John Jerome had recently run a triathlon when he noticed his balance was getting worse and his speech slowing down.
It was the latest indication that something was wrong.
He had already suffered from knee pain and problems running in 1999, and had knee surgery later that year.
But it wasn't until he saw a neurologist in 2003 that the true scope of his ailment came into focus — he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive motor neuron disease that affects the cells that control muscles.
Most people with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, die within three to five years of diagnosis. But Jerome is still alive and active after 16 years, working two mornings a week at Yarbrough Tennis Center.
"Some people go real fast and they die, and some like me, and Stephen Hawking, have lived a long time. But without money, we’re not going to find a cure," said Jerome. "I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t here. I’m very fortunate they still let me work here."
After being diagnosed, Jerome regularly made the drive to Atlanta to get checkups at the Emory ALS Center, one of the most critical ALS research facilities in the nation.
It was there in 2010 that he enrolled in phase one of an experimental stem cell trial, which involved two surgeries where doctors injected more than a million stem cells directly into his spinal cord.
"I wanted to do more than just sit around and waste away. I wanted to do my part to try to find a cure, so I did the trial," he said. "I did not get better, but I believe I am getting worse at a slower rate. But since I was slow progressing anyway, it’s hard to say whether I’m getting worse even slower now."
Emory conducted a second phase of the trial that Jerome didn't take part in before funding ran out. But it is research like that Jerome hopes will eventually lead to a cure for ALS, which spurred him to take action on his own to help out any way he could.
Last year, he spearheaded the first John Jerome "Acing ALS' Tennis Benefit to raise money for Emory ALS Center, which offers a clinic every month where ALS patients can receive care.
"John did this on his own," said Bret Peterson, the Tennis Center events manager who works with Jerome. "He came to me and we figured this thing out and put it on. He’s the driving force behind that. There’s not somebody else that’s pushing him to do it. It’s a big credit to him, really."
Jerome will be hosting the second annual Acing ALS Tennis Benefit on Oct. 4 at the Yarbrough Tennis Center. It's an event that he hopes will raise awareness about ALS and money for research that could one day lead to a cure.
"When they did the ice bucket challenge, that raised $100 million or more, and it did bring a lot of awareness to everybody hearing about ALS, but it’s dying down," he said. "Without people really donating money, funds may dry up and we may not find a cure.
"Really, I just want people to be aware of ALS and really help us find a cure when every dollar counts."
The first benefit raised $16,000, with more than 70 people signing up to play tennis. Jerome is hoping to raise even more this year. Emory ALS Center will receive all of the funds raised from the event.
Registration is $20 per player. Those interested can register online at auburnalabama.org/tennis/Acing-ALS. Jerome is also looking for corporate sponsorships, which cost $150. Companies interested can contact Jerome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The tennis benefit will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 4, and players of all ages and levels are welcome to participate. Snacks, drinks and pizza will be provided by the Auburn Community Tennis Association, and prizes will be given in fastest serve competitions.
It meant a great deal to see so many people in the Auburn community come out and support the effort to find a cure for ALS, Jerome said.
"Man, I got choked up last year. Bret had me say a few words and it really meant a lot. I’m even getting choked up talking about it now, and it hasn’t even happened," he said. "ALS doesn’t get the funding of cancer and stuff like that, but it’s very important to raise money."
For more information about the benefit, email Peterson at email@example.com or call 334-501-2921.