The last thing you want at this point in your life is Dad advice. I didn’t want any when I was 14 either. So … don’t think of this advice. Think of this as a story about a kid I met. Well, Jarryd Wallace is 25. He’s a kid to me.
Don’t worry. This is not a sports story. I know you’re sick of Dad’s sports stories.
Jarryd was a high school track star in Georgia. Yeah, I know, it’s hard to for you to believe that anyone could like running. But he did. He loved running, all his life, and he was good at it. He was unlike you or me: He was the one always picked FIRST in sports. He won a couple of state track championships. There were colleges looking at him for scholarships, but he was set to go to Georgia, where his Dad is the women’s tennis coach.
No, I’m telling you. This is not a sports story.
When Jarryd was 17 years old, he had a leg injury, and there was a surgery that went very badly, and then there were other surgeries, lots of them. The pain was unbearable. I’m not sure you or I could even imagine going through dozens of surgeries, in and out of hospitals, with nothing ever getting any better. Jarryd got lost. Drugs. Drinking. Every time a surgery went wrong, he felt more and more hopeless.
Finally one day a doctor told him the hard truth: He had what is called compartment syndrome. But that’s not what the doctor told him. He said: “Jarryd, you have an 80-year-old leg. We cannot save it.” They would have to amputate.
Imagine you are 20 years old, and you love to run, and you hear something like that? What would you do? How would you react? There’s no way to know, not unless it happens, but I guess that’s one of the strange things about life. This terrible news turned out to be the greatest thing any doctor had ever said to Jarryd. Why? Because it was the truth. And he accepted it. Jarryd was not lost anymore.
He heard the doctor, and he was heartbroken, so sad, tears and mourning and all those things you would expect. But after one hour, he was changed. Do you know what he did one hour after hearing that he was going to lose his leg? He went to look up the Paralympic World Records online. The Paralympics are the Olympics for athletes with disabilities.
Jarryd looked at that list and he said, “I’m going to get my name on there.”
And then do you know what he did? He wrote an email to Cathy Sellers, the director of high performance for the track and field team. And he told her that he was going to be on the 2012 Paralympic team. She wrote back and asked him how long he’d been an amputee, and he told her, “No, I’m not having the surgery for two months. But I’ll be there.”
Think about that for a minute. He wrote about making the Paralympic Team BEFORE his leg was even amputated.
Yes, I know, this is sure sounding like a sports story. But it isn’t one. The story is not about how Jarryd DID make that 2012 Paralympic team. It’s not about how he DID break the Paralympic world record in the 100-meter dash this year, running it an extraordinary 10.71 seconds. It’s not about how he has started to tell people his story in order to inspire them — he even has University of Georgia athletes come over his house so he can talk to them about how to keep going when things seem at their worst.
No, the story, Elizabeth, is about a treehouse.
When I met Jarryd, it was at this big gathering of aspiring Olympians and Paralympians, and he was the happiest guy in the room. He just lit up. He walked around to shake everyone’s hand. He had this huge, unbeatable smile on his face. He came up to me — he doesn’t know me — and he showed me a picture of his puppy, and I showed him a picture of Westley our dog, and we were instantly best friends, and he started talking about how lucky he is, how lucky we are, how wonderful it is to be alive. That’s corny, sure, but it’s easy to forget sometimes, isn’t it? There are so many bad things, scary things, unjust things, and we find ourselves getting tossed and turned by dark emotions. Then you see a kid like Jarryd smiling and laughing, and you remember, like he remembered, that life is also to be celebrated. Life is to be shared, with friends, with family, but also with people you don’t even know.
“Hey guy!” Jarryd yelled across the room toward Donnell Whitenburg, a talented Baltimore gymnast whose body type is somewhere between freight train and Terminator. “Work out much?”
Whittenburg looked over curiously, as if he wasn’t quite sure what Jarryd meant, and then he broke into a small smile.
OK: The treehouse story. So, Jarryd has a girlfriend named Lea. On their second date, he asked Lea if there was anything she missed as a child. She said that she’d always wanted a treehouse. He put that away in the memory bank.
Then, this year, he was walking around Five Points in Athens, Ga., where he lives, and you can guess what he saw: A big, beautiful treehouse in someone’s backyard. This, of course, reminded him of what Lea had said way back when.
So what do you think he did? Most people would smile and keep walking, right? Jarryd being Jarryd, he went up to the front door and knocked on it. Of course, he didn’t know the people who lived there. When the woman came to the door, he said, “Hi, I know this is going to sound crazy. But my name is Jarryd Wallace. And I love your treehouse.”
And he explained the plan to her. There is little doubt that he did indeed sound crazy, but you have to understand that when you are so full of life, when you are so energetic and enthusiastic and joyful, good things will often happen to you. I know, that’s the Dad preaching part of it, but I’ve seen it so many times. I saw it with our friend Buck O’Neil, who never stopped loving people and never stopped being loved in return. I saw it with Jarryd in the small time I was around him, saw how people lit up around him. And do you know what? I’ve seen it with you, all your life, the way you compliment people because you know it will make them feel good, the way you stand up for your friends even when they’re not around, the way you can just light up a room. You just don’t know the power of that.
Jarryd went into the treehouse and completely cleaned it out. He installed a bunch of lights in it. And then, one night, he took Lea, and they walked around Five Points until they came upon the treehouse. He pointed it out to her and asked her if she remembered telling him that the one thing she missed in childhood was having a treehouse.
She did not remember. I love that part of the story.
But she loved the treehouse anyway, and he said: “Let’s go up there.” She was confused, of course, but he somehow coaxed her to go up there, and the table was set, ready, and he got on a knee and asked her to marry him. They’re getting married after the Paralympics next year.
But do you know what, Elizabeth? Even that is not my favorite part of the story.
No, my favorite part happened two weeks later. Jarryd got an email from the woman who had the treehouse in her backyard. She said that ever since the night he proposed, her girls had gone up to play in the treehouse every single night.