McCabe: Answering hardship with heart
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Crazy, of course, that you notice what’s missing – his right leg, a good portion of his right shoulder – when Sam Alexander overflows with so much more.
Passion, spirit, heart, character.
Oh, and soul, which explains why the sympathy you might feel vanishes and you become awash in inspiration. You think you’re whole? You’re not half the person Sam Alexander is, and it’s no wonder Joellyn Alexander asks herself every day: How did I get so lucky to be his mother?
That says all you need to know about Joellyn Alexander and reinforces everything about ourselves: That we have lost sight of what it’s all about.
Sam Alexander reminds us to take a deep breath and embrace perspective. From Hudson (pop. 1,393) just outside of Bangor in central Maine, Sam, who turns 15 on Sept. 24, has spread warmth and inspiration to corners of the golf world, even to a king.
“I was going to be the first player with autism to win the Masters,” Sam told Arnold Palmer last fall at Bay Hill. “Then this happened.”
“This” being the bone cancer which led to the amputation of his right leg and part of the shoulder. Silence overcame Palmer’s office that day, until Sam did what he always does. He lit up the room.
“So now I’ll be the first player with autism and one leg to win the Masters,” he said, and even a king shed tears. “(Palmer) told Sam, ‘I believe you will. I only hope I’m around to see it,’ ” Joellyn said.
The human spirit is a wondrous thing, and it pours forth from Sam Alexander. Diagnosed with autism when he was 4, Sam battled seizures for years, yet he came to love golf. Out his front door, Sam would fire golf balls into 150 acres of woods.
In late 2009, his parents brought Sam to meet PGA professional Gary Rees, and the 13-year-old had his first lesson.
Into a simulator, Sam hit a 218-yard drive. Rees asked him to do it again and Sam hit one 211.
“He impressed me with his knowledge of the game,” Rees said. “He cleaned me out of all my videos and books in less than a year.”
Plans were made to continue the golf lessons early in 2010, but Sam complained of leg pain right after Christmas.
The diagnosis floored Joellyn and Sam’s father, Joe. “We really didn’t need to deal with that after all we’d been through,” Joellyn said, sighing .
If the story ended there, it would be terribly sad. But Sam’s passion for golf has scripted something beautiful, thanks to the quality people who claim some ownership of this game. Putting behind them a year in which Sam spent so much time in a hospital, Joellyn and Joe asked Sam what he wanted in 2011.
“I want to play golf, play in a tournament and win a trophy,” he said.
Check them all, but there has been so much more thanks to a golf community that should take a bow. Maine’s iconic amateur champion Mark Plummer played alongside Sam at Hermon Meadow Golf Course and helped with a team victory that had the young boy beaming and the perennial champion fighting back emotions.
“He makes an impact on you,” Plummer said.
Chris Farley would agree. Playing golf at Penobscot Valley Country Club , Farley caught a glimpse of Alexander hitting balls with just one arm and one leg. “He captured my heart,” Farley said.
Working on ideas to connect Sam with the PGA Tour, Farley was waiting out a flight delay at LaGuardia Airport when he happened to meet Shawn Hegan, a Tour marketing executive. Hegan heard Farley’s story and called Eric Baldwin , director of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Baldwin huddled with his assistant, Kathie Piusz, and Joan Stagg of Deutsche Bank. A red carpet from Bangor to Norton, Mass., was laid out, and next thing the Alexanders knew, Sam was the guest of honor Labor Day Monday for the final round of the Deutsche Bank . He met Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Kyle Stanley; sat in the NBC booth; shook hands with Webb Simpson, who presented Sam the ball he used to clinch his victory; and ended his day by exchanging high-fives with Seth Waugh , CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas.
Then, on Sept. 16, Sam was honored by the Maine Golf Hall of Fame as its first junior golfer of the year.
Flabbergasted barely begins to describe the Alexanders’ emotions, mostly because this experience has gone above and beyond Sam’s dreams, thanks to so many people whom he had never met.
“It was a dream come true,” Joellyn said, and for how it came to be, she embraces her faith.
“I’m a Christian,” she said, “and I believe God puts people where they need to be. These things just don’t happen.”
That they often do in golf is a tribute to the game and the people it attracts.