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Chargers support one of their own at Huntington's disease event

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK

    For the better part of the year, Bill Johnston's time is spent assisting others.

    As the San Diego Chargers director of public relations, he busily manages media, handles players and oversees the organization's communications strategy. In his 24th year at that position (and 35th with the team), Johnston is a source of support during the long, sometimes weary NFL season.

    Saturday night, it was the team's turn to support him -- not at the Chargers facility, but at the Omni Hotel downtown for the annual "Celebration of Hope Gala," an event that benefits Huntington's disease. Several players (including offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and D.J. Fluker, defensive linemen Cam Thomas and Kendall Reyes and linebacker Manti Te'o) attended in support of Johnston, whose wife was diagnosed with the condition in 1999.

    "Bill's a teammate," Hardwick said. "Anything we can do to help a teammate out, we do. A lot of people don't know how much you have to go through to have a loved one go through this. Bill is so resilient … He's unbelievable."

    Added Te'o: "Learning about the disease and what it does to a person -- Just for us to be here for him, and for everybody who is affected by it, it's a big thing."

    Huntington's disease is a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that causes brain cells to die, leading to muscular difficulties and cognitive decline. Those affected by the horrific disease are often unable to walk, talk, feed themselves or act independently.

    Since his wife's diagnosis, Johnston and his daughter, Hayley -- who has a 50-percent chance of inheriting the disease -- have worked tirelessly to raise money and awareness for HD.

    "Right now there's no cure," he said. "It's a disease that threatens our entire family."

    Saturday night, in a ballroom at the Omni Hotel, the disease was present but it was life that was celebrated. Players mingled with fans at the swanky event, enjoying the atmosphere and answering questions about the season and the upcoming game against the Colts. ESPN broadcasters Mike Tirico and Lisa Salters also attended, in town for the Monday night game.

    "We would do anything for Bill," Salters said. "He's always been so great to us."

    The program, emceed by Padres broadcaster Mark Grant, included a candid (and at times hilarious) question-and-answer portion with Hardwick, Te'o and Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin.

    "It's a horrible and terrible disease, but yet, we're here to have fun and raise awareness," Grant said. "We're not going to let it beat us. We want to have fun with the program, have some chuckles and some laughs."

    Most people have never heard of Huntington's disease. It doesn't have a lot of celebrity attached to it and is rarely mentioned in the news -- All the more reason awareness is imperative, said 24-year-old Blaine Lewis, who has an aunt that suffers from HD.

    "Huntington's is just a terrible combination of the worst degenerative diseases out there," Lewis said. "Not too many people know about it. I think it's really cool to see people out here like the Chargers supporting this, especially coming from a younger person's perspective. Having current Chargers players that are my same age learn about it themselves … I think it's great."

    For more information on Huntington's disease, visit hdsa.org.