Being There and Being Able To
Two men suffered painful losses that introduced them to a whole new world
By Meir Rinde
They flew and drove in from around the country and abroad, the disabled veterans of Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, Germany and Georgia, with their tricked-out handcycles and sport wheelchairs, their spouses and physical therapists and little lapdogs. More than 600 strong, they checked in at Philadelphia’s downtown Marriott, found their state teams and lined the Pennsylvania Convention Center’s main hall waiting for the opening ceremonies of the 2014 National Veterans Wheelchair Games to begin.
There were Puerto Ricans in lime green shirts, bellowing ‘La Bamba.’ Indianans in the urban camo colors of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. The sole competitor from Hawaii, an older man wearing a long white beard. In the very back waited the green-jacketed members of the host team, the Philly Phever, including two men who had discovered adaptive sports in just the last two years, after undergoing leg amputations: Frank “Sean” Johnson, a tall, muscular, bald man in glasses, and Ellwood “Woody” Allen, a perpetually smiling grandfather with fuzzy graying hair. Near them sat their teammate Doris Merrill, a World War II vet and at 92 the oldest competitor in the games.
A century ago, men and women like them almost certainly would not have been athletes. Disabled people, particularly those who were paralyzed, were considered doomed incurables to be hidden away. But during World War II, Ludwig Guttmann, a German-Jewish doctor living in exile in Britain, showed that rehabilitation was entirely possible, and focused in particular on the enthusiasm for sports among his patients. Not just for exercise, but actual competition, with its innate incentives to play hard, overcome obstacles, and bond with teammates.
Wheelchair athletics took off after the war with the creation of the first paralympic games; in the U.S., basketball became popular at Veterans Affairs hospitals, followed by other sports. The first National Veterans Wheelchair Games were held in Richmond, Virginia in 1981. For many who take to sports after becoming disabled, basketball, quad rugby, or rowing becomes central to their lives, bringing them out of depression and aimlessness.
For strong athletes like Sean, who won gold at last year’s vet games in Tampa, the Philadelphia event would represent a return to the field of battle, a chance to put another year of practice toward the race for medals. But for all the competitors, especially first-timers like Woody, the games would also be about much more: the fellowship of disabled vets, the sheer pleasure of sport, and the sense of purpose that comes from showing up and striving toward a goal, especially after your life has been yanked off its old tracks and set in a new and alien terrain.
• • •
Sixty-one years old, with a taste for telling parables from his own life, Woody had seen a countdown clock for the games on one of his regular visits to the Philadelphia Veterans Administration building. He signed up for discus, weightlifting, basketball and his favorite, handcycling. Most Saturday mornings over the summer found him in his biking outfit and helmet, riding a handpowered recumbent trike down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. He was often joined by two vet buddies, Bruce and Sonny, their arms rising and falling as they sped their course along the Schuylkill River through dappled shade and sun. They were part of a community, along with his recreational therapist, wife, kids and grandkids, that had motivated him to keep moving through recovery.
“It makes a difference to have people who can kick you in the butt. I was going to say help you along, but really what they do is kick you in the butt,” Woody said in his moist, growly voice. It was a couple weeks before the start of the games and he was sitting in the office of Fern Billet, a spokeswoman and congressional liaison for the Philadelphia VA. “I was out a couple weeks ago with those guys, and we’re just toodling along and talkin’. Bruce said, ‘Woody, if you want to you can take off.’ He laughed so hard. He was having so much fun with me. And I put the pedal to the metal. I mean, I was flying.”
“The next thing you know, they say, ‘Woody, when you comin’, man?’ And they just flew past me,” he said with a smile. “It’s that kind of jostling and cameraderie that really motivates you.”
Woody served as a behavioral science specialist at Fort Benning in Georgia from 1972 to 1975, helping guys coming back from Vietnam with “basic life adjustment problems.” After moving back to Philadelphia he worked a variety of jobs — as a mail handler, Radio Shack manager, and hoagie-maker at Wawa stores — while raising a family in the city’s West Oak Lane neighborhood. He biked and jogged and rode a motorcycle, played football and basketball, and coached his grandson’s baseball team. He had bad knees from his military service, along with diabetes and high cholesterol, but none of that kept him from going for early-morning runs or bike rides with the neighborhood kids — until February 2012, when he woke one morning with a numb left calf.
