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The Luckiest Man? (A Reflective Essay)

(This passage is modified from a message that I sent to the parents in my school community not long ago.)

On these cold days, sometimes a book about baseball is enough to remind me of summer and warmer times. I recently finished reading a very enjoyable book about one of my favorite movies of all-time. This book, The Pride of the Yankees: The movie that defined the legacy of Lou Gehrig told the story of the film that portrayed the life of the great Lou Gehrig. Like any good book, it was enjoyable to read – and like any good book, I came away at the end having learned some new things. (It’s good to learn.)

Now, having been a fan of Lou Gehrig (and Gary Cooper, the actor who portrayed Gehrig) ever since I first saw the movie (probably during a rain delay during a Yankees game in the 1970’s), one thing I did not learn from the book was the fact that Lou Gehrig’s greatest legacy, more than the great feats he accomplished on the baseball field, came when he said goodbye. It can be argued that nobody ever say goodbye in a more dignified manner and in a better way considering the circumstances.

It is my contention that we can all learn a little bit about life, appreciation, and perspectives from the great Lou Gehrig.

If you are not familiar with his story, I’ll recount it, very briefly, here. Lou Gehrig played on the New York Yankees from 1925 to 1939. In that time, he was one of the greatest players ever to play the game. He partnered with Babe Ruth for the first half of his career to help create one the most dominant Yankees dynasties. The thing that set Gehrig apart, though, was the fact that the man was as strong as steel. He played every day never missing a game for the bulk of his career. In that time, Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games. Gehrig was so strong and so reliable that he was nicknamed “The Iron Horse” (which is what they also called locomotives).

The thing that eventually got Lou Gehrig out of the lineup was what actually killed him and now bears his name – the disease known as ALS (now called Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The disease ravaged him, as it does to all who get it. Gehrig quickly found that he could no longer play baseball. His body failed him, quickly. He took himself out of the lineup in 1939 and by 1941, he was dead – at the age of 37.

Knowing that Gehrig was dying, the Yankees held a day in his honor – the first of its kind in sport. On that day, Gehrig has his number retired – also the first in sports. It was at that ceremony, in front of his former teammates and manager, and tens of thousands of fans, that Gehrig reluctantly addressed the throngs and said (while the disease that ended his career made him barely able to walk or stand), “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…

I don’t think many people would state words to that effect knowing the circumstances.

There was nothing lucky about what Lou Gehrig was experiencing at that time. He knew he was dying. He knew that his once strong body was failing him, slowly, and taking his life away. His legendary career had just ended – suddenly. The disease robbed him of everything, and he knew then (as is true today) that there was no cure.

And yet, he claimed to be lucky.

And not just lucky, “The luckiest man on the face of the earth…

Even as a little kid, I knew this was something special. And now, as an adult, as I am reminded of it again, I can’t help but feel the same way.

I think there are times in our lives when we see the good. In fact, I think we most often see the good. Yet, even with that, as people, when things get tough, we all sometimes get down. It’s natural, of course, to feel bad at certain times. Life is not always easy. And when its not, it is easy to look at things negatively.

“Look what happened to me.”

And there was Gehrig. It’s difficult to imagine a person facing a more trying circumstance. Everything happened in a flash. He was strong and then he was not. He was as alive as any man and then he faced a horrible death sentence.

And he said that he was lucky.

Because, in a way, he was.

Gehrig was lucky because he was surrounded by those who loved him and who supported him. Yankee Stadium was filled with those who rooted for him. Sometimes we find the most support when we least think we’ll find it. Gehrig knew that no matter what the future held, and it wasn’t going to be good, that he had left an indelible imprint on others. I hope that Lou Gehrig knew that his words would inspire countless others well into the future.

I’m inspired when people rise above themselves as Gehrig did.

I am reminded of Gehrig’s words often. They remind me to face all of life’s challenges with a positive spirit. They also remind me to give thanks and to find ways to show my appreciation to others. My goodness… as I look around at all that is good around me, it sure is clear that I am also the luckiest men on the face of the earth. I think most of us are – men and women and kids…

And I think it’s important that we take the time to remember the good in our lives.

Even more, I think it’s important to make the time to do this.

If Lou Gehrig, in his dire situation, could find the words to express gratitude and see the good, there’s a strong chance that we all can.

Find the good, appreciate the good, and remember the good.

I hope I never find myself in a situation like Lou Gehrig’s, but if I do ever find myself in such a spot, I hope that I have the presence of mind, and the dignity, to handle it as Iron Horse did. Even at our worst, it’s important to try to be our best.

As Gehrig also stated, “I might have been given a bad break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”

As we all do.


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