Casting a New Mold for Heroes

Casting a New Mold for Heroes

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Casting a New Mold for Heroes

Football wasn’t easy for Jamie, but he refused to be pampered by his team mates. He became annoyed, at practice, if his teammates didn’t hit him as hard as they did everyone else. So he egged them on: “Come on, you wuss, can’t you hit any harder than that?” So Jamie’s teammates complied with his challenge to their macho nature and drilled him to the turf. No problem. Jamie just got back up and baited his teammates into blasting him again. Jamie wanted to experience the full impact of football and felt that he had earned his right to do just that, cerebral palsy or not.

The first time I set eyes on Jamie, he reminded me of the poster boy for the March of Dimes. He was a cute, frail-looking middle school sixth-grader, with dishwater-blond hair and glasses. He also had his own wheelchair.

Jamie had just gotten back from the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital, where he was operated on to eliminate hip muscle restrictions and buckling knees, while correcting his toes-out and knees-in style of walking—a condition that encouraged years of teasing and multitudes of discomfort. The operation was the latest in a series of operations designed to help him function properly, operations that manipulated his tender and helpless young body via hip muscle cuttings, heel cord cuttings, stapling and realignment of leg bones.

Sometime during Jamie’s career as a sixth-grader, he graduated from his wheelchair to restrictive walking casts and crutches. It was then that I witnessed the casting of a new mold for heroes, a mold that was producing a boy with a willful intent to beat the malady of mediocrity.

Jamie had no intention of depending upon others, which, in Jamie’s awkward and unsteady state, would get him into troublesome predicaments. He often fell crashing to the floor, his books, crutches and body flying in all directions. Those of us who witnessed his dilemma wanted to go to his aid, but there was always something about his composure that refused coddling of any kind. He simply untwisted his contorted frame into a suitable position, gathered his books, struggled up into the security of his crutches and started over, his mission accomplished.

Sometime before Jamie started seventh grade, he ditched his supportive crutches and restrictive casts and took on the normal world with an intense determination. It would be his to conquer with or without his support, and if he sensed that his new condition would, in any way, present difficult obstacles in his path toward wholeness, he wasn’t letting on.

Yet, whether Jamie wanted to recognize these new challenges at the surface of his conscious thinking or not, they were there. Jamie now walked (shuffled) with his hips forward while his head, chest and legs tagged slightly behind. His gait was unsteady, much like that of a newborn calf, yet his head, while lagging slightly behind, was always held high. An accidental bump, though, in the crowded hallways between classes, would once again send Jamie sprawling to the floor with his materials flying in all directions. The incident always left Jamie’s surroundings in a state of melodramatic hush, a condition Jamie chose to ignore or maybe not even notice. After all, the incident was just another dot on the paper for Jamie in a lifetime of falls, teasings, frustrations and bruises. Why should he react anyway? Was it that out of the ordinary just to fall down? So Jamie would collect his books off the floor, struggle to his feet and continue on as though the only moment in time would be the one he experienced next.

Jamie continued his choreographed shuffle-and-stumble routine throughout the eighth grade with some variation, since he was slightly bigger and slightly stronger. In the meantime, gigantic growth was occurring within him. He was transforming from a boy to a man, and the inward strength and spirit of a giant were urging him to conquer anything in his path. These urgings came to the surface by the ninth grade.

Alex Karras once said that toughness comes from the soul and spirit, and not from muscles and an immature mind. As a freshman, Jamie made a prophet out of Karras. He tried out for football.

The coaches, understandably cautious, asked Jamie if he would consider becoming a manager. They were concerned about his physical well-being out on the gridiron. Yet his dream was to become a football player, not a manager. Jamie, not about to succumb to overprotectiveness, joined the team.

As a player, Jamie was the smallest, slowest and most susceptible to getting hurt. Yet he was also the most courageous. His lack of physical talent may have frustrated him, but he never let that hold him back or get him down. He refused to give up his soul to self-pity. When the rest of the team finished a fifteen-yard windsprint and waited for Jamie, who was only halfway, he just kept on shuffling with his head back and his head up. He may have sensed that he was being watched by the other team members, who waited for him to finish, but what he couldn’t be aware of was the sense of awe his teammates felt for the courage and determination that he projected.

Jamie committed himself to freshman football. He always stayed after practice to improve his game, and he was always the first to raise his hand when coaches asked for volunteers during practice. But he was used sparingly during games. He was no doubt disappointed at being relegated to the sidelines, yet it gave him an opportunity to utilize his role as inspirational sideline leader. When he wasn’t begging the coaches to let him in the game, he was a cheerleader. He awkwardly threw his arms into the air in jubilance when his team made a good play. Oftentimes this jubilant display left him sprawled face down on the sideline grass. If this was embarrassing to anyone else, it wasn’t to Jamie. He merely picked himself up and continued cheering.

On occasion, freshmen football games include a “fifth” quarter intended to give the reserves some well-earned playing time. During the fifth quarter of one game, Jamie got in on defense. On one particular play, Jamie got knocked down as soon as the play started. Jamie got up as quickly as his body allowed him to and faced the flow of the play. The ballcarrier was headed right for him. Jamie braced himself, lowered his shoulder, reached his arms around the ball carrier and dragged him to the turf. His teammates on the sidelines cheered, and his teammates on the field gave him high-fives. At that moment, Jamie got to be the ballplayer he had always hoped to be; he became part of the heat of the moment and heard the cheers for his accomplishment. It was only a tackle, yet he felt the thrill of scoring the winning touchdown or of intercepting the key pass that saved the game. Every knock to the turf during that entire season was now more worthwhile than he had already perceived it.

Jerry Harpt

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