“I ran three miles on Saturday night, and on Tuesday I was in the hospital with the blood clot,” he said. “It was like getting hit by a car. It was like, all of a sudden.”
The clot was removed but an infection set in, possibly exacerbated by his diabetes. His goal of coaching his grandson that summer came and went. The leg wouldn’t heal and he suffered bone loss. At his urging, in July “they whacked it” below the knee.
Family and friends helped him through the immediate crisis, as did his own pragmatism. He described a hospital roommate who had forgotten his own leg had just been amputated, got out of bed, fell flat on his face and cried his eyes out. Woody knew how to avoid that particular misery: He put his walker right against the bed. “As soon as I woke up and rolled over to get out, the walker was sitting there to remind me: It’s not there anymore, Woody. So I never had a problem falling off the bed,” he said.
Yet despite the acceptance and the relatively smooth transition there was still what he called “the matter of the loss,” of all he could no longer do despite his prosthesis and wheelchair. No more bullshitting with the guys at the track, no more baseball, no more cycling around West Oak Lane.
“I pretty much thought life was over, honestly. I spent most of my time watching TV, which was really new to me,” he said. “I was pretty much in a nether-land. I’m not sure where I was. It wasn’t a true depression. I guess it was pretty much like ‘Tears of a Clown.’ I did OK, but I knew I had that problem.”
The moment that revived his sense of possibility came on a chilly day last October at a South Jersey golf course, where he climbed onto a handcycle for the first time. When others tried to help him, he put off their solicitousness by pretending he had ridden before, he said. In a sense, he had; after months of torpor, and nearly two years after he had gotten sick, he was back in the saddle he’d known so well for his entire life. When he was a boy he would bicycle from West Philly to Chester to visit relatives, doing the 14 miles just for fun. He would ride over to see Joyce, his future wife, and her dad would say, why is this sweaty kid biking to my house? As an adult, he pedaled around West Oak Lane whenever he could.
“I used to ride through the neighborhood with kids, when I was riding a bike. The kids would say, can I ride with you? Sure, come on, let’s go. They’d knock on my door and say, I got a flat tire, would you fix the flat, you know, little things like that. So it reminded me not only of the past, but a good part of the past. It really reminded me of the good,” he said.
He rode and rode the golf course trail, getting to know the cycle, not feeling the cold. He peeled off his sweatshirt. When lunch was served he kept riding, finally stopping in to bolt down half a ham sandwich and cup of tea before heading back out. “It was just plain unbelievable,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was passing anybody or anybody was passing me. But I could just feel myself back on the road again.”
“I realized I could get on the bike again. And get back to what I love. I knew I could get back to being somewhat normal — doing things that I really enjoyed. And then we went out to a golf clinic, and, well, that was unbelievable too,” he said.
With a joshing equanimity, Woody maintained that that whole amputation business ended up turning out fine. He navigates its discomforts calmly; he’s not too bothered when people ask about his disability. “The only people who have ever asked me about what happened are basically people who don’t give a damn,” he said. “Everybody who I’ve competed with, that I work with, it’s all, ‘Let’s get out of this situation and get you to the next level. OK?’”
“When I work with therapists, when I work with nurses, when I work with the guys I’m going to compete against, when I work with my wife, it’s always the same question: OK, what are we going to do next? It’s never, where are we now? Or what happened to you? What happened on Monday, I don’t think it’s that damn important. It’s already over,” he said. “That’s why I can never answer, what did you have for breakfast this morning? I ate it. It’s gone. It’s gone.”
Heading into the vet games, he didn’t care about winning prizes; he just didn’t want to come in last place. In 1988, he recalled, he was made manager of a struggling Radio Shack store that was, unbeknownst to him, slated for closure. A regional manager came into his store and said, “Well, you’re not in last place, as far as profit, but you’re next to last. How does that feel?”
“It feels pretty good,” Woody said.
“Why? What do you mean it feels good, to be almost in last place?”
“Because that means I’m going to be employed tomorrow. The guy in last place isn’t.”
