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Story ID:582
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Period Piece
Location:Syracuse New York United States
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By Fred Wickert

"I'm sorry son, I'm afraid your football days are over."

Those dreadful words from the doctor were a crushing blow that I didn't want to accept. It was the summer of my twelfth year. After helping my parents get in all the hay from the first cutting, I went to a week-long day camp at the Y.M.C.A. in Syracuse, New York. A few days after returning home my world came crashing down. Both of my legs were paralyzed and I could not walk.

It was 1946, when doctors still made house calls. My physician looked me over, asked a number of questions, and manipulated my limbs. After some time, the doctor announced that I had Polio, a short term for a disease called Infantile Paralysis.

In those days, not much was known about the disease. It was known that in some cases it was fatal. In many cases, there was severe and permanent crippling. In a few cases there was near to full recovery, but full recovery was quite rare. The doctor said there was little that could be done, and that the disease just had to run its course. He told my parents to keep me quiet, warm and well fed, and that he would check on my progress every couple of days.

When my parents asked the doctor if I'd be able to walk again, he answered with "You will be lucky if, in time, you can walk with a brace, but you will never be able to run again. There'll be no more football for you. I know it doesn't seem fair, but that's the way it is." But I refused to accept his response. I was a football fanatic and played every chance I could get. I was an excellent lineman, and usually played center. I was big for my age, and strong from working on the farm every day, sometimes I was accused by other players of trying to be like an army tank. Despite my parents' advice to just accept the situation, I made up my mind to play football again, no matter what the doctor said.

My parents put me on the living room sofa on the first floor. I was reasonably comfortable, since I could listen to the radio and was always well supplied with books. Whenever I had to use the bathroom on the second floor, I had to slide off the sofa onto the floor and drag myself to the bottom of the stairs. In the beginning, I positioned my back against the bottom step and lifted myself up with my hands and arms to the next step. Once at the top of the stairs, I slid on my rear end to the bathroom and over to the commode. I then pulled myself onto the seat and did what I had to do. When finished, I lowered myself back onto the floor, slid along the floor to the top of the stairs, and let myself down again.

Then secretly, I began trying to push myself up with my legs when going up the stairs. After a couple of days I felt the strength begin to return to my legs.

Day after day, my legs gained strength. Eventually I could walk without braces, and by the time school started in September, I was walking almost normally. I was even back to doing heavy chores on the farm. One of my duties was to carry two sixteen-quart pails of milk uphill from the barn. I carried them into the kitchen, where the milk was run through a cream separator. The cream remained in the house for making butter and the remaining skim milk was carried back to the barn to feed the calves.

In mid-November, I broke my nose for the fourth time while playing football. My doctor was amazed. He said that he did not think my recovery possible, and believed that the reason for it was my fierce desire to play football.

I went on to play not only football, but basketball and softball too. I was also on the cross-country team and ran the mile on my high school track team. I even went on to serve twenty years in the military as a policeman and five more years as a civilian policeman.

Amazing what someone can do when they are told they can't, if they want it badly enough.