A PROFILE IN COURAGE: MEET CHRIS MUNN

By Dennis Downey ’84

On 23 December, 1776, in an essay titled “The Crisis,” Thomas Paine described how, in response to life-threatening situations, “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” will inevitably shrink from their obligations in the hope that others will step forward. This is the story of a man who did just that. In a time of seemingly insurmountable personal circumstances, retired Army Colonel Chris Munn has stepped forward to make a difference in the lives of others and, in the process, has inspired many to do the same.

NU Rugby teammates Chris Munn ’81 (left) and Dennis Downey ’84. (Photo: Mark Collier.)

NU Rugby teammates Chris Munn ’81 (left) and Dennis Downey ’84. (Photo: Mark Collier.)

During 2014, former Boston College baseball team captain Pete Frates initiated the Ice Bucket Challenge to increase awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and to raise funds to combat this disease. The Challenge soon went viral in the United States and overseas. On 1 August 2015, the ALS Association re-launched the Ice Bucket Challenge for 2015; it intends to re-run the campaign “this August, and every August, until there’s a cure (for ALS).”

When he was diagnosed with ALS in 2013, Chris admitted that “…he knew the linkage to Yankees great Lou Gehrig, but little else.” ALS, a neuro-degenerative disease with no cure, works mysteriously to rob victims of control of portions of their own bodies and in the process robs them of their dignity. His own diagnosis influenced him to learn as much as he could about the disease, to review treatment options, and to face some very difficult news about an insidious opponent. The initial research Chris performed was discouraging. The statistics speak for themselves: ALS often results in death within two to three years following diagnosis.

What Chris did next speaks volumes about the man that he is: He elected to step forward, rather than shrinking back. He told people, family first, then close friends, college teammates and he eventually allowed his story to be shared during a TV report covering a rugby tournament bearing his name. Drawing on his life’s experiences, passions, and training, he made up his mind that he would raise awareness by fighting—and beating this disease.

Growing up the sixth child of eleven, Chris learned important lessons about life early and often. His father served in the U.S. military (Army Air Corps and Air Force) for 24 years, eventually retiring as a colonel. The opposite of a “sunshine patriot,” he was a highly-decorated officer who fought in WWII in the air campaign over Germany. During his dad’s fourth mission, his plane was shot down and he parachuted from his B-17 bomber before it exploded north of Berlin, Germany, in 1944. He was captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp until the camp was liberated by the Soviets in 1945. Chris’ mother was a homemaker, who devoted her life to raising 11 kids while moving around the country as a military spouse.

The Brotherhood

Chris attended Norwich University where he played ice hockey and lacrosse, and captained the rugby team his senior year, further strengthened his character. It reinforced his belief that there truly are no mountains too tall, no opponents too tough, and no challenges that cannot be overcome, whether on playing fields or in life.

Chris also served in the Army for 26 years, attaining the rank of colonel and deploying to hot spots all over the world, following in his father’s footsteps. Upon retirement from the Army, he could have chosen a more leisurely lifestyle. Instead, he went to work for the federal government at Fort Drum, N.Y., where he was heavily involved with preparing units to deploy overseas to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, the brotherhood which had begun on icy skating rinks, worn lacrosse fields and uneven rugby pitches at Norwich and elsewhere, and continued during his Army career, soon expanded in the service of others.

Word quickly spread of Chris’ diagnosis among his former teammates and colleagues. When asked they could do to help, he would answer, “Please help me increase awareness of this dreaded disease.” Inspired by his courage and determination, one classmate believed that a former Norwich rugby tournament—which after being held for many years but had been discontinued—could be re-started and named in his honor.

Bob Weggler, the Norwich rugby head men’s coach, heartily agreed and quickly coordinated with other coaches to build a tournament in record time. Another teammate was inspired to establish a scholarship in Chris’ name at Norwich, to be awarded to a player who demonstrated courage and leadership on the field and at the university. In this fashion, the brotherhood expanded.

Raising Awareness

With little fanfare, but after weeks of teleconferencing and countless emails, the inaugural Chris Munn Rugby 7s Tournament was held at Norwich University in April 2014. Legions of Norwich teammates and classmates heeded the call and returned to Northfield, Vt., to reminisce and to show support for Chris. Members of the rugby, lacrosse, and hockey teams showed up in force, joining friends from Chris’ hometown, siblings, college classmates, in an outpouring of love and support. While Dartmouth College, Chris’ father’s alma mater, prevailed in the men’s bracket, Norwich took home top prize in the women’s bracket. The type of rugby played that day was fast-paced, competitive, and highly skilled. During the tournament, coaches and players would share personal stories of knowing someone lost to ALS and offering words of encouragement to Chris (and his family, siblings, and loved ones).

