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Authors: Pat LaFontaine,Ernie Valutis,Chas Griffin,Larry Weisman

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BOOK: Companions in Courage
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Aren’t we all, even if at times it seems we are cursed? We don’t win our wars without a struggle, and we don’t always emerge
unscathed. But we’re here, alive, in this world, and we need to take all the good we can from that, even as we prepare to
give back.

I think of jockey Chris Antley, beset by weight and drug problems, turning himself back into a well-conditioned athlete and
winning the Kentucky Derby. I think of golfer Muffin Spencer-Devlin, fighting on many fronts against drugs, depression, and
bipolar disorder, and surviving to help others find the proper treatment.

Sean Elliott. Here’s a basketball player who needed a kidney transplant and returned to play in the NBA. And Roger Neilson,
coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, who refuses to let cancer keep him from trying to get back behind the bench. Paul Stewart,
a tough American in love with hockey, who made it both as a player and an NHL referee while defeating cancer. Cris Carter,
whose NFL career nearly ended because of drugs, and whose spirituality and rebirth enabled him to ultimately become one of
the finest receivers to ever wear an NFL uniform.

Few lives unwind untouched by difficulties and pain. We must face and fight what fate puts in our path if we’re to get to
the place we want to be. Isn’t it just a little easier when we know that others have preceded us and we can profit by their
example?

40
Gail Devers

A
s Gail Devers placed her feet into the blocks at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, her heart raced out of control.

But not because she was pumped for the start of the race. Here she was at the Olympics, with the whole world watching, and
her life seemed like a nightmare. Her mental and physical strength kept ebbing away, other symptoms manifested themselves,
and no one, least of all Gail, had any answers.

Some questioned her sanity; others wondered if drugs were her problem. She heard the whispers about whether she was starving
herself with an eating disorder. Gail weighed a mere eighty-nine pounds and her hair had started to fall out. Her face turned
an ashen gray. She felt increasingly desperate, even suicidal.

Gail had always been able to overcome her inner demons by pushing herself; this time she drove herself beyond all reason.
Up until 1987 she had enjoyed good health, becoming a nationally ranked runner on the UCLA track team. The first signs of
a problem occurred when her trademark fingernails began to break for no apparent reason. When her eyes started to bulge, her
weight began to fluctuate, and her heart rate became erratic, her confidence turned to confusion and concern. Because she
had set the world record in the 100-meter hurdles, her expectations, along with everyone else’s, were high as she tried her
best to focus on getting off to a good start that day in Seoul. But she was an emotional and physical wreck as the race began,
and she ran nowhere near her best.

The “Alligator Woman,” as she now called herself, returned home—terrified, depressed, and suicidally reclusive. Her coach,
Bob Kersee, tried every conceivable diet to help his star athlete recover, but she continued to waste away. She stopped looking
in the mirror because she was horrified at the sight of her scaly skin and bulging eyes. Gail didn’t know it but she had what
is called Graves’ disease— an overactive thyroid. Gail felt a little better one day, so she decided to attend a UCLA track
practice instead of staying in seclusion. Carol Otis, the UCLA team physician, almost fell over when she saw Devers. She told
her she needed to have her thyroid checked immediately.

One visit to a specialist later, Devers began treatment. She began to take radioactive iodine to shut down her over-active
thyroid and synthetic hormones to replace what the iodine destroyed. Gradually she began to recover, but not without a very
frightening episode.

At one point, with her feet swollen almost beyond recognition, doctors told her they were contemplating amputation. Could
there be a crueler irony for a track star? She refused to even consider it. In her own words, “I reached down inside myself,
to find the inner strength to survive and run again.”

In what seemed like an eternity, Gail Devers moved from a wheelchair to crutches and back to her feet. Her faith in God and
the loving support of her family and friends enabled her to get her life back and return to the track. She made the U.S. Olympic
track team and won the gold medal in the 100-meter sprint at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She also ran in the 1996 Olympics,
where she won golds in the 100-meter sprint and the 4-by-100 relay, and ran the 100-meter hurdles at the 2000 Olympics in
Sydney.

“Everyone has obstacles to overcome. No matter how hopeless things may seem, never give up on yourself,” she says.