“And that’s pretty much become my motto,” Woody said. “As long as you don’t lose it all, then you won something.”
• • •
Sean Johnson is a looming presence on the basketball court, but he was a newbie to wheelchair sports once too. Two years ago, a lower leg that had been paralyzed in a shooting decades earlier became infected and was amputated. His therapist told him about the adaptive boathouse along the Schuylkill River, where he started rowing and then handcycling. Later the VA flew him out to a summer clinic in San Diego, where he surfed for the first time, and to a winter clinic in Aspen.
“I did ski, by the way,” he said, reveling in the memory over a Saturday brunch a couple weeks before the vet games. “Just the experience of being in Aspen, and that scene. The mountains, you know. I’m a city kid, I’ve seen hills. Big hills. I’d never seen mountains. It was a completely different thing.”
At forty-three years old, Sean is a mountain of a man with a shaved head and small graying goatee. After high school he’d signed up for the Air Force reserves because he needed money for college, and like Woody served as a psych specialist, though a generation later. He spent eight months in Germany, stabilizing injured soldiers who were coming back from Operation Desert Shield. Some of the guys were missing limbs; some were just having a tough time dealing with the reality of war. “They may not have been hurt at all,” he said, “but when you’re hurt in your mind, that could be just as bad.”
Back in Philly, he worked for his dad’s construction business, helped take care of his two-year-old son, recorded a demo with a rap group, and got ready to start community college. One night two guys from the group came over to his grandmother’s place, near 56th and Girard in West Philadelphia, to hang out with him and drink beer. They eventually convinced him to leave his son with his grandmother and head out for some fried chicken. Walking to the KFC, they crossed a one-way street and had to jump out of the way of a car being floored in reverse. Delicately, Sean recalled one of the guys in his group exchanging words with the teenaged driver:
“There’s something wrong with your brakes?”
“Yes, so next time get the (bleep) out the street,” the kid said.
They moved on, but Sean’s pager kept going off and he stopped to use a pay phone. Moments later the driver returned with two other people and three guns and they opened up on the group. Sean took bullets in the arm and the back. His friends were unhurt, though a girl getting off the bus at the next corner was hit and survived. The 15-year-old driver spent some time in detention but the case was never prosecuted, Sean said.
He spent the next three months in the hospital, grappling with the truth that his legs had gone useless. He was 22 years old and his doctors said his walking days were over. His family and friends were at his side, but those were dark days, in bed and in the wheelchair.
“The paralysis thing, that was tough for me to deal with on an ego level,” he said. “My ego was damaged. It was hard to be paralyzed and feel like a man. Right or wrong, that was my perception — that I would have trouble being a man sitting in a chair. Even something as simple as, you’re lower than everybody else. You know? Geometrically, just lower. You’re looking up, you’re looking at belly buttons and kids are right here, you know, so that was rough.”
He went home, he prayed, and slowly, painfully, over the course of half a year, a miracle happened. One leg started to come back. He moved from a wheelchair to a walker, and eventually to crutches. His other leg got stronger too, though it would remain paralyzed below the knee. From two crutches to one crutch to no crutch, from a long leg brace to a smaller brace, and eight months after the bullet hit him in the back he was mobile again. To this day, he gives thanks to God.
“That’s the thing that energized me when I was lying in that bed, to say, ‘There’s hope’,” he recalled. “That’s where I found my strength, in God, to give me that hope — that no matter what the doctors were saying, God knows me better than they would. You know?” He laughed.
His life changed. He switched from construction to computers and got his degree. He briefly tried playing basketball, but his brace kept breaking, so he stopped. “Once I was shot, I kind of just put all sports out of my reach,” he said. He became an I.T. specialist, doing desktop support at big companies. He got married and raised his son and two daughters. He wrote skits for church, acted in them and directed the church’s theater program. He got divorced, wrote plays, and started a business doing skits at private events.
About four years ago he developed an ulcer on his ankle that refused to heal. Over a year and a half he had surgery after surgery to clean it out — by the end he had endured a dozen procedures, he said — and during one of them he contracted MRSA, a bacterial infection that antibiotics can’t cure.
