Thursday, September 16, 2010

Courtney Burrell, A Truly Inspirational Man

I logged into my twitter account today and came across this story. I found it to be inspirational so I thought I would repost it on my blog to share with y'all! To see the orginal posting, click here.


Let’s begin with the smile because, well, everyone who knows 14-year-old Courtney Burrell at some point in the conversation gets around to gushing about that grin.

His mother, Joey Jenkins, points out that the smile is a facial fixture these days. The football coach at North Rockland High School, Joe Casarella, says the smile is better than winning. And then there’s Michelle Brown, the selfless spitfire whose nothing-is-impossible attitude is most responsible for creating the smile that she measures in megawatts.

“You can’t help but come away from him smiling,” Brown says.

All true. But there’s more. After hearing so much about concussions, steroids and, thanks to the New York Jets, adolescent and inappropriate behavior, Burrell’s story inspires a renewed belief in the positive power of team and togetherness.

We hear so often that sports offer kids life lessons in things like sacrifice and hard work. Being part of North Rockland’s Red Raiders has given the wheelchair-bound Burrell, a developmentally disabled kid born with cerebral palsy, something even more important.

“A sense of purpose, a life,” says Brown, a service coordinator for New City, New York-based Jawonio, whose mission is to advance the independence, well-being and equality of people with disabilities or special needs.

Burrell’s everyday life before football consisted of returning home after school and retreating to his bedroom, where he’d watch hours of ESPN. That’s it.

Jets Fan

Sports have always been Burrell’s passion, which explains why his bedroom wall is covered with posters of his favorite athlete, Kobe Bryant of the Lakers, and his favorite team, the not-such-a-great-example Jets. He wears what Bryant wears. Sneakers included.

Burrell attended football games at North Rockland, located about 35 miles north of New York City, for years, watching from afar, wondering what it must be like to be part of something bigger than oneself.

One day his mother mentioned his love of sports to Brown, lamenting that he couldn’t be part of the team. Any team, really. Little did mom know that the concept of “can’t” doesn’t exist to Brown.

“His mother said no one would let him play, so it was more like a challenge,” Brown said. “We’re always telling kids, whether handicapped or not, you can do whatever you want to do.”

Inspirational Image

It happens that Brown’s son, Lenny, now a running back at Ithaca College, played for Casarella, North Rockland’s coach the past 30 years. It also happens that a while back Casarella saw a kid in a motorized wheelchair serve as the water boy for Mamaroneck High School. It stuck.

“I marveled at that,” Casarella said.

Now it’s a grateful mom who marvels at the transformation of a son who serves as the football team’s jock-of-all-trades. Burrell wears a jersey and takes part in coaching meetings. He dishes out water -- always ice cold -- during practice breaks and on game days.

“The players say he has the best water,” mom says.

Burrell served as honorary captain this past weekend, taking part in the coin toss prior to North Rockland’s season- opening loss, 14-7, to New Rochelle. Despite the score, he smiled.

The cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination, makes it difficult to understand Burrell’s speech, and his head sometimes tilts to the side. Even so, Casarella has been around long enough to recognize a competitor when he sees one.

Leader’s View

That’s why, during practice, coach usually positions Burrell a safe distance behind the quarterback, where he can see the plays unfold from the vantage point of the team leader.

“His heart is as big as anybody on our team,” Casarella says. “You wake up every morning and, if you don’t give 100 percent, stop and think of Courtney.”

Wait, it gets better.

This is, after all, high school, where jocks are usually popular with the young ladies.

These days Burrell more often than not is surrounded by a steady stream of teenage girls stopping by to say hello. One day it’s the tennis team. Next day it’s the cross-country squad.

“He has to beat them off with a stick,” Brown says. “He’s in la-la land. What teenage boy wouldn’t be?”

Jenkins, 42, once believed that her son was destined for a life of solitude and that his disability precluded his ability to partake in his passion. Now, she says, anything is possible. She believes it and, more importantly, her son does, too.

“There’s a place for everybody,” Jenkins said.

She smiles, of course. Runs in the family.

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