On August 29, 1999, the thirty-two-year-old Devers set a new American record in the 100-meter hurdles at the World Championships
in Seville, Spain. Her time of 12.37 was the fastest in the world in seven years.

The “Alligator Woman,” who wanted to die because she was losing her athletic body and mind, survived despair because a champion’s
heart beat within her.

41
Jon Brianas

T
he winter wind coming off the Severn River in Annapolis, Maryland, puts a bite on the heart and soul, not to mention the flesh.
It’s one more test the lacrosse players at the United States Naval Academy must face as they prepare for their season.

Jon Brianas knew that all too well. He had gone to high school in Annapolis before gaining his appointment to the academy.
As a senior in 2000, and as a team captain, he felt he could not shirk the responsibility of leading his team-mates in their
stretching exercises on the banks of the Severn.

He couldn’t do it every day. It’s one thing to fight that wind. It’s another to struggle against a recurrence of testicular
cancer.

Some days the weather and his fatigue just conspired against him. Other times, Brianas got out there in front of his teammates
and amazed and awed them with his determination.

“Seeing him do that made us practice and play so much harder,” said teammate Chad Donnelly, a defenseman. “He is our captain.
We would follow him anywhere.”

During the spring of his junior year, Brianas had seen triumph fade into the gloom of illness. On April 3, 1999, he scored
twice in a 12–11 overtime victory over Georgetown that clinched an NCAA tournament bid for Navy. Later, he told his roommates
he had found a lump on one of his testicles. After a few jokes and some nervous laughter, Brianas saw a doctor. Surgery immediately
followed, and he was expected to remain cancer-free.

He didn’t tell many people about the operation, and he missed only two games. Then, in the NCAA tournament, he tore a ligament
in his left knee and needed more surgery. Just before Thanksgiving, while playing football, he tore a ligament in his right
knee. That injury might have been a blessing, for as he underwent presurgical blood tests, doctors found he had a low red
blood cell count.

Testicular cancer’s rate of recurrence is low, around 6 percent, but Jon Brianas had unfortunately defied the odds. Two days
after Christmas, he began chemotherapy.

There were three rounds of chemo, each twenty-one days long. After the final series, near the end of February, Brianas arrived
a few minutes late for a lacrosse team meeting. He could not believe what he saw when he walked in the door.

“The entire team had shaved their heads because they knew I had lost my hair because of the treatments,” he said. “There are
a lot of moments I will remember for the rest of my life. And that was definitely one of them.”

Jon Brianas, puffing and wheezing and catching a chill, led his teammates in their exercises whenever he could. He missed
five games, suited up but didn’t play in the next, and then made his return to the field on March 29, 2000. In his return
he scored a goal in Navy’s 17–2 victory over Air Force.

“The first time I got a pass, it bounced off my chest, but we got it back,” he said. “Then they moved the ball around again
and this time I caught the pass and shot. Then I saw the back of the net move.”

Midfielder Adam Borcz ran up to him and said the sweetest words any athlete making so difficult a return can ever hear: “That’s
the one. Now you are back. Now you are back.”

42
Jim Morris

A
deal is a deal. And what a deal Jim Morris made.

When the high school baseball team from Reagan County High in Big Lake, Texas, bargained with its coach, the boys knew it
might be the only way they were going to stop him from pitching batting practice. They’d seen enough of his ninety-mile-an-hour
fastball. So they negotiated. If the team won the district title, the coach would agree to go to a big-league tryout camp.
Jim Morris, even though he thought he had no chance, agreed.

The team won the title. And in June Morris headed off to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ major league tryout camp in Brownwood,
Texas.

Now what are the odds of a thirty-five-year-old high school science teacher and baseball coach becoming a professional baseball
player? Improbable? Yes. Impossible? Obviously not, because Jim became one of the oldest rookies to ever make it to the major
leagues.

When Jim Morris took the mound for the first day of tryouts, he was so nervous that he could hardly hold the ball. He took
a deep breath, doing his best to keep his heart from jumping out of his chest. Trying desperately to remember what he had
been teaching his players about pitching under pressure, he stepped into his windup and let the ball go. His first pitch was
clocked at ninety miles per hour.