“It was getting really aggressive. It was spreading up my leg,” he said. “It started in my ankle and then, next thing you know, they did an X-ray and we saw the infection going halfway up my shin. So that’s a little alarming, if you don’t know how fast it’s moving. The last X-ray we didn’t see that, and then all of a sudden it’s halfway up my leg. We moved that very next morning with the amputation.”
He was in a wheelchair again, as he had been during that rough period 20 years before. But it wasn’t so bad this time. “I was losing a part of my body that I had lost 20 years ago,” he said. And the VA took care of him. He got a prosthesis. He discovered he could row. “I love the water, I love nature, so it just fit into my whole persona,” he said. “The water was outside, in nature, and I was getting a workout. It was almost a hidden workout because I was having so much fun, just rowing. I didn’t realized the health benefits that I was taking advantage of.” After two decades of no sports, now he was handcycling, surfing, skiing, and kayaking. He tried an adaptive sport called sled-hockey. (“It’s awesome. It was hard, really really hard.”) He was recently in his first tennis tournament, winning one match and getting clobbered by a teenager in the next.
And wheelchair basketball: man, he instantly loved it. Just gravitated to it.
In the summer he plays in a city league and the rest of the year he’s part of the Magee Spokesmen, a team sponsored by the Philadelphia 76ers. In April they were in Louisville, Kentucky for the National Wheelchair Basketball Association championships. At the Philadelphia VA he’s literally a poster boy, one of a few athletes pictured in noirish black-and-white portraits framed on the office walls.
“You discover, or you rediscover, a part of you that you thought was dead. ‘Wait a minute, I can compete? And, wait a minute, I’m pretty good at it? And there are other people like me?’ It’s a communal thing. We all have very similar challenges, and we’re all competing pretty much on the same level. It’s probably that more than anything else, at least for me,” he said.
“Really, it’s a hobby, but it’s one that you never thought was even possible. Before you’re paralyzed, you don’t know about wheelchair sports. How would you, unless you knew somebody who was in it? Otherwise, it’s like, you don’t even know this world exists. Had I known then what I know now, I would have been active in all these sports, at least some of them, 20 years ago.”
His enthusiasm for recovery extends beyond sports. Through a program run by Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, he gives talks about making good choices to middle- and high-schoolers who have gotten in trouble for drinking. He always tells them his story about getting shot and lying in bed and making his miraculous recovery.
“I’m grateful to be here,” he said. “It’s not hard for me to find the silver lining in something. Because to me the rest of my life is the silver lining. Because there’s guys that didn’t make it through what I did. And they can’t tell their story, you know. They can’t help somebody else out.”
• • •
The athletes waited patiently until the opening ceremonies finally began. They rolled and motored down the convention center hall, their families cheering noisily for each group, and took their places under the building’s enormous vaulted ceiling. Ed Rendell, the popular former Philadelphia mayor and Pennyslvania governor, came to the dais and told them they showed “how to live your life and how not to let the challenges life gives you hold you down. To be optimistic, to be enthusiastic and to live life to the fullest.” They cheered when Rendell, an Army Reserve vet and well-known sports fan, talked about attending the city’s wheelchair basketball tournament years ago. Being a decent shooter himself, he tried to make a basket from a wheelchair. “I couldn’t reach the basket,” he said, “which shows the incredible strength and athleticism of the athletes who are here with us today.”
After more dignitaries spoke and the final cheers went up, the athletes dispersed to get dinner and some rest. Competition began the next morning with air rifle in the convention center and track and field at Moorestown High School in New Jersey. For five days they competed in a diverse array of events: air pistol, tennis, bowling, basketball, 9-ball, table tennis, power-wheelchair soccer, quad rugby, weightlifting, obstacle-course slalom, softball, archery, trapshooting, swimming, and boccia, a Paralympic sport similar to bocce.
The last day, Sunday, started at seven o’clock with the 10-kilometer handcycling race. From the starting line at the adaptive boathouse, the riders would head up MLK Jr. Drive almost to the Falls Bridge, come back, and do the whole loop again. They lined up near the boathouse, Woody upright on his shiny red trike, a custom-built number donated the month before by a local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans. Despite the overcast sky he wore dark sunglasses, a patriotic blue helmet covered with flags and stars, his green jacket and shorts. Near him on the blacktop were his buddy Sonny and dozens of other competitors. Bruce had a shoulder injury but watched from the side of the road.
