Football Players Ride Coast-to-Coast to Honor Friend

Willamette University student Kalan Morinaka was a devoted scholar, the valedictorian of his high school class and on a pre-med track in college. But he also was a longtime athlete, a high school football and wrestling star, a national competitor in judo, a golfer.

So when Morinaka's friends saw the 22-year-old deteriorate from a physically fit, active student to someone who could barely move and talk in less than two years, it was a shock. And when the cheerful young man died Nov. 9 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease that typically hits people older than 40, his friends knew they had to honor him.

For them, that means attempting the gargantuan feat of riding their bikes 3,300 miles coast-to-coast to raise awareness and money for the ALS Association. Willamette seniors Alex MacKenzie, Kevin Dean and Wesley Randall, all of whom were Morinaka's fraternity brothers in Sigma Alpha Epsilon, will ride from San Diego to Miami starting Jan. 10. Jonathan Irizarry, also a senior, will serve as their coordinator at home, tracking their progress and overseeing their efforts from Salem.

"Kalan was such a great competitor and athlete throughout his life, so we thought a physical feat like this was a great way to honor him," MacKenzie said.

Morinaka, a senior from Nyssa, Ore., was past president of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, supervisor of intramural sports on campus and a member of the psychology and chemistry clubs. It was the summer of 2005 when his mother noticed a slur in his speech, the first sign he had ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control.

MacKenzie, Dean, Randall and Irizarry -- all athletes on Willamette's football team -- can empathize with the frustration of no longer being able to participate in a beloved sport, and they were devastated at the news of Morinaka's death. It's only pushing them harder now as they train for the ride and collect money to pay for the trip and donate to the ALS Association. They hope to make the trip in 60 days. Their goal is to raise at least $30,000 for the ALS Association; so far, they have collected $5,000.

The students created a web site,, which includes bios of each of them, a profile of Kalan, donation information and the trip itinerary. The students also plan to keep a blog on the site as they ride.