You wouldn't think by looking at him that Michael Reed has a future in sports.
A 17-year-old student at Culver High School, Reed suffers from arthrogryposis, a disease of the connective tissue that has left him with little control of his limbs. Yet Reed rolled his wheelchair onto the Pepperdine University track one day last week to join 120 other able-bodied and disabled high school students from throughout the state who were exploring ways in which they might make a living with sports.
They came away from the weeklong experience with the message that even if they're not blessed with the physical skills of team leader and Olympic gold medalist Wyomia Tyus, "there isn't a kid here that couldn't find a place in the sports industry," according to program director Bill Bronston, a physician who works for the State Department of Rehabilitation in Sacramento.
"Kids can chose sports and stay with sports all their lives and never get on a playing field," added Bronston, 46. "This is not a job fair. This is not a career fair. We're not trying to get people jobs here. What we're really trying to give is inspiration."
Michael Reed, for instance, had the chance to talk with television sportscasters and a writer for Sports Illustrated. As a result, a vague idea he has had--looking for work in the area of broadcasting--began to take shape.
Students met with executives in sports-related manufacturing, sales, advertising, coaching, managing, teaching, promotion and sports medicine. These contacts gave young people who would otherwise have little access a direct line to possible sports careers.
For some, the benefit was immediate: Tina Wright, a learning-disabled 19-year-old who lives in a board-and-care facility in Santa Barbara, was offered a position interning with the food corporation Saga. A Saga representative had visited Pepperdine to talk about careers in feeding athletes.
A Support Industry
"Everybody cannot win the gold medal," said Wyomia Tyus, who won the 100-meter dash in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. "Because they (young people) see only the glamour in sports, they lose sight of other things they can do. They see they can't throw a javelin like Kate Schmidt (former world record holder in the javelin throw and three-time member of the U.S. Olympic team, Schmidt was a guest during the program), so they figure they're not going to be an athlete." Yet Tyus said it was important for teen-agers to learn that an entire industry supports the athletes they see on television.
Tyus, 39, said she wanted to let the students know that sports careers can include anything from making documentaries to sweeping stadiums. Some people first try the role of athlete, then find they're better suited for other aspects of the industry, she said. For instance, a physical therapist who participated in the sports careers program had started out as a pro volleyball player.
Tyus told the youths that fate has much to do with who makes it in sports, and that they shouldn't be discouraged if their initial bid for greatness fails. "You can be the best in the world and not be recognized," she said. "A lot of it has to do with breaks. If a coach at Tennessee State hadn't given me a break at 14, I never would have been in the Olympic Games."
The sports week at Pepperdine was first in a planned series of career exploration weeks (other programs will expose students to jobs in the arts, sciences and recreation), all part of an ambitious undertaking, Project Interdependence, developed by Bronston in 1981. Funded by the state departments of rehabilitation and education as well as by private donations, Project Interdependence is intended to promote interaction between disabled and able-bodied students on high school campuses statewide. This phase of the project explores occupations because a lack of career orientation is "one of the most profound problems in the whole educational system," Bronston said. "That problem is compounded in spades for kids with disabilities."
Bronston, who has 15-year-old twins, a son and daughter, said he is "overwhelmingly moved by the sense of loss among teen-agers today. When I talk to these kids, they're lost, depressed."
Bronston hopes the practical knowledge gained at the sports careers week will make students more hopeful about their futures.
Meeting 'Real' Athletes
Those students who wish to pursue athletics beyond school often have never talked to a "real" athlete, said Bronston. This was their chance.
On the Pepperdine track one overcast morning last week, former decathlon world record holder Russ Hodge was popping a heavy metal ball up a bank of ice plant and letting it roll back down to him as he taught a group of students to put the shot. At the same time, students in a running workshop--some on foot, others in wheelchairs--took a lap with Tyus and wheelchair athletes Candace Cable-Brookes and her husband Peter Brookes. Candace is the top female wheelchair marathoner in the world.
At another bend of the track, Kate Schmidt stood sipping coffee. A dozen javelins stood upright in the grass behind her. The small group of students huddled at her feet included two youths in wheelchairs and one young man who got around with the help of a polished wooden cane.
"For 17 years I've been throwing these things (javelins). It's sort of captivating, I found," said Schmidt. She didn't lecture to the students, but rather talked to them as if they were peers.
"Did you start with the javelin in college or high school?" a girl asked.
Inspired by Early Success
"It's not a very well-received sport in high school," Schmidt said. "Only 19 states offer it at the high-school level. I was 13 when I first picked one up. Then, when I was 14, I won the nationals. That's one of the reasons I stayed with it--early success."
After instructing the group how to hold and propel the javelin, Schmidt asked, "So who wants to try this?"
The students lined up, each an arm's length apart, and aimed their spears in the direction of Schmidt, who stood facing them in the field. It looked like a firing squad setup, with Schmidt as the target. She gave the command to throw. There was a moment of hesitation before the students hurled the javelins.
Schmidt apparently had a good idea just how far the spears would go in the hands of novices, because the javelins all clanked together and fell harmlessly like sticks of dried spaghetti, yards short of the instructor.
The students laughed at the clatter, heading out to retrieve their javelins and try again.
It's unlikely that any of the students who attended the sports careers week at Pepperdine went away with the profound puzzles of settling on a career solved. But they had interacted with champion men and women, and adults who seemed to care about their varied roles in sports.
New possibilities had opened up for the teen-agers, and that is what the directors had hoped.
"What I want to tell you is it's too soon (for you to choose a career)," said Bill Campagna at the closing ceremonies Friday evening. "Don't pick a point to narrow down to yet. Remember, any one of you can do anything you want. All of you can do all you want."