Officials in green shirts milled about, setting up cones and directing the competitors to their starting positions. Woody ended up in the very front of the pack, next to a cycler in a light-green full body suit with puffy Kermit the Frog faces on the toes, and another racer who lay nearly flat on his handcycle in a red, white and blue biking outfit.
“I couldn’t sleep last night. Just anticipation. This is the event that I was really geared for,” Woody said. “That should help, that should be a plus, the fact that I couldn’t sleep. It’s all adrenaline. That’s where I want it to be.”
As he waited to start, he reflected on his education over the last year. His brain had resisted, he said. It had not grasped at first how to move a cycle or lift weights without using the legs at all, even as his body had embraced the new experiences. He was more capable, in a sense, than he had been before the amputation. “That’s probably the craziest part of everything,” he said. “I’ve learned to do more. I learned to adapt, you know, by watching other guys.”
A singer shakily rendered the national anthem, well-wishers cheered, and at 7:30 they were off. The frog-green and red-white-and-blue riders in the front row shot down the road and out of sight.
Woody, sitting up in his throne, pulled forward deliberately, moving slowly under tree branches thick with leaves. A grassy strip along the Schuylkill River lay to his right and a set of elevated train tracks to his left, with the steady whoosh of the I-76 expressway just beyond. He pushed past a stately red brick pumping station and the water-stained undercarriage of a bridge, his hands rising and falling on the handles of his trike, rising and falling. Successive groups of riders zoomed past him, striving for finish times that might win them a medal. He saw the occasional random bicyclist, some joggers, a parking lot on the river bank.
Twelve minutes into the race, the first rider to get halfway through the course curved into the parking lot next to the boathouse, sleek and low in a stretchy outfit, and headed back up for the second circuit. A freight train came squeaking and roaring along the elevated tracks off to the left. More riders looped through the parking lot. One of them, an older woman with a flat, uncomprehending expression, mistakenly crossed the finish line and was redirected into the lot. “You have to go twice!” an official yelled. Sonny entered the lot, tipped over on the turn, was righted and sped off.
Further up the road, the first rider lapped Woody, reached the turnaround by the Falls Bridge for the second time and headed into the finish. A few minutes later Woody reached that turnaround for the first time. The first few riders finished the complete course, zipping past a row of cones as onlookers cheered.
Thirty-four minutes in, steadily raising and lowering his arms, Woody arrived at the adaptive boathouse. He missed the parking lot, turned around, cut backwards across the finish line and headed into the second circuit. More riders were finishing — Sonny, the Kermit the Frog guy. Time passed. An official said nine riders were still out there. Jittery electric guitar blared from the speakers by the finish line. The crowd of people watching the race thinned out. At long intervals, more riders slowly came through, pumping their arms. At 8:38 a.m., more than hour after the race began, Woody rode over the line, smiling broadly.
He parked his trike behind the starting line and chatted with his aunt and his recreational therapist Mary Jane, a fixture at the boathouse every weekend. For months, Mary Jane had encouraged him and ridden the race course with him.
“You got your wish!” she said: he had not come in last.
“I told you I could make it,” he joked. “You didn’t think so, but I told you I could make it.”
Woody had seen three riders still behind him, creeping down MLK Jr. Drive. He joked about his front-line position at the start of the race, saying, “He who is first shall be last.”
Fern from the VA was there, and she reminded Woody about an anecdote he had recounted in her office weeks earlier. It concerned an old retired boxer he’d known when he was a boy, who would always talk about how he’d been knocked out by two heavyweight champions of the world.
“He said, ‘What you have to do to lose to the heavyweight champ of the world is be in the ring. As long as you get a chance to get in the ring, you got a chance,’” Woody had recalled. “And so I pretty much look at it that way. Not that it’s a matter of winning or losing. It’s a matter of being there and being able to.”
