This past weekend I had the distinction of acting the part of the proud grandparent as I watched my oldest grandchild accept her degree from one of America's great universities. She is both healthy and bright and was able to walk on two legs up the steps to the stage to receive her diploma.
Later that night, I was having dinner with my friend the eminent Dr. Michael Gurvey. Michael is a quiet man who never brags about his accomplishments. Out of the blue, that day, he had received a call from a Veteran whom he treated during the Viet Nam War. In order to save the soldier's life, it was necessary to amputate both arms at the elbow, as well as one leg at the knee.
Today, the man is writing a book about his life experiences and he found it important to reconnect with the Doctor who forced him to get well. After a lengthy search, he found Michael earlier that day.
He recalled how Major Gurvey when he was at lowest point in his life with no will to live, ordered him, as his superior officer, to go to Rehab. Afraid to disobey those direct orders, he went to Rehab. Today, 47 years later with a wife and children, gainfully employed, he felt any book he might write would be incomplete without talking to the doctor who not only saved his life, but inspired him not to give up..
This led me to think of some of the wonderful athletes, either physically disabled or mentally challenged who overcame their difficulties and looked on them as an opportunity. Meeting overwhelming odds, they succeeded in competition. There are many stories about those athletes who aspired to meet life's challenges head-on. A few immediately come to mind.
My long-time friend and mentor, Robert S. (Bob) Block, once told me what Leroy Walker, the first Black President of the United States Olympics related to him. Coach Walker who supervised both the Para Olympics, as well as the Olympics pointed that there is one big difference between the two athletic endeavors. The Olympic Movement is filed with Prima donnas while the Handicapped Olympics is a love fest filled with joy. It is about "us", instead of, "me".
Looking for inspiration for this story, I did not look too far. I talked to my grand niece Lia Heifetz to learn about her latest endeavor. Thank goodness, she has both arms and legs because what she and 11 of her high school classmates at Juneau Douglas High School are doing, ( they are now all college graduates) will require the use of all her extremities for the journey ahead.
Starting from Juneau, Alaska, these young adventurers will be both Kayaking and Biking to Argentina. Starting this June, they expect to finish the trek by the end of 2013.
Some them will leave the expedition after 4 months when they expect to reach Vancouver, B.C. It will be time for this group to go back to school. To learn about this perilous journey, Google : www.atripsouth.com.
Again, I did not have to go far afield in my research to learn of another challenge that appeared to be impossible. Sean Block (Bob's) grand son gave me the details. As cinematographer, he documented the mountain climbing expedition this past year of a group of 12 wounded veterans as they scaled Mt Lobuche, 0ver 20,000 feet high located in the shadow of Mt Everest.
The team consisted of 2 blind soldiers, 4 with missing limbs and the rest suffering from severe head trauma - Post Traumatic Stress.
Steve Baskas, had his eyes blown out by shrapnel serving in Iraq. While in Rehab, he met and married his nurse who has been his driving force ever since. He has never seen her.
Eric Weinmayer, although blind, Para-glides. He hangs bells on his feet to let him know when he is close to any object. The mountain climbing expedition is a true team sport. Everyone must rely on the other guy. To learn more about this climb, look up highgroundmovie.org.
In professional, as well as amateur sports, there have always been those who defy the odds... and there have always been detractors.
Let's look at the PGA and the case of Casey Martin. Casey, a Professional Golfer good enough to earn his PGA card desired to play in Tournaments. In order to do so, he needed a waiver to ride a cart.
You see, Martin was born with a disability that slowly takes away the use of muscles in a leg, an arm, or a foot... eventually the limb will be rendered useless. He had to sue in order to be able to ride a cart so that he could play on the tour. In a Bush League move, the PGA fought this move all the way to the Supreme Court. Casey prevailed 7-2 with Justices Scalia and Thomas voting against it. They are true examples of Justice being blind.
How would they feel if they were disabled, say for just a week? Maybe then they would see the life of challenges faced by Disabled Americans!
In Major League Baseball, the players have come with many varied disabilities. In one instance, it was a Deaf player who revolutionized the game.
Early in the 20th Century, a small Ballplayer (5'4", 150 LBS) by the name of William Hoy nicknamed "Dummy". He was terrific and the first deaf player with a sustained career in the Major Leagues. However, he became known for something completely different. He was responsible for initiating the hand signals used to this day by umpires, managers and outfielders. In such a way, he could compete at the highest level of the game
Kenny Walker is one of only two deaf players in the history of the NFL. Walker became deaf after contracting meningitis at the age of two. Drafted by the Denver Broncos after starring at Nebraska, he started all 16 games his rookie year. In his final game at Nebraska, the entire stadium ( 70,000 people), applauded him in sign language.
Jean Driscoll, born with spina bifida, was the quintessential wheelchair athlete. She won 7 straight Boston Marathons from 1990 to 1996.
Tom Dempsey of the new Orleans Saints, the man who kicked a 63 yard Field Goal, the longest in NFL history as well as one of its most prolific scorers had no foot.
Going way back, but I did see him run in the twilight of his career, the great Miler Glenn Cunningham new what hardship was. His Track career was what legends were made of. His toes were burned off in a school fire when he was 8, still he set all kinds of records.
Natalie Du Toit is a swimmer with only one leg. Despite this, she won 4 gold medals at the 2004 Paralympics and later qualified for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. She placed 16th in the 10,000 meter swim.
Pete Gray was a Major League Baseball player in the mid-40's. I saw him play for the St. Louis Browns (now, the Orioles). It was amazing! He had one arm. With that arm, he taught himself to pitch, catch the ball, quickly drop the glove and throw the ball all in one motion. He won the Southern League's MVP Award in 1944.
Jim Abbott was a Major League Pitcher with one arm. Even with this disability, as an amateur, he pitched the final game of the 1988 Summer Olympics and won the USA, a Gold Medal. In 1993, he pitched a No-Hitter against the Cleveland Indians.
Last, but certainly not least in my Athletes with disabilities list short as it is due to newspaper space, Rocky Bleier. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, was called to serve and suffered a 40% disability to his arms and legs in Viet Nam due to an exploding Grenade. Undeterred when he returned from service, using a self-imposed exercise regimen, he worked himself back into the starting lineup and helped the Steelers win 4 Super Bowls.
My friend and internist for years, Dr Jeff Galpin, was himself an undefeated NCAA Table Tennis Champion for the 4 years he was at the University of Illinois. Since 16, he has been in a Wheel Chair. Truly, an inspirational man.
So, where have I gone in today's column. It is simple, those who are blessed with good health, great physical prowess and earn a huge salary, should look in the mirror daily and thank the Lord for their Blessings. They have no right to be malcontents. Jealousy and anger are wasted emotions and energy.
When I was actively working, I had a sign on my desk. It simply read ,"I cried because I had no shoes, until I met man with no feet!"