Growing up, all through school I loved seeing the other students playing whiffle ball, basketball, ultimate frisbee, softball and baseball, football and running track. I would always go to sleep at night, dreaming of being out there on the basketball court or the diamond playing and getting dirty with my classmates and friends, but because of my disability I had to take it really easy to make sure I didn’t get hit in the head or get tipped over in my wheelchair and suffer a broken leg or arm. You see I have very brittle bones, especially in my legs, and also have a shunt (a tube that goes from my brain to my stomach to drain fluid away from the brain), and I had to be really careful to make sure I didn’t end up in the hospital or in the operating room because something happened while I was playing. I still have to be careful, but as I’ve gotten older I think I’ve gotten a little braver, and my parents have let me try a few things they probably wouldn’t have when I was 10 years old.
I guess it was in the early 1990s when I started getting interested in baseball and football. Hey, when they pre-empt the Flintstones, Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, or the Andy Griffith Show for the Atlanta Braves at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium or Georgia Bulldogs between the hedges, you’re kind of forced to watch and become a fan… and there was absolutely NO WAY I was going to watch soap operas or, God forbid, Barney the Dinosaur, you can lick a stamp and put THAT in the mail!!! 🙂 🙂
I will never forget watching the Braves and Bulldogs, pretending I was Garrison Hearst, Andre Hastings, John Kasay, Eric Zeier, Robert Edwards, David Greene, David Pollack, D.J. Shockley, Fred Gibson, Matt Stinchcomb, Jon Stinchcomb, Hines Ward, Terrell Davis, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Terry Pendleton, Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez, Eddie Perez, Fred McGriff, Ryan Klesko, Sid Bream, Mark Lemke, Greg Olson or Andres Gallarraga in the fourth quarter or the ninth inning of a really huge game against one of our rivals from the National League East or Southeastern Conference.
I dreamed I was at the plate facing Randy Johnson in Game Seven of the World Series, with the bases loaded, two out in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game, or lined up at wide receiver or running back with less than two minutes left against Florida, Tennessee or South Carolina with a chance to win the SEC East and go to the SEC Championship against Auburn, Alabama or LSU.
Every night from April-October and every Saturday afternoon from September-December I hung on every word Braves broadcasters Pete Van Wieren, Joe Simpson, Skip Caray and Don Sutton, and Georgia Bulldogs announcer Larry Munson said as they called the action on TV and radio. Sometimes I laid in bed, after everybody went to sleep, and listened to the Braves if they were on the West Coast or in the playoffs. I longed to be called into the game by Braves’ manager Bobby Cox or Bulldogs coach Ray Goff to show the opponent that they NEVER come into our house and push us around.
Before I go any further, let me throw it in reverse and back pedal for a second. In elementary school or middle school, I was asked to be a part of a Challenger League sponsored by the city of Cartersville, Georgia’s, Little League Association. The Challenger League was for kids with disabilities who never had a chance to participate in organized team sports at school to get out on the basketball court and baseball field for a couple hours every Saturday morning during the summer, and just have fun and forget that we have a disability for a while. I had SO MUCH fun participating in the basketball and baseball games that we played in, but what made it even more fun was the fact that there were no set lineups, innings or quarters, nobody kept score and EVERYBODY was able to get a hit, round the bases and score a basket. We even got to wear jerseys when we played baseball, which really made us feel like a team. I loved everything about the Challenger League, meeting the parents and other “athletes,” meeting our coaches and the end of season awards banquet. But the one thing I didn’t like was having to wear a Yankees jersey one season 😉
I also had the chance to “get my game face on” during the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Knowing I was probably going to college and move out on my own eventually, my parents and I agreed that it’d be a good idea for me to go down to Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center, about an hour or so south of Atlanta, to learn how to be independent when I do get my own apartment or house. I learned everything from how to get dressed and pull on my pants, socks and shoes, to how to get back in my chair if I fell out of it.
I’d been at Warm Springs a couple weeks or a month I guess when I heard about a sports camp that was going on about a mile away. My nurses and the people who were “assigned” to me at the rehab facility asked me if I wanted to go over and check it out, and before I knew it I was learning how to play tennis, swim, play basketball and run track. This camp was also for people with disabilities, but this time there were children, teenagers and young adults participating. And unlike the Challenger League, this time it really was GAME TIME!!! We were split into age groups, and we actually had qualifying heats and games and at the end, the winners got to play each other.
I’ll never forget the last basketball game my team played. It was a really competitive matchup, and we were racing up and down the floor trying to keep the other team from scoring. Get the picture… Fourth quarter, less than two minutes left in the game, the opponent has the ball. I’m guarding this guy and see the ball get heaved toward the far sideline. I race over as fast as I can and squeal my tires when I get to the sideline, so I’m parallel to the bleachers and can reach the ball. All of a sudden, I feel somebody hit my right side like a Mack truck, and the next thing I know I’m bracing myself with my left arm, hitting the hardwood and trying to get the ball in the process. My dad and several other people, including a nurse who was there, were over me before I was able to hit the floor good, and sat me back up on all fours making sure I’m okay.
I kept telling them, “I’m okay!! I’m okay!! Can I just get back in the game please?” Well, after convincing them I wasn’t hurt, play finally resumed but there were less than 30 seconds left in regulation, and we were down by two. Our team inbounds, and the ball gets passed to me on the baseline. I check the clock, 10 seconds left… nine… eight… seven……
I squared up my chair to the basket and let the ball go. I’m watching the ball as it hits the top of its arch and slowly hits……………….. nothing but NET!!! I was racing around the floor, pumping my fists in the air as the stands emptied, and everybody came over and patted me on the back for sending the game into OT. Then it REALLY gets good… I think the game went back and forth in overtime, and my team got the ball for the final shot. We inbounded, and I think I got the ball and passed off to a teammate. Then I put the hammer down and led a fast break down court with my teammate right behind me.
When I got under the basket, I hung a hard right and had my back to the play as it ended, but as soon as I heard the roar of the crowd I knew what happened. Because of my “never say die” attitude, courage to dust myself off and get back in the game and my game-tying shot at the end of regulation, my team fought back from the depths and WON THE GAME!!! At the awards ceremony at the end of the camp, I was named most improved basketball player for the entire camp!! This was one of the proudest moments of my life because I knew I can participate in sports and don’t have to “ride the bench” my whole life.
I didn’t have to ride the bench, and YOU don’t either!! You just have to keep your faith, keep praying, keep trying, keep working, keep knocking down doors, and pretty soon somebody is going to put you in the game. It may be on the playing field, or in the game of life, you never know. Just hang in there, dust yourself off when you get knocked down and don’t miss that pitch when it crosses the plate. Knock it out of the park, just like I did… just like I ALWAYS WILL!!!!