Sports community mourns 'tough-as-nails' Londoner who battled ALS
A year-and-a-half ago, Mike Circelli invited Mario Vella to Windsor to watch the first football game he and his sons coached against their Western University friends.
There was one catch.
“I told him all I want from you is to give the (Lancers) team a pep talk,” the legendary London pigskin guru recalled. “Mario lived half his life with Lou Gehrig’s (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) and that’s a tough disease. It takes a heck of a person to live with it.
“He just looked at me and said I don’t think anyone would be interested in hearing from me.”
Naturally, he soon relented and through the assistance of one of his lip-reading social workers, had the entire dressing room in tears. The Circellis believe the inspiration the players drew from Vella helped them stay close to Western that day.
“The funny part was we put Mario in the (press) box up above,” Mike said, “and at halftime, he sent me a message on my phone. He asked, when are we going to start putting the good kids on? Then, he started sending down plays he thought we should use. I texted back that I would do it, but I’m not the head coach.
“All I can do is suggest them (to son Jean-Paul).”
After the game, Vella formally apologized to his old pal Paul Gleason for being on the Windsor side.
“He told me through his translator, ‘Hey Gleas, you know I’m still a Mustang guy’,” the long-time defensive co-ordinator said.
Vella, whose essence was perfectly captured this week in a London’s Source for Sports sign proclaiming him ‘the world’s strongest human,’ died early Tuesday after 25 years with the disease.
The former Catholic Central hockey and football player was 49 years old.
When he was first diagnosed with ALS in 1996, he demanded a strict deadline from his doctor Michael Strong.
“Mario gave me 10 years to find a cure,” said the current president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and former dean of Western’s medical school. “He told me I’ll work with raising some funds and he was relentless with his support. He did so many things and reached so many people.”
Every ALS patient deals with it at their own pace. Vella’s approach was head-on and direct – much like the way he used to play his favourite sports.
“I coached him as a lineman on our 1988 city championship (Catholic Central) team and also had him in hockey,” Gleason said. “I remember we were playing Westminster in the hockey playoffs and Mario kept running the damn goalie. The other coach was complaining about it and I told him we’re going to get a penalty. He said, ‘OK, coach,’ and the next shift, he runs right through the goalie again. It ended up working because it got the goalie fazed and we won.
“That was just Mario. He knew what he was doing. That was the strength of his game.”
In the clinic, Vella was on top of his treatment. He wanted his doctor to lay out the information in front of him, offer suggestions, and then go out to seek advice before making a decision.
“He knew whatever happened in a lab wasn’t going to help tomorrow,” Strong said, “but he wanted to do everything he could so the next generation would have something to help them. I was just telling (his father) Fred you can’t have a career of doing ALS work without people like Mario saying just keep at it.
“One of the gifts from Mario is simply everything I learned from being around him.”
Last fall, in the middle of the pandemic, Vella held a bottle drive event and raised more than $20,000 in empties and donations. It was another example of the tight-knit London ALS community and how people in the city gravitated toward his generous nature.
About a month-and-a-half ago, Vella reached out to Mike Circelli and said he couldn’t wait for the start of the next football season. He was excited to address the Lancers again.
“Then Covid wrecked everything,” Circelli said. “When Mario played football at CCH, he would go through the wall for me. He was tough as nails. There’s nobody on this Earth I respect more than him.
“He’s been like a son to me and he was a remarkable person.”