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THEY NEVER GAVE UP
Richard Hoffer
December 25, 1989
Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives
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December 25, 1989

They Never Gave Up

Five accomplished athletes, disabled while performing their sports, faced their most difficult challenge and succeeded, against enormous odds, in building new lives

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The injury: Waldrep was a starting halfback for TCU in 1974 when, in a game against third-ranked Alabama, he sprinted wide on a sweep. Hit in the legs from behind, he flipped over backward onto his head. "I had my bell rung" is what he thought. In fact, he had broken his neck, and today, looking back, he thinks he should have realized it. "It's so vivid to me now, the feeling of nothingness."

Determined to leave his wheelchair, Waldrep did more than his rehabilitation therapists encouraged. In 1974 the idea of rehab for paraplegics and quadriplegics was to prepare them for a lifetime in the chair. Waldrep wanted a program that would enable him to play golf by 1980. So he developed his own treatments, simple things like electro-massage to keep his leg muscles from atrophying, more sensational things like a trip to the Soviet Union in 1978 for enzyme injections, which increased movement in his arms, returned feeling to his chest and restored full bladder control.

The trip turned him into something of a celebrity and caused two other things to happen. The first is that he became a clearinghouse for information for other paralyzed people, who were more excited by the news of his trip than the medical establishment was. As a result, he founded the APA, which has grown into a nationwide organization with a yearly budget of $1.75 million. The second thing that happened was that Waldrep met and married Lynn Burgland, a Dallas TV producer who had been assigned to do a story on him. The normality and certainty of the life he had once envisioned were out of the question, but Burgland and the happiness he found with her, he discovered, were nice compensations.

Not everybody is as lucky as Waldrep. With his first foundation, which he left because of internal political disputes, and his current one, Waldrep has fought to restore opportunity and hope to less fortunate victims of paralysis. "It's easy for me to concentrate on the positive because of all that you see here," he says in his office. "But how many 18-year-olds are lying in an institution, wards of the state? Their lives are lost. No matter what their talents, they have no opportunity to contribute, no chance to participate."

It's one thing to work on legislation to provide increased access for the handicapped—which must be done, Waldrep says, because the disabled remain the only segment of the population against which it is still legal to discriminate. But to Waldrep, that is short-term thinking. "The goal," he says, "has to be to get out of these wheelchairs."

Waldrep is so dapper, so apparently in control, that his paralysis is often overlooked in business situations. But he can never accept it. "For all I've accomplished, I can be in the middle of a meeting and my external catheter leaks, and all of a sudden I've wet my pants. After all this! The quality of life you lead can never be as good in a wheelchair as out."

He still intends to play golf. Waldrep believes that research will someday develop a treatment that will enable the wheelchair-bound to kick up their heels. Why, look what has been done already.

Several years ago Waldrep learned about a method to electrically stimulate ejaculation in some paralyzed men. So it was that Waldrep, who is unable to dress himself, fathered a son, Trey, who will be two years old on Christmas Eve.

You might think a man who cannot tightly grip a spoon or comb his hair or cross his legs would reflect on what he has lost. A piece of paper slips off a desk and flutters to the floor; to Waldrep, that paper no longer exists. You might think the loss of ordinary abilities would be especially profound to an athlete whose physical control had once helped attract 63,000 people to a football game. Maybe in the dark hours Waldrep thinks of this. But just now, fumbling with a picture of Trey, it occurs to him that he has more than he needs.

"So, I've got a son to raise, and he does take an interest in his daddy, he does enjoy being with his daddy," he says. The young executive can hardly bear to think about this shocking abundance of life. "It's just that...he was never supposed...."

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