POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA- “I’ll see you next week brother, I’m leaving on a little trip.” Richard Robinson left his Pompano Beach condo last week for a cruise ship departing from the Port of Everglades to the Cayman Islands. Richard spends some of his time in a wheelchair. When he’s not in that chair or his walker, he’s at the gym, taking good care of what he calls his “wonderful life.”
When I met Robinson four years ago he changed my life, opening up a window to what would become a four-part series profiling inspirational people from all walks of life. Richard’s story appeared in the Town Crier on October 12, 2012, and since that time, not only have I made a friend, but I’ve met a person who has opened a window to the world of recovery from drugs and alcohol.
Many families have at least one relative or someone close to them who is battling the disease of alcoholism and addiction. Twenty-two years ago, Richard was driving drunk on a rain-slicked road when his truck hit a wall and he was ejected from the vehicle. The accident left him brain damaged with multiple fractures. He faced many surgeries, and his parents were told that he would probably be an invalid for the rest of his life. “The doctors told my parents that I would probably be sitting in a corner drooling for the rest of my life,” says Robinson. Much of Robinson’s recovery was detailed in his story that appeared in the Town Crier.
Since Richard’s story appeared in this newspaper, Robinson has “kept on motoring”- moving forward with his life, not stuck in time thinking about the past. His only mission is to live his life to the fullest. He was an athlete- an all-star middle guard on his high school football team in a suburb of Pennsylvania. Again, that is all history to Robinson. He talks about the past, but chooses not to dwell on his life’s history. We’ve both been there and done that and I went so far as to document my friend’s life, hoping that others would somehow benefit from his story.
I benefited from listening to and learning so much from my friend Richard Robinson. This series has hit some bumps in a road along the way, but true to Robinson’s life, I stayed the course changing directions and finally coming back full circle to Richard’s story, albeit with a slightly different angle. I decided that he would not only begin, but he would close, my series on those who inspire others, each in their own very different way.
First there was Richard, then came Hugh Wiberg, Jim Boudreau and Jon Meads — some Wilmington and Tewksbury connections. Their lives never crossed paths, but if you read deeply enough and came to understand the respective routes that were taken, I’m sure that there was something familiar and touching about each and every profile.
When I first met Robinson I would learn that he was a ‘gym rat’ working out two or three times a week for several hours at a crack. In later interviews I would discover that Robinson would incorporate hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups into his workout routine before hitting the nautilus machines and the stair-master.
Once a week, Richard works out with an hour-long ‘zumba’ dance class, busting a beat while in his walker at the back of a sparkling fitness room. Robinson sometimes spends all day at LA Fitness, while most days I’m pushed to my limit with a 90-minute morning workout.
“I still rock it and shake it. I’ll never stop it. Dancing is the best exercise brother. I can still bust a beat,” Robinson says after a recent dance class. Music is instrumental in this athlete’s recovery. “Some people in rehab didn’t appreciate me rocking out,” he says. Robinson loves the music of the group Joy Division, often quoting the band’s lyrics. “Every moment there are new realities- that’s from the cut ’24 Hours.”
Changing the World
I was jump-starting my own workouts, and when I first saw what Richard was capable of doing, I was surprised to say the least. I’m not the least bit surprised anymore. It would have been much too simplistic to sum up my friend’s life in terms of physical prowess in the face of what some might call a daunting disability. What is even more impressive is Robinson’s focus on spirituality and recovery. Thankfully, I’m learning while I’m writing, taking in some life lessons while climbing my own ‘survivability’ mountain. My journey is a bit of a molehill when compared to Robinson’s, but it is my journey nonetheless, and I’ve come to own it over the past 20 years.
There is a YouTube video featuring Robinson titled “How one man’s battle after sustaining a severe brain injury can change the world.” The piece was produced by another of Richard’s many friends, South Florida chiropractor Dr. Alan Mandell. It is what I would call ‘must see’ viewing for anyone coming anywhere close to having a bad day. Richard is shown in the gym going about his daily self-sufficient routine that includes shopping and cooking, and of course making his van-assisted journey to the gymnasium. It is the only help that Richard requires on most days. Robinson is in charge of his own therapy and recovery — a heartwarming mix of what he calls “perseverance and perspiration.”
“I try to have mind and body strength,” says Robinson after finishing a good 30 minutes on the stair-master. “I have internal self-betterment- physical, emotional and spiritual. The fabulous life that I’ve acquired just keeps on getting better-as long as I keep working at it. I have never-ending healing. As much as I have lost, I’ve acquired so much more in return. Our lives are not just one thing or even two things, it’s a compilation of things.”
Viewing life as a compilation suits my personality nicely at the moment, mostly since my writing long ago stopped being about some scoreboard or a rundown of statistics. Our lives are never that simple, and my life certainly has never been simple. It has been suggested on more than one occasion that I take the time to tell my story, an honest to goodness, not so simple autobiography. My relationship with Richard is what finally convinced me that I should tell my story- that I should write that book that might help someone, somewhere along the way.