• • •
Wheelchair basketball is a jerky ballet, alternately faster and slower than the standing game. There are hurried runs up the court with snakey wiggles and sudden swooping turns around an opponent, staccato dribbling on the fly, and sly fractional spins to edge around the guy between you and the basket. Sean’s team turned out to excel at cutting through the scrum of defenders and getting in position to score. It was clear from the start they would do well.
Teams were designed for approximate parity, with players slotted by degree of disability and experience. But Sean quickly saw that his squad, the Red team, included a handful of standout players. “I was surprised to see we were all on the same team,” he said. “It’s a little stacked.”
Their first game, on Wednesday against the White team, was the closest to an even match. They played amid the constant booming racket and intensely bright lighting of the convention center’s hangar-like Hall A, with quad rugby and other basketball games going on nearby. The score seesawed back and forth until the second half, when relentless runs down the court by Red’s lead forward, a North Carolinian named Tee Foster, started to take a toll. Red won 48–42.
The second game, versus Blue on Thursday, was a rout. Sean didn’t play much, but he didn’t mind giving novices time on the court and a chance to learn to love the game. He spent much of the game on the sideline with a white towel draped over his head. When he was in, his job was to get in close to the basket and use his long, bulky arms to get rebounds or to receive passes, keeping the ball high and way out of the opposing players’ reach until he could pass again or score. Red won 59–29.
“I can get down low,” he explained courtside after the game, over the room’s echoey din. “That’s kind of our game plan, for me to get down low and then they throw it into me. That’s when I was gettin’ all those shots, one right after another, under the basket. For big men, that’s their game, get in there and get the easiest shot possible.”
His height, he said, had always made him a competitive player, even when he was younger, though of course now he was playing a different game. Standing basketball relies heavily on the legs and the wheelchair game assumes their absence.
“It’s from here up,” he said, pointing to his waist. “This is all you got. And this is me — I have a strong trunk. Some of these guys don’t have any ab muscles. It’s all shoulders and arms for them. And that’s tough.”
“I have a lot of respect for those guys, because I’ve kind of got it easy. They look at me, like, ‘You’re not really disabled. You’re just missing a leg.’” He smiled. “And these guys are paralyzed from here to there, waist down. There are some real soldiers out there. Real soldiers.”
The final game on Sunday afternoon pitted Red against Black before a smaller crowd. The 2014 National Veterans Wheelchair Games were nearly over, with only the basketball and quad rugby finals remaining. Sean was on the court from the start, grabbing the ball at tipoff and passing it to Tee. But his shooting was off, he was repeatedly called for fouls and he was pulled from the game before he could foul out.
Red’s defense shined in the second half, sticking to the Black team like glue. Tilted wheels crashed and squeaked as players jammed against opponents, tying them down. Sean was back in the game, then out, then in again with six minutes left, and at that late moment, something happened, who knows what — Black gave up, or maybe Red’s imminent medals were already enveloping the players in their golden halos — but there it was. Magic. The Red offense, a blessed trio, came together. Tee passed to a Texan named Chuck Allen who passed to Sean — who scored! Sean passed to another player who scored and was fouled — and the Black-team player fouled out of the game! The ball went from Chuck to Tee to Sean, who scored again and was fouled!
“Take your time, big man!” a teammate shouted. Sean made the free throw, the score rising to 45–31. He got the ball down low and missed the shot, but a moment later as he rolled under the basket again, Chuck tossed him a behind-the-back pass and he got two more points. On it went, they were on fire, with a minute left Sean was moving through his sweet spot again, arm up, got the pass, boom! and the ball went in, the seconds ticked down, Black scored once more and the buzzer sounded. 52–39. Sean hugged his girlfriend and family and friends crowded in for photos. Officials came onto the court with fistfuls of dangling medals.
It took until the last moments of the last day, but for a few minutes he had moved fully into the zone, the chains fell away, the Red team vaporized its rivals and flew through the mist. All grease, no grit.
“You start to get a chemistry, learn one anothers’ abilities. So that’s what you saw. You saw us startin’ to gel, just startin’ to gel,” Sean said. “It was good, though. If we had this team, here — we’d be something to reckon with.”
“It is nice to win,” he admitted. He laughed, a little ruefully. “It’s the only gold I got this weekend, but I’ll take it. I’m happy with everything.”