&M, hard on the outside but soft on the inside. She graduated from Marist College in 2014 and became a special education teacher in the neighboring town of Huntington.

Of the three or four aides she worked with, she grew especially close to Melissa Sarducci. On Aug. 18, 2017, they were at Melissa's house baking cupcakes for her niece and looking at pictures of Melissa's recent birthday party. Brianna was scrolling through when she stopped on a picture featuring a handsome man with an athletic build and a charming smile.

"Oh, that's Randel," Melissa told her. "He's like my brother. We've been best friends forever."

Melissa jumped at the chance to play matchmaker after she saw the look on Brianna's face and invited Randel over. "I had never met someone who was able to just make me laugh like that," Brianna says. "He took all the pressure off. He was hilarious."

The next day, Randel and Brianna followed each other on Instagram. She waited about 24 hours for Randel to send her a message before she slid into his DMs with a note to Melissa that she accidentally sent to him.

"I knew what I was doing," Brianna says with a smile. "I thought he would believe it [was meant for Melissa], and he never did. He knew right away."

The two have talked every day since.

WHEN JACOB BRUNO first joined the Cold Spring Harbor wrestling team, Coach Rans served as his wrestling partner. Randel saw his potential and was eager to build his skill set. For Bruno, it was mostly a beginner's class full of technical lessons on grappling and takedowns. On occasion Randel would show a burst of speed or strength that would instantly remind Jacob of who the man across from him actually was, a former all-county wrestler and football player on Long Island.

By 2017, Bruno was captain of the team, and Cold Spring Harbor was one of the top-ranked programs in New York State. Brianna hardly ever missed a meet.

During one practice, Bruno and Randel were grappling when the coach suddenly stopped. He joked that he was just getting old and needed to go get a drink. But then Bruno saw Randel struggle with his hands to open the bottle cap.

It had happened before. In 2015, Randel was reaching for a fork at breakfast when his hand began to tremble. He shrugged it off and set some new goals in the weight room to help build back some strength he figured he was losing with age. After all, he was in his 30s now.

But the tremble didn't go away. It wasn't constant, and it wasn't overt. But it would happen, a feeling of weakness that was progressing. At a weekly Tuesday dinner with some friends, Randel reached for his coffee mug and the tremble returned. Randel assured the group he was fine. Perhaps it was an early sign of the diabetes that ran in his family. But he wasn't keen on finding out anything more.

A few months after they'd begun dating, Brianna caught on that something was wrong, and that Randel needed a push to seek answers. It was a difficult conversation; she knew he didn't want to talk about it. Randel had worked so hard after the loss of his mother. He put himself through school and built a career. Randel felt that whatever was happening to him could threaten all of that, and much more. He was in love with Brianna.

He told her one October night in 2017, while they waited for an Uber after a party in New York City.

He glanced over to her and just said it.

"You know I love you, right?"

"My heart just fluttered. I felt it," Brianna says.

"I love you, too."

Brianna approached Randel with a pact. She had picked up smoking, and she wanted to stop. She knew it bothered Randel, so she made him a promise. She would quit cigarettes cold turkey if he would just go to the doctor for an examination. He agreed. She quit, and he went.

Test results came flooding in from bloodwork and MRIs. Everything was normal. News that might have been comforting instead only heightened the anxiety. Randel knew the progressive weakness wasn't normal. He began seeing multiple doctors, then multiple neurologists. Then, one day after practice, Randel was on his way to Brianna's apartment around the corner from the school when his phone rang. It was a nurse with information about his next appointment, and a suggestion that this time, he bring someone with him for support.

"That's when I knew it was serious," Randel says.

Randel disregarded the advice and went to the appointment by himself. When the doctor came into the room, Randel had already made up his mind that whatever the news, he would remain calm. He was stoic and attentive as he received his diagnosis. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. ALS attacks motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. When the cells die, muscle control and movement are lost, eventually including the ability to breathe on one's own. There is no cure.

The appointment ended, and he walked to his car.

Brianna was at home, waiting by her phone. When it rang, she was met with an unfamiliar sound. Randel was sobbing. She went numb.

She called her parents crying. Randel was 33, 22 years younger than the average age of diagnosis. Brianna was convinced there was a mistake.

There were second and third opinions, but still, only one diagnosis.

"It's me being cut short," Randel says. "The same way I felt about my mother was the same way I felt about me. With ALS, the only word that you see is 'terminal.'"

In the days that followed, Randel went back to work. Coaching was his passion, and he needed it now more than ever. It wouldn't help him forget the diagnosis, but it did allow him to suppress the fear, however briefly. The first day he walked back into the gym, his childhood friend and fellow coach, Anthony Servidio, greeted him with a huge embrace. Every wrestler in the program followed suit. They wanted him to know, above all, that he wouldn't be fighting alone.

"The kids help you to realize that there was more to live for," Randel says.

Later that month, Randel and Brianna decided to escape the harsh New York winter and headed to St. Maarten in the Caribbean for a vacation. On the surface, the trip was purely for rest and relaxation, but Randel had the future in his thoughts. He was nervous.

He was in love with everything about Brianna. Their families got along famously. But he had been diagnosed with a terminal disease just 16 days before. Their future was now a much more challenging path.