Jim kept throwing strikes, at one point tossing twelve pitches in the ninety-eight-mile-per-hour range. The Devil Rays invited
him back to the second day of tryouts, and his stunning success continued. Morris signed a minor-league contract and started
his career with the Durham Bulls of the International League. After distinguishing himself there, he was called up to the
major-league club in September 1999.

Royce Clayton stood facing the newest Tampa Bay rookie, thinking that this was his chance to break out of a hitting slump.
In four pitches eclipsing ninety miles an hour, he was gone. Jim Morris struck out the first batter he faced as a major-league
pitcher. His next stop was Anaheim, pitching against the likes of Mo Vaughn, Jim Edmonds, and Tim Salmon. Morris had an advantage
against these guys—he had used their hitting videos to teach his high schoolers how to bat.

What a strange journey to the place he had longed to go. When Jim Morris came out of high school in 1983, he was drafted by
the Milwaukee Brewers. Because of shoulder and elbow injuries he never made it out of Class A. He retired in 1989, went back
to college, and ended up in Big Lake, coaching baseball and teaching chemistry and physics.

Well, the teaching career is on hold. The Devil Rays are so impressed with Morris, they are sending him to the Arizona Fall
League. Doug Gassaway, who scouted Morris when he came out of high school, says that Morris has one of the best left arms
in baseball. Big Lake’s excitement shows itself in the school’s new decor—Morris’s clippings now cover the walls of Reagan
County High.

Keep throwing strikes, Jim. Never stop pitching.

43
Michelle Akers

T
he player-coach dialogue went something like this:

“How much playing time can I have today, Coach?”

“Let’s try forty-five minutes.”

“Not good enough. I want ninety.”

“What are you trying to prove? Sixty.”

“Come on. Seventy-five.”

“Seventy.”

You know this can’t be hockey. We only have sixty minutes, and when your skating time is cut back, it’s the first step toward
the bench.

This was Michelle Akers, hero of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team. Her sport was her life, but it was also killing her.

Think of her as Michelle Aching. She literally threw herself into the game and at the opponents. And she paid for it. The
list of injuries included knee injuries (“Twelve or thirteen,” she says, “I forget.”), a few concussions, and three fractured
bones below her eye. But her body spoke to her in even more serious ways.

For years the world-class competitor battled exhaustion. Early in her thirteen-year career, after the 1991 World Championships,
Michelle was constantly drained. Migraines became a part of her daily life.

“I slept all the time,” she recalls. “But I had no energy.”

The medical diagnosis was “fatigue and lethargy due to the demands of her grueling schedule.” Sometimes after a practice a
friend would have to drive Michelle home and put her to bed.

“All my dreams rely on my physical ability and energy,” she says. “Not being able to be active would change who I am, and
that was extremely scary. My strength, my stamina, my energy, my self-reliance and independence—all gone. Nothing I had relied
on in my past was there for me anymore.”

Akers tried to hide the extent of her struggle. “It was like when you have those nightmares, and you know there’s a monster
in the closet. You know you should look, but you don’t. So you continue to be fearful of the monster but you ignore it. That’s
how I was with this illness.”

In 1994 the monster broke out. During a match Michelle became delirious on the field. She wandered around out of position.
When the team left for halftime, she stayed out and someone had to get her. This time it couldn’t be chalked up to a tough
schedule. Finally she remembers saying, “I’m not just tired. I’m sick. There’s something wrong.”

She saw an internist and journeyed through a medical trial-and-error diagnosis. Four months went by. Then her problem got
a name: chronic fatigue syndrome. Bingo. Relief. Something to tackle.

For the next two years Michelle began to listen more carefully to her body and her spirit. She began to change the messages
that drove her to the all-or-nothing training programs and full-throttle performances. She learned to control her eagerness.
On the field, Michelle willingly converted from the greatest striker in the game to the greatest defensive midfielder. She
no longer roamed the opponents’ penalty box and then exhausted herself in retreat. She followed a new rule: Walk when you
don’t have to run and jog when you don’t have to sprint.

BOOK: Companions in Courage
13.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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