I finally honored my late mother’s wish that I write a book someday when I finished my first book four years ago. The story of legendary Wilmington High School track coach and math teacher Frank Kelley has touched so many people that gradually I began to think that my own story was worth telling and that I could actually survive the almost daily grind of writing another book. Once again, I have Richard to thank for providing just enough inspiration to convince me that I was up to the task. This isn’t a retelling of the beginning of this series. This is a worthy sequel to the story of a man who just keeps passing out dollops of inspiration.
A Special Name
Having spent another winter basking in the warmth of Fort Lauderdale, Florida thinking about this project, it was time to get to work. A year ago over lunch, former Tewksbury High School football coach Bob Aylward asked me again when I was going to begin writing my story, and he even had a title for the book. I respect and admire my former coach (for one game many years ago), but never did I think that he would come up with a suitable title for this project. “I’d call it ‘Tenacious.’ Thanks coach you nailed it. That works for me.
Now almost a year later, I’m writing ‘Tenacious’- if not tenaciously- at the moment. This project will be a spiritual journey for me. Many of you know by now that I’m a four-time cancer survivor, and that I’ve lived for over 20 years with an AIDS diagnosis. I guess I’m what you would call a long-term survivor. I had two more surgeries for skin cancers this winter that left my face feeling sore for a couple of weeks. That was no big deal to me at this point. I waited for things to heal-up and got back into the gym. I’m feeling the best both physically and spiritually than I ever have in my life. I’m about 10 pounds over my high school playing weight and at the moment I’m cancer free. I’ve learned through Richard that it’s always best to take things one day at a time. It’s all part of my recovery.
Here is where the rubber really meets the road, as some would say. The ‘recovery’ is the difficult part of all this, and I never thought I’d be giving anyone a sneak peek at the book that is definitely in its’ infant stages at this point. I’m a recovering alcoholic. There, I actually wrote the word- I’m an alcoholic. It’s a disease that ultimately killed my dad and has ruined the lives of many friends. Writing this book will be therapeutic, so if I’m going to be my own therapist, I might as well get my emotional money’s worth. I’m guessing that this conclusion to my ‘inspirational’ series is a good start.
Living the life of a sportswriter for over 20 years had me basically feeding the disease of alcoholism. Write a great column? Reward yourself with not just one cold beer, but many cold beers. Have a tough week at the paper? That calls for a beer! I found that over the 21 years at this job too many of my notes preparing a story were scrawled on the back of bar napkins. They tell me that the disease of alcoholism is progressive, and over the years I was progressing right down that nasty path to either death or time spent behind bars. South Florida isn’t exactly the perfect place for someone in recovery, but the alcoholic can find a drink anywhere. The disease of alcoholism also is the only disease with a four-star rating as far as playing mind games with your psyche. It’s the only disease that keeps telling you that you don’t really have a disease. These days I just try to keep things simple. I avoid the happy hours here and hit the gym or go for a swim. Maybe even write a book.
More than one person has tried to convince me that I must be a ‘functional’ alcoholic. There is no such thing. You either are or you aren’t. And don’t go looking for an excuse to get sober. Like a wonderful wife or girlfriend, or someone else who wants desperately for you to stop drinking. That would be looking for support systems in all the wrong places. That’s not what my friendship with Richard is all about and it never was what this series was all about. This series on inspirational people has simply been a window to a different world for this 58-year-old, semi-retired sportswriter. That window has even led me to believe that I really want the gift that is sobriety.
A year ago when I really began to get serious about looking at my alcoholism I read several books written by great writers in recovery Pete Hamill’s ‘A Drinking Life’, Caroline Knapp’s ‘Drinking: A Love Story’ and finally, Tim Cowlishaw’s ‘Drunk on Sports’. Cowlishaw, who is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News and appears on ESPN’s Around the Horn, may not be a great writer, but his book really resonated with me, largely because of what former NBA star Charles Barkley had to say in the book’s prelude.
Barkley writes that Cowlishaw has told him this- “There is a bond between sports and drinking that is unlike anything else. People don’t get hammered when they go see a movie. They might drink at home while watching their favorite TV show, but for the most part, they don’t gather in one public spot to watch it and get drunk. That’s how Tim looks at drinking now. He told me, ‘drinking is something that people do; it’s not what you are. But when it becomes who you are, you need to think about becoming something else.’ Barkley, who has seen his own troubles with alcohol, is right on so many levels. Having finished reading what I thought was a ‘real’ collection of self-help books I opened the book that I really needed to read- The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
My late mother once prayed that I wouldn’t go into the newspaper business. “They all drink,” she would say. Ma, so do politicians, artists, musicians, short-order cooks, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, that cute girl next door and the Mayor of Boston. It was refreshing to see Marty Walsh being so candid about his recovery. When a prominent person speaks out, some of the stigma and shame subsides.
I have nothing to be ashamed about. I went an entire Super Bowl without a beer. I’ve seen concerts without a beer in my hand and actually remembered the beautiful sounds of Jeff Beck on a warm summer night. But who’s keeping score? This is not about the number of days without a cold one. Today, I didn’t have a beer. I really am taking things one day at a time. My friend Richard came home to Florida today. We’ll get together for breakfast, and I’ll get back to work on that book. I guess that I’m really learning how to keep things simple. I’m staying in the moment. I’ve got to admit, it’s a nice feeling.
(Comments regarding this series can be sent to email@example.com).