It was everything you dream about as a youngster when you set your sights on playing college ball. We were playing against Alabama, the Number 3 team in the country, we were playing against Bear Bryant, and didn't all of us go out on the field looking for him? There were 63,000 people in the stands on a perfect fall day." As his wife and child play nearby, The Halfback rests his hands, loosely curled into fists, on the rails of his wheelchair. "God," he says, "it was everything you wanted out of football."
Did you ever see secretariat, a shimmer of speed and syncopation, charging out of the backstretch? What would you give to command that kind of locomotion? The ability to walk on your own feet for the rest of your life? The Jockey is weary of such riddles. He got a better deal than most riders. "Jockeys have died," he says. Anyway, to this day he gets a free copy of the Daily Racing Form in the mail. Some poor jockey who won only 10 races, he says, wouldn't rate that remembrance. "I'm a lucky man."
He is innocent of the irony involved when he putters along Gasoline Alley in his wheelchair, his own little car. He returns to the Indy 500 as often as he is able, but the sight of him there is neither morbid nor cautionary. Anybody can hit a slick spot, anybody can crash. The Driver is there for the same reason he was 21 years ago, when he backed into the Turn 1 wall. He likes the race, the action, the noise. The hurly-burly around him gives him an idea: "Maybe I could drive the pace car in the parade lap."
Hers was a fierce determination. When she realized she probably could not make the U.S. track team for the 1980 Olympics, she switched to cycling, and by '82 she was a contender for the '84 Olympic team. Even after the pileup left her with severe brain damage, unable to walk or talk, shaken with horrible seizures, The Cyclist did not consider ordinary goals. She practiced brushing her teeth; it was maddening how much she had to recover. And the Olympics were only two years away!
How disheartening it was to see Marvelous Marvin Hagler, so vivid before, get blurry at the edges and nearly disappear into darkness. Why, even the journeymen The Boxer was forced to fight in the heartland, while he worked his way back to Hagler, were becoming vague shapes, complicated shadows in front of him. But the hardship of the fights—locating opponents by the rustle of their satin trunks or the whistle of their punches—was nothing compared to the dimming, day by day, of his dreams of glory.
What happens when the people who best control their bodies lose substantial use of them? When the athletes who possess the most speed are denied even motion? Life instructs us against arrogance, and even the privileged occasionally learn this harsh lesson. Here are five athletes who lived with the confidence that they did something better and faster and more powerfully than almost anybody else in the world. Then they were not merely leveled by catastrophe, not simply returned to the normal population, but so reduced in physical capacity that they could never even be ordinary. You see: Count on nothing. To make the instruction doubly dramatic, all five were crippled by their own trusted and practiced sports. So what happened? What sorts of lives have these athletes built? In fact, what sorts of lives did they have before?
Probably he would have become a banker, like his father and grandfather. He was a business major at Texas Christian and had, he admits, a fixed and pleasant view of his future. "It would have been a great life," he says, "but, then, nowhere near the life that I have today."
Kent Waldrep, 35, sits behind a huge desk in a swank office suite in Dallas. He is starched, pinstriped and suspendered, looking for all the world like a corporate executive. Well, he is a corporate executive. He's president of the National Paralysis Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises money for research to find a cure for spinal-cord injuries. Right now he is involved in a campaign to raise $5 million to establish a neuroscience research unit at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Launched in July, the campaign already has $1.5 million in pledges.
In the 10 years since he founded the American Paralysis Association (APA), which he left in 1985 to start the National Paralysis Foundation, Waldrep has raised close to $7 million for spinal-cord research. This life is more intense and more public than the one he had originally imagined for himself. In 1982, Waldrep was appointed to a presidential commission that is helping to draft a bill of rights for the disabled. In 1985 he was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of America by the U.S. Jaycees. He has been featured in newsmagazines and on network morning TV shows.
"I've experienced many more realities, had my eyes opened to many more problems and issues, even national in scope, than I would have," Waldrep says. Perhaps because he can move only his head, neck and arms, he uses his arms more theatrically than most people. Here he stretches them wide. "There's no doubt the injury has made me a better person."