Norwich Alums gathered around Chris Munn (circled) at Sabine Field on the campus of Norwich University on 27 April 2014.

Norwich Alums gathered around Chris Munn (circled) at Sabine Field on the campus of Norwich University on 27 April 2014.

In addition, representatives from the ALS Association of Northern New England provided informational materials and answered questions about the perplexing disease. The rugby tournament, along with Chris’ desire to raise ALS awareness in the region, was well reported by television station WCAX in Burlington, Vermont. During the interview segment of the coverage, Chris described the symptoms he was feeling, and his overwhelming desire to raise ALS awareness, a disease which had claimed four Norwich alums in the previous 24 months.

Year Two: The Inspiration Becomes Contagious

Inspired by Chris and challenged by their players in September 2014, coaches Bob Weggler and Austin Hall took the ice bucket challenge during the annual Northfield Labor Day parade while members of their teams handed out ALS literature to the crowd watching the festivities. Norwich ruggers used enhancing ALS awareness as one of their public service projects during the 2014–15 school year.

Meanwhile, Chris began to research experimental drugs being tested to combat the effects of ALS and began to advocate for the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to alter its rules under which ALS patients could gain access to drugs being tested prior to FDA approval. The lengthy FDA multi-year cycle of testing and approval process for new drugs meant that many ALS sufferers would potentially suffer without access to drugs showing promise. Chris’ advocacy led to many friends, classmates, and teammates signing petitions to the FDA asking that it rewrite its regulations. In addition, they sent many letters to members of Congress seeking support for such a revision. While no decisions have been made, reportedly the current FDA rules are still being reviewed.

During the course of the Second Annual Chris Munn Sevens Rugby Tournament, Chris met personally with each of the rugby squads and shared stories with the young ruggers. Prior to the championship matches, which would crown the three division champions, he addressed the teams that would compete in the finals. A hush of unusual silence came over the group, as all eyes were affixed on the former Norwich rugger who spoke about his personal battle and commitments to overcome this life-threatening hurdle. He spoke about how his rugby teammates were like brothers to him, and that in his time of need, they were there fighting alongside him.

Chris Munn reminds all of us about the importance of fighting hard and never giving up in times of turmoil. The recent tournament was like a medicine for him—a source of healing. The look amongst the members of the senior class was telling, as only a few short weeks from graduation, many were preparing to play their final match on the pitch at Norwich. Just as quickly as the grouping formed, away they went to prepare for the championship matches.

Chris Munn addressing assembled rugby teams just prior to the championship matches on 26 April 2015.

Chris Munn addressing assembled rugby teams just prior to the championship matches on 26 April 2015.

Chris Munn’s Rugby Rules Applicable to Life

Many players and supporters of the rugby tournament wore t-shirts that contained a listing of simple rules perpetuated by Chris. These “life lessons” were:

  • Never give up
  • Keep the ball alive
  • Always support
  • Pack tight, backs loose
  • Don’t run sideways
  • Play till the whistle
  • Enjoy the party
  • Live life to the fullest
  • Rugby teammates are family

From the sentiments of the players and fans, an unwritten rule—perhaps soon to be added to the list on t-shirts at future Norwich rugby tournaments—is simply: “I’m with you, all in.”

The Future

The schedule for the spring tournament (Chris Munn 7s) is scheduled for 1 May 2016. Planning for the Third Annual Chris Munn Sevens Rugby Tournament is underway as fundraising to build an endowed scholarship at Norwich University in Chris’ name continues.

For Chris, his battle continues. Anyone fighting ALS will tell you that he or she is enjoying as many todays as possible. For Chris, his journey continues by sharing time with his wonderful wife Tammy and two sons, Chris and Ryan. Whether it be on a mountain bike, ice skates, snow skis, or a midnight canoe ride on the lake with one of his sons on a whim, Chris is truly living every day to its fullest—inspiring classmates, teammates, brothers and sisters with his words and more importantly with his actions.

For us, the message and the inspiration are clear for others to emulate: Chris Munn, ALS advocate, courageous fighter, and a member of the band of brothers, continues to spread the word about ALS, to help build awareness, to gain FDA approval for possible life-saving drugs, to counsel the young, and as always to be the very best friend, classmate, father, husband, son, sibling, and rugby teammate possible. How can you help?

  • Financially: This link on the Norwich University home page shows you how you may contribute to the Chris Munn Rugby Scholarship:
  • Awareness: Visit the ALS Association website (http://www.alsa.org/), learn more about this illness, and see how you can easily become an advocate in your local community.
  • Insight: Speak to family members, friends, co-workers and others about ALS, about Chris Munn, and about others who refuse to have ALS define their lives. Help spread the word about the courage, commitment, and resilience that members of this community demonstrate daily.

 

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