The next few years were anguished ones for the tightly knit Ralston family. Some days Larry was well enough to have friends visit, to cook dinner, even to go roller-skating with his mother. Other days he would be mute with suffering, unable to rise from his bed. It was a matter of time. The Ralstons, meanwhile, joined the informal worldwide network of AIDS parents, trying to get help for their son. Ralston talked to everyone he could, including Arthur Ashe. He sought the best medical counsel. The old coach wouldn't give up without a fight. "John's reaction was, Who'll fix this thing?" says Patty. "Larry accepted his disease much better than his father did."
On Dec. 20, 1991, Larry asked to be released from Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City so he could die at home. He had a request to make of his parents. During the time Ralston coached in the Soviet Union, his son had visited him in Moscow but had never seen Red Square. Would they go there for him? He died shortly before the start of the new year, at age 37. In March 1992 the Ralstons kept their promise, flying to Russia, where John coached some of his former Moscow Bears in an all-star game. In Moscow the Ralstons went to a Russian Orthodox church. "It was beautiful, but poor, very crowded, smoky, dirty and gray," Patty wrote in the diary she kept in Larry's memory. "Many old people in the church with no teeth, raggedly dressed, stooped but yet lighting candles, singing and praying. Dad and I each bought a candle and lit it for you, Lar. So you really are memorialized in Moscow, as was your wish."
John Ralston faced a brutal schedule in the first half of his first season at San Jose. Of his first five opponents, three—Stanford, Cal and Washington—were nationally ranked when he played them, and though his Spartans came close against Louisville and Stanford, losing by just seven and three points, respectively, they were sadly overmatched in each game. (As of Nov. 1, they had beaten their last two opponents, New Mexico Sate and Louisiana Tech.) No Ralston-coached team had ever had such a poor start, and no San Jose State team had begun that badly since the 1923 Spartans went 0-6. Ralston hates losing as much as any coach, but in what he calls his "new flexibility," he is not without hope, dismissing the defeats as "a learning experience designed to make you better."
His players still don't quite know what to make of the energetic older man who speaks so eloquently to them. "He's not at all what I expected," says quarterback Jeff Garcia, who is among the nation's leaders in total offense. "I think he'll have a huge positive impact on football here. He's inspirational, a great speaker and motivator. He must have a tremendous love for this game."
Well, that's part of it, certainly. But there's something else, something a bit deeper in the man's soul. "It's being back with young people again," says Ralston. "I just know I can do something for them. It's like...." And he clears his throat. "It's like having 65 sons."