Heroes Take Opportunity for Call to Action

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By Meredy Fullen

In the O&P industry, there is no shortage of individuals who can offer us inspiration; they are all around us. While some move in quiet circles, humbly avoiding the revealing spotlight, some take center stage, proclaiming their mission and purpose with a fervor that can permeate whoever is paying attention.

Oprah embraces Arthur Ashe Courage Award winners Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (left) and Jim MacLaren. Photo courtesy of ESPN Photodesk.
Oprah embraces Arthur Ashe Courage Award winners Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (left) and Jim MacLaren. Photo courtesy of ESPN Photodesk.

The stories are countless, yet often forgotten, unless fortunate enough to get picked up in the mainstream media, such as the stories that come by way of Jim MacLaren and Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah.

Embracing the Call to Action

Jim MacLaren is a Yale graduate and former All-American in lacrosse and football. At the age of 22, he was struck by a bus while riding his motorcycle, causing the loss of his left leg below the knee. Despite this accident, MacLaren rejoined the athletic arena, becoming a top marathon runner, an Ironman triathlete, and one of the original Team Ossur members, earning the title of fastest endurance amputee athlete in the world. Eight years after his first accident while competing in a triathlon, MacLaren was struck by a van, and this time left him an incomplete quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair.

With a desire to help MacLaren offset the expenses of a specialized vehicle needed to ensure his independence, a group of friends organized the first annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge (SDTC), giving wings to what became the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), Del Mar, California. CAF has since become a very successful nonprofit organization that financially assists athletes with disabilities. The SDTC, held annually on the first Sunday of November (sometimes the last Sunday in October) in La Jolla Cove, is now CAF's premier event, drawing the participation of many celebrities from a variety of professional sports and Hollywood. This event also presents an overwhelmingly successful fundraising capability, raising over one million dollars in its 11th season last year.

The strange twist of fate is that, if not for tragedy striking MacLaren that second time, the CAF would not exist, and we may never have learned of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah.

A Gift from Ghana

The EDGE first reported portions of Yeboah's remarkable story last year, which can be found in the online archives of the May and August 2004 issues.

In Ghana, ten percent of the population is disabled by deformities at birth or by disease. This portion of the population is considered cursed, and many disabled children are abandoned in the wilderness by their parents, left to die.

Born without a tibia in a severely deformed right leg, Yeboah was abandoned by his father, and his mother's friends urged her to kill or abandon her first-born son. Instead, his mother raised him alone and even enrolled him in school. Oprah Winfrey, who has taken an interest in Yeboah and understands the weight of his mother's decision, described this as "a radical choice."

Yeboah credits his mother, Comfort Yeboah, who died on Christmas Eve in 1997, for his resolve. He says, "My mother said, 'don't let anybody put you down because of your disability.' What my mother told me was a gift. I want to show everyone that physically challenged people can do something."

As if by some miracle, Yeboah heard of the CAF and Jim MacLaren's story. He wrote them the first letter he had ever written, asking the organization to provide him with a bicycle so he could make a one-legged, 400-mile journey across Ghana to change people's perceptions about the disabled. Impressed by his resolve, CAF happily fulfilled his request, and then some.

From his first contact with CAF, Yeboah's story has grown to legendary proportions and his blessings too many to mention. He was the 2003 recipient of the Nike Casey Martin Award which, coupled with a matching grant from CAF, has enabled him to establish a number of foundations and assistance programs in Ghana. He was the first person with a disability to be invited to visit a royal palace in Ghana, which shattered a long-standing stereotype of the disabled in his nation.

He received an amputation surgery and prosthetic care, which allowed him to return to Ghana, wearing long pants and walking on two legs, into his home church for the first time in his life. He married and began a family of his own, and his life became the subject of an award-winning documentary film called "Emmanuel's Gift," narrated by Winfrey, written, produced, and directed by Lisa Lax and Nancy Stern. The film is set to appear in select cities in the US this month.

Most recently, Yeboah and MacLaren, who considers himself Yeboah's brother in spirit, were each presented ESPN's prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award at this year's ESPY Award Ceremony at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California.

And the ESPY Goes to...

The ESPY Awards are an annual opportunity offered by the Entertainment Sports Premier Network (ESPN) to honor the legends of American sports. The night is a celebration of unforgettable moments, top performers, and achievements. This was ESPN's 13th ESPY ceremony and the second year that the fans determined the winners by an online voting format. In fact, ESPN called upon The O&P EDGE for its online presence to link to live ESPY voting, since two of the award categories involved athletes from the O&P industry.

In addition to the usual ESPY categories, the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is generally presented to individuals whose contributions transcend sports.

