The inspiration pickle

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on September 27, 2017 # Mobility

Maybe you heard this story on the news, but if not, here’s a quick recap. In its first game of the season, the USC football team, whipping up on poor Western Michigan, scored yet another touchdown late in the game. Pro forma, out came the kicking team to attempt the extra point. There was a new center, called the long-snapper, because he has to snap the ball 7-8 yards to the ball holder, and he has to do it perfectly. The new center was Jake Olson, a typically big, beefy brute in every respect but one: he was blind. A teammate led him to his position. The snap was perfect, as was the kick. Jake, along with everyone else within earshot, was ecstatic.

Watching at home, I was ecstatic, too. It was a gutsy thing to do. Blind since 12, this kid had trained for years for this moment and he nailed it. Six inches one way or another, a bad hike could have thrown off the kicker, and Jake would have felt humiliated. The last thing he wanted to hear was “Nice try, kid, maybe you don’t belong out there…”

I didn’t think much about it until I started reading Facebook entries from others with disabilities. I shouldn’t be happy for Jake, was the general vibe. I should be upset that he had been perched on a pedestal for hiking a freaking football. The whole thing was another example of the social attitude that marginalizes disabled people – “inspiration porn.” You know, when some oaf stops you in the elevator to announce how “super” you are because you’re out in public. Or the sappy stories on the local news about the disabled high school kid who was crowned King of the Prom. The more you’re considered exceptional just for existing, the less you’re seen as “normal,” i.e., as yourself. Early on in my paralysis, I felt like signing my name as…Allen “I Am Not Your Hero” Rucker. Being called that for just being a para cheapens the word “hero,” which is already debased daily by vocabulary-challenged pundits.

But, wait. In some circumstances, people with disabilities can do things that are genuinely – now, don’t gag – uplifting. Jake is one such case. As he himself said in one of many interviews, what he learned through this achievement is “the power of resilience.” Resilience is a quality seriously wanting among Millennials and their entitled, friction-free lives, not to mention their overprotective parents. Jake wanted to prove something to himself, something that took years of dedication and frustration, and he did.

Okay, you’re saying, it’s just a silly football game and bully good for the blind kid with a boatload of grit. But, please, did he end world hunger? Why the endless adulation? A lot of it is phony baloney, no doubt, more filler for 24-hour cablecasts desperate for “feel-good” stories. But that shouldn’t detract from the act itself. Jake is technically no hero – he didn’t risk his life for others – but he is definitely one tough SOB.

I once interviewed a philosopher professor at San Francisco State who had contracted polio as a youngster and went on to a distinguished teaching career. I asked her if she thought of herself as heroic and she quickly snapped back, “You’re damn right I do!” To minimize the stigma of being in a wheelchair in the 1950’s, long before ramps and cut curbs, she got to campus at 6 am, before anyone else, bounced her tail one step at a time up three flights of stairs to her office, taught her classes, then waited until everyone was gone to bounce her tail back down the same stairs and go home. She knew she would be tagged as weak and pathetic if students and colleagues had seen her daily ordeal. She saw herself as extraordinarily resilient, and she was.

Speak for yourself, but I know I’m no hero, no elevated soul, and when someone calls me that, I wince. To be inspirational, you have to do something to deserve the label. Otherwise, it’s just useless drivel – other people basking in their own goodness by glorifying your “struggle.” But both Jake Owen and the philosophy professor did something, and certainly in Jake’s case, created an indelible moment of good feeling for himself and millions watching.

As a friend of mine from Wisconsin is fond of saying: “Nothing wrong with that.”