I first heard of this book during the lead-up to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. Fellow blogger Beth Finke caught an interview with the author on NPR and used it as a launching point to discuss the wonder and beauty of cross-disability assistance. I know I’m late, but I decided to read this book during the leadup to the 2018 Paralympics. I was hooked!
In the spirit of The Blind Side and Friday Night Lights comes a tender and profoundly moving memoir about an ESPN producer’s unexpected relationship with two disabled wrestlers from inner city Cleveland and how these bonds – blossoming, ultimately, into a most unorthodox family – would transform their lives.
When award-winning ESPN producer Lisa Fenn returned to her hometown for a story about two wrestlers at one of Cleveland’s toughest public high schools, she had no idea that the trip would change her life. Both young men were disadvantaged students with significant physical disabilities. Dartanyon Crockett was legally blind as a result of Leber’s disease; Leroy Sutton lost both his legs at 11, when he was run over by a train. Brought together by wrestling, they had developed a brother-like bond as they worked to overcome their disabilities.
After forming a profound connection with Dartanyon and Leroy, Fenn realized she couldn’t just walk away when filming ended; these boys had had to overcome the odds too many times. Instead Fenn dedicated herself to ensuring their success long after the reporting was finished and the story aired – and an unlikely family of three was formed.
The years ahead would be fraught with complex challenges, but Fenn stayed with the boys every step of the way – teaching them essential life skills, helping them heal old wounds and traumatic pasts, and providing the first steady and consistent support system they’d ever had.
This powerful memoir is one of love, hope, faith, and strength – a story about an unusual family and the courage to carry on, even in the most extraordinary circumstances.
This story is deeply personal. While it is interwoven with strong and sharp threads of Leroy’s and Dartanyon’s stories – and those of other key figures – this is Lisa’s story. From early childhood memories to blustering and fumbling her way to a dream job to high school wrestling matches and beyond, We get to know Lisa as a warm-hearted woman who yearns for a family. And she definitely gets her wish!
We’re introduced to athletes, to coaches, to parents and siblings. We laugh, we cry, and we hope and despair. But, make no mistake, this is Lisa’s story.
Sports – The Great Equalizer?
I’m not huge into wrestling, but Lisa’s writing puts the reader in school gyms, locker rooms, and world-class sports venues. You can definitely feel her respect for athletes in their own right, though there’s a strong undertone (sometimes voiced by coaches and observers and sometimes by Lisa herself) that athletes with disabilities are not talented in their own right… they’re talented “for a legless kid” (as someone referred to Leroy). The reactions to both young men – men of colour, living in poverty, and with disabilities – are almost exclusively related to their disabilities (as many of their peers are both people of colour and living in poverty); some are astounded that they can wrestle at all and use them as “inspirations”, others don’t want to challenge them out of fear or ignorance, and still others give them the respect of laying it all on the mat. And yet, it’s clear that wrestling – and Lisa and ESPN’s exposure – gave both Leroy and Dartanyon opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Disability as Inspiration or Tragedy
As much as I enjoyed this compelling read overall, I had a hard time escaping the prevailing theme that disability was something to be pitied or inspirationalized. In Lisa’s career as a sports editor, she interviewed athletes from all walks of life, including a hockey player who – years before the interview – became injured and paralyzed just seconds after stepping onto the ice during his first major game (you could almost hear the sad cellos playing in the background). Leroy and Dartanyon’s wrestling coach contacted the local newspaper to write a story about his two disabled wrestlers (clearly without consulting them); Lisa was unable to explain why she thought it was a story that needed national attention, but to her it was, so she dropped everything to fly back to her home city and interview these kids. When the resulting ESPN story aired, the resulting letters and responses left this reader with the distinct feeling that Leroy and Dartanyon were meant to be viewed as recipients of generosity and catalysts for people to look outside themselves, rather than talented athletes in their own rights.
No one can ignore the confluence of race, poverty, and disability, and how Leroy and Dartanyon’s families – neither of which were what many would consider “stable” – shaped their high school and college/university experiences. Dartanyon, in particular, frequently refused to be “pitied” as a blind guy, even though he could’ve made use of adapted services, because he didn’t want anyone to treat him differently. Leroy didn’t have the luxury of being able to blend in, but it is clear that his school and training environments are not well-equipped for many students (lack of uniforms and sports equipment) and definitely not set up with wheelchair-accessible buses or classrooms. It’s hard to look away from the reality that many cards are stacked against these young men’s lives and journeys. Lisa is tireless in her desire to provide for Leroy and Dartanyon, even as her adopted and biological family with her husband keeps growing. It’s heart-warming and frustrating and an important conversation – nature and nurture and empathy and personal responsibility. It made this reader uncomfortable, and maybe that’s a good thing.
This book is part memoir, part sports journey, part family history. There are some deeply uncomfortable mentions of ableism, racism, and inspiration porn (based on the depiction of the ESPN piece, “Carry On”, this reader has no desire to see it). And yet, this autobiography is compulsively readable, uplifting in places, and thought-provoking. It’s definitely worth the read.