Winfrey delivered a poignant presentation, in typical Oprah fashion, nothing less than anyone would have expected from the nation's leading icon of daytime television. And the nation watched as the giants of sports, such as Bill Walton, Curt Schilling, Dwayne Wade, and Peyton Manning were moved to tears by the true heroism displayed by these two gentlemen. The standing ovation upon introduction of them must have lasted a full 60 seconds, which is a lifetime in television and film.

Perhaps no one understood the significance of this moment more clearly than Tabi King, Ossur's marketing communications manager, and her fellow board members and colleagues at the CAF. King acknowledged the persistence required to gain the attention of an icon like Winfrey. "For many marketers, this is the pinnacle of public relations, and many are too familiar with the scores of rejection letters it takes to get one that says 'maybe.'" But King says she continued to bang the drum and tell the stories for this reason: "Through Jim and Emmanuel and so many others who prove every day that no mountain is too high, the world of sports has saluted the efforts of this industry. By this we can be motivated to continue research and develop new technology. In a year that the Paralympic Games received no [mainstream US] media attention, to be saluted on what has become sports' greatest day is something in which we can all take great pride. Mobility is a priceless gift. It is ours to give, and we should be proud."

The Definition of a Hero

We live in a time where our society looks to entertainment and sports for heroes and role models. Peter Gibbon, author of A Call to Heroism, believes that today's heroes have fallen on hard times, and describes "hero" as a silver-dollar word that has been reduced to nickel-and-dime status, due to the public's choice to look most often to entertainers and athletes with zillion-dollar contracts.

Gibbon says he finds it increasingly difficult to define the word "hero" for youngsters, but lists three characteristics he believes necessary: extraordinary achievement, courage, and the ability to serve as a model.

Given this definition, we look to an article in the September 19, 1994, edition of Sports Illustrated titled "Slow Train to Eminence," written by S.L. Price, on the life  and death of Arthur Ashe. Ashe was the first African-American man to win the US Open and Wimbledon tennis titles. However, it was not his ability on the court that elevated Ashe to heroism. Forced to retire from tennis due to heart problems, Ashe contracted AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion during one of his surgeries, and from this he reluctantly became a spokesperson and fundraiser for the disease, accepting this as his purpose.

Price describes Ashe as achieving a rare greatness, becoming the first sportsman in memory to be honored by the tribute of lying in state, while literally thousands waited in line to say goodbye. Price wrote, "Sport is the American factory for children's heroes because kids play games; they can relate and be awed. But Ashe was a rarer kind of hero, an example of what to do when the playing stops, a role model for the adults&The typical champion spends his remaining years in a kind of endless cast party, full of backslaps and soggy nostalgia. Not Ashe. He showed how, at career's end, not to be pathetic."

Such is the case with MacLaren and Yeboah.

In an article appearing on ESPN.com, Greg Garber quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page, on Ashe. "Arthur Ashe was a fellow who was not only appropriate to break the color barrier in his sport, but understood the larger significance of his achievement. You cannot underestimate the power that sport has for social change. It has a great visceral impact on our culture." Page continued, "Arthur Ashe went beyond sport to advance history." This is why the ESPY Courage Award is named for Arthur Ashe, and this is why this award is important to the recognition of O&P.

The Power of Purpose

When a rare but indelible and defining moment like winning an ESPY happens in our industry to one of "ours," do we view it as a fleeting moment that simply brings us joy in the very instance that it exists, or do we take it to heart, fully giving way to its potential to live in our gut and stir within us our own call to action?

We are human, we have inherent flaws, and we often get caught up in the day-to-day grind and the uncertainties caused by the challenges that lie before us, and we can forget what truly motivates us, why we do what we do, why we work.

Author Peggy Noonan wrote, in an article for the May/June 2000 issue of O Magazine called Why We Work So Hard, "Work is a way of creating and contributing; it is a giving to the world... It is a yielding up and showing, whatever it is you did"--the bestmade product, the best-written marketing plan, the best-fitting prosthetic socket you had within you.

According to Noonan, work can be the bestower of moments when you do it well. She further explains that it's not just for the money that we work, she says, "There's something else, something wonderful we are searching for."

When you are wondering what that "something wonderful" is that you are searching for, look no further than these moments in the lives of two O&P patients served by your industry being honored by the very people our society chooses to celebrate as today's heroes and icons. This year MacLaren and Yeboah reign together as the heroes of heroes. This year it is collectively your work, and MacLaren's work, and Yeboah's work that embodies the true measure of heroism--extraordinary achievement, courage, and the ability to serve as a model. Recognize this moment for O&P as truly golden in reminding us of the power of purpose.