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A life of inspiration

Lake Oswego's Jeff Young continues his 24-year fight with ALS and achieves a long-time goal of watching his daughter Priya graduate from high school
by: Vern Uyetake, Jeff Young reflects on his life while 
being interviewed for this article.

Jeff Young has been told he has less than five years to live for more than two decades now. The Lake Oswego resident was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) in October of 1983. The neurological disorder in which the nervous system slowly shuts down, crippling one's physical abilities, generally takes three to five years to claim its victims.

But Young has always been a bit out of the ordinary. Before the disease took hold of his body, he pursued each new passion that came into his life with an equal amount of vigor.

Young played college football at Southern Oregon State College, he pursued a career as a rock star, learning the guitar and collaborating with his friend Jeff Warner, the guitarist for the band Black 'N Blue.

And, when ALS made it nearly impossible for Young to hold on to his guitar pick, he turned to writing, moving to Los Angeles and completing a full-length screenplay.

That's enough to fill up three lives worth of experiences, all accomplished by Young before the age of 30.

But what would become the biggest passion in Young's life had only just begun. He married his wife, who now lives in West Linn, in January of 1989. Then, in August of that same year, Priya Young was born, changing her father's life forever.

Young and his wife divorced in 1990 and he became a single father. Not only did raising his baby daughter instantly become his top priority, he quickly set a new goal for himself. He wanted to be around to see Priya graduate from high school.

'Most people probably assume that they will be there when their kids graduate. But when she was born it was two or three years after I was supposed to be dead,' Young said.

At the time, it seemed like a lofty, if not impossible aspiration. But, as the years went on, Young continued to battle his disease, eventually being confined to a wheelchair permanently when Priya was a child.

Still, ALS took its toll at a much slower than normal pace. Young watched his daughter mature and develop a passion for writing and film, similar to his own.

As Priya continued through high school, Young's goal started to seem more and more likely and, given his level of determination and the way he has handled his illness for half of his life, it seemed inevitable.

And, last Thursday, it happened. Young had a front-row seat at Priya's graduation from Lake Oswego High School, his alma mater from 27 years earlier.

'It was a typical ceremony but it was surreal to see my girl up there. It seemed like just yesterday when I brought her home from the hospital,' Young said.

Young was an active member of Lake Oswego's football team, playing fullback and linebacker in the late 1970s.

He always remained passionate about the sport and his former school and, three seasons ago, he was named an honorary assistant coach and has patrolled the LOHS sidelines in his wheelchair for the majority of the team's games during that time and attending practices when he can.

'They do so much more now with training than they did when I was playing,' Young said.

Young has become an inspiration for the Lakers and an integral part of the team each year. So much so that, on graduation night, multiple members of the team came over to shake his hand and wish him congratulations, knowing that he was accomplishing his goal.

Young's story received national attention earlier this year when ESPN ran a feature on him in March. The cable sports network followed him for two weeks, attending last year's Civil War game and documenting parts of Young's daily life.

It's not just football players who are inspired by Young and his journey. In 2000, Young's Web site, friendsofjeff.com, got off the ground and, shortly thereafter, Young began to post inspirational quotes and thoughts, sending them out to individuals who sign up for the updates.

'The idea was to compile 365 (quotes) to make a daily devotional,' Young said.

Young writes virtually every day through a computer program that can take an agonizingly long amount of time. But his thoughts are poignant and well spoken, showing his obvious aptitude as a writer.

'It's pretty amazing to me that he can do it every day and come up with something insightful to say. I've had people come up to me that I don't even know say that they've been impacted by him,' Priya said.

Now his daughter will look to pursue her dreams of writing. Priya will move across the country this fall to attend Hofstra University in New York, studying film.

'I love writing. My dream would be to become a documentary filmmaker,' Priya said.

It is an exciting opportunity for the recent graduate but is also bittersweet as she now has only a few months before she says goodbye.

Young's illness has always been a part of Priya's life. She can remember when he was still able to pick her up. Priya could recognize changes in her father's condition, even if they were very slight.

'Some moments are difficult and you can tell when he's having a bad day, but he's incredibly strong and never wants to worry me,' Priya said.

And Young couldn't be more proud of his daughter. He knows that seeing her off to New York will be difficult but that, ultimately, it is the best thing for her, which is what he has always wanted.

'She's my love. She has a real big heart and she blows me away when I'm with her. I want to see her do whatever she has a passion for,' Young said.

Young has spent the past few years inspiring those who have come in contact with him but his advice and encouragement to his daughter has always remained the same.

'Some people make a living but aren't passionate about what they do. You have to find out what you love and then get someone to pay you for it,' Young said.