Impossible questions and answers occupied his mind. What am I going to subject her to? How much will she be able to handle? But Randel found clarity on that trip. He was not going to allow ALS to dictate how he lived out the rest of his days.

It was a serene Tuesday night on the island. Randel didn't want Brianna to miss it, so he coaxed her out for a walk down to a small rock wall alongside the white sand beach. Randel took a deep breath and spoke from a part of his body that ALS would never touch.

"I'm offering myself to you," he told her. "You understand where I am, where I will be. If you can accept that, then I want you to be my bride."

There was no hesitation. It was yes. It was always yes.

"We need each other," Brianna says. "ALS stands for A Love Story to me."

They were married on Nov. 8, 2019, in front of family and friends at a vineyard on Long Island. A framed picture of Randel's mother was on the aisle seat of the front row.

"At the end of the day, all we have is love," says Brianna's father, Pat. "It conquers all."

THE LaFONTAINES' DRIVEWAY is lined with white and silver stone bricks that wind some 100 yards before revealing a stunning 6-bedroom, 6-bath home on a 2-acre lot. As you approach the house, the driveway forks. To the right, a three-car garage sits adjacent to the combined basketball court and hockey rink. Above the garage is the apartment Brianna and Randel call home.

Every morning, just after he opens his eyes, Randel gingerly walks to the beige and brown bathroom and finds his toothbrush sitting on the edge of the sink. It's already coated with the perfect amount of toothpaste, straight out of a Colgate commercial.

"She's always one step ahead of me," Randel says.

It's January 2020, and every gesture, no matter how small, can become a memory. It's how Randel and Brianna choose to live -- not in years, but in moments. Randel's arms and hands have grown weak, and his balance is suffering. A month earlier, he suffered a serious fall that scared everyone. Cognitively, Randel is who he always was, but now Brianna helps him get dressed, from his shirt down to his shoes and socks. She doesn't want him struggling with the toothpaste tube, either. Today, Brianna is helping him get ready for a big meet against a rival school, Manhasset, coached by Randel's childhood friend Stephon Sair. The meet had been scheduled for some time, but it has turned into something much more: a celebration of Randel and a fundraiser for the New York chapter of the ALS Foundation.

"He deserves to be honored," Sair said. "What better way to do that than around kids that love him, coaches that love him and his family that loves him."

The gym is adorned with lights of blue and orange -- Manhasset's school colors -- and wrestlers and spectators wear white T-shirts with blue and red letters that read "Takedown ALS" on the front and "Wrestle for Rans" on the back. Randel is in his red Cold Spring Harbor coaching polo, sitting on a folding chair with his feet on the wrestling mat as the meet begins.

Cold Spring Harbor's younger wrestlers fall behind early. At one point, it looks as if the night will end early. Cold Spring Harbor head coach Mike Ferrugiari pulls his team off to the side.

We can still take this match back, he tells them. And you know who you're wrestling for. ... This is about something bigger than yourself.

Before the meet continues, Bruno and co-captain Ethan Burdo walk to the center of the mat with a microphone. They address Randel in front of the few hundred people in attendance.

"Coach Rans, you've decided to make every minute count. Tonight, so are we," Bruno says. "Let's all come together to raise some awareness, watch some great wrestling, support our friend, brother, coach, and inspiration, Coach Randel McCoy."

The crowd rises and showers Randel with applause. He smiles and nods his head in appreciation. Brianna stops clapping only to wipe the tears streaming down her face. Another moment, another memory.

Moments later, Burdo takes to the mat and pins his opponent to finally change the tide. Soon after, Burdo's teammate Greyson Meak earns a huge pin against a tough opponent before Jackson Polo seals the match with a victory of his own.

"It's the best high school athletic experience that I have," Bruno says. "It's more than a comeback win. We were wrestling for someone who meant so much to all of us."

THE AVERAGE LIFE expectancy for an individual diagnosed with ALS is two to five years. This February will mark four years since Randel's diagnosis.

His voice continues to strain, which on occasion, can lead to some misunderstandings. He once mentioned to Brianna how much he loved "C.C.," as in Sabathia, the former New York Yankees pitcher. Brianna misheard him and instead gifted him a jersey signed by "Didi," as in Gregorius, the former Yankees shortstop. Randel smiles thinking back on it.

This journey is not what he or Brianna had imagined it would be, far from it. Still, the two feel a heightened recognition of everything that makes life worth living.

Brianna still marvels at the energy that brought them together the afternoon they met. A part of her believes it was Randel's mother, her spirit, seeking her out with Cupid's arrow. But cherished memories aside, the pair doesn't spend too much time mulling the past. Or the future, for that matter. They choose to spend their time in the present.

"We don't have time to get upset over dumb things or to dwell on the past," Brianna says. "It's just he and I."

"Everyone eventually perishes. I'm just getting a better view of my clock," Randel says. "Nothing is on the disease. We won't allow that to weigh in on our decisions. That's how we live."

Living on their own terms, in spite of the disease, provides a kind of satisfaction in the daily fight for their future. About a year ago, they bought their first house, just as they always dreamed they would. It's a quaint ranch on a quiet street in Huntington. The single-floor living makes the day-to-day a little bit easier on everyone. Recently, Randel received a motorized wheelchair but would rather fight to walk on his own. Although it can be a struggle, it's much easier with Brianna by his side.

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