SBJ/August 27-September 2, 2012/Opinion

Portraits of courage: Following Arthur Ashe’s example

Courage and sports often go hand in hand. Athletes are modern-day gladiators expected to perform with unfailing grace under enormous pressure in stadia, not unlike the coliseums of ancient times.
 
Perhaps no sports icon in recent memory better exemplified those virtues than tennis champion and human rights activist Arthur Ashe. Ashe overcame significant racial barriers at a time in our nation’s history when prejudice still abounded in sport. Against great odds, he became a trailblazing sports hero on the court and a statesman, leader and role model off the court as he fought a disease that, at that time, had great social stigma attached to it. As great a champion as he was, it was what Ashe did after his tennis career ended that defined how we view him today. By the example of his life, and through the heroic way in which he faced his death, Arthur Ashe became a symbol for sports and courage that will long endure. His unique and remarkable journey calls to mind two contemporary sports heroes, each facing adversity beyond what can be found on an athletic field.

‘Rebirth’

I recently attended the dedication of a statue in New Orleans. It is perhaps the first statue related to sports that commemorates a moment rather than a person.

Steve Gleason with his family at the dedication of “Rebirth.”
Photo by: MICHAEL C. HEBERT
Called “Rebirth,” the statue depicts the blocked punt by New Orleans Saints’ special teams star Steve Gleason in the first game held in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. That play led to a Saints’ victory and marked the beginning of a remarkable renaissance for New Orleans.

For a city desperate to catch its breath after one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, it was a moment that gave hope and joy to a football team and a city longing for a healthy dose of both.

The hero in bronze in that statue is trying to catch his own breath these days as he battles, with uncommon serenity and resolve, one of the worst diseases that can afflict a human being: ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. What Gleason learned on a football field — that winning is the result of fulfilling your role on a team to the best of your ability — he is now applying to ALS. Realizing that there is no known cure for ALS, Gleason has set his sights, and his considerable life force, on pursuing cutting edge technology as a way to live with the disease as long and as productively as possible. Through his foundation, he is building an ALS Living Residence in New Orleans that will allow patients to live virtually independent lives through computer technology. The Giving Back Fund is assisting the Team Gleason Foundation in its efforts to build this world-class facility.

He and wife Michel are the parents of Rivers, a beautiful 10-month-old boy who is the joy of their lives. Because Steve knows he might not be able to speak when Rivers is old enough to have a conversation with him, he is banking his voice through the use of technology in ways that will allow Rivers to someday ask his dad any question on his mind and hear his dad’s answer.

It is said that life’s greatest possessions are those that when shared, multiply. The love and caring that Gleason offers to others suffering from this disease takes your breath away. Instead of focusing on his own health, Gleason’s foundation provides life-changing adventures for other ALS patients. He has taken ALS patients sky diving, river rafting, to Super Bowls and on trips around the world. Spending his time giving to others, and helping develop technologies to help others, feeds his soul in ways those of us who are able-bodied can learn volumes from. Gleason has always lived his life by his personal motto: No white flags. Just as New Orleans has arisen from the waters of Katrina, I wouldn’t bet against Steve Gleason. He is a beacon of hope for his city, his family, his teammates and for us all.

The resolve of champions

In July, Pat Summitt, the Tennessee Lady Vols hall of fame basketball coach, strode onto a stage in Los Angeles to accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2012 ESPY awards. Summitt, who is in the battle of her life against early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, is not new to awards or to courage. She has enough of both to last a lifetime and was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.

Pat Summitt accepts the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the ESPYs.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Like Arthur Ashe, Summitt is a champion. And like him, she has been fighting the effects of her disease while carrying on with her life at the highest professional level until it was simply impossible to continue. Also like Ashe, she faces up to her disease with dignity and a resolve that only champions know.

Summitt has always beaten the odds. The records she established over a storied 38-year Division I coaching career defy imagination; she is merely the winningest college basketball coach — men’s or women’s — period. Eight national titles, seven coach of the year awards, 1,098 victories, an .840 winning percentage. Records aside, the esteem in which she is held by her large family of former players is perhaps the greatest testament to the kind of human being she is. And if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, just look at the kind of women they have become. Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall became the first trio from one team to be named Kodak All-Americans. Four-time All-American Candace Parker and Catchings recently brought home the Olympic gold medal for the U.S. women’s team.

In sports, we measure success by wins and losses and by championships won. In life, we measure success by the number and quality of people we can call our friends. By both criteria, Summitt’s life has been a success beyond all measure. This latest battle is just another challenge for a hall of fame coach who knows how to win at the game of life.

Pat Summitt and Steve Gleason are two of sports’ finest examples of the human spirit. Somewhere, Arthur Ashe is smiling as he appreciates the legacy he has left.

Marc Pollick (mpollick@givingback.org) is president and founder of The Giving Back Fund, a national public charity that helps athletes, entertainers and others establish and maintain charitable foundations and programs.

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