It has been a long time since I’ve felt nervous on the first tee.
I’ve been playing this game for almost 40 years, after all, and have never been nearly good enough to be nervous about not playing it well.
Also, this is River Vale Country Club at 4:50 in the afternoon on a Thursday, last tee time before the Men’s League.
It is not Sunday at Augusta National.
Still, there are butterflies. Lots of butterflies.
I have envisioned what this would feel like for exactly 296 days. Day 1, it was in a cool, dark hospital room, backed by the encouraging voices of nurses and doctors who’d gone to great lengths to assure me that life was just beginning anew for me. I chose to believe them.
Now, 296 days later, I am walking to the first tee at a New Jersey course Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson have both graced in its history.
“Would you care to take the honors?” one of my playing partners, Rob Ricco, asks.
Yes, I would, thank you very much. I retrieve an extra-long tee from my bag. I pluck a ball that was a gift from an old colleague, Kevin Manahan, on which is personalized: “VAC IS BACK.” I bend over haltingly. Into the ground goes the tee. Onto the tee goes the ball.
I decide to knock wood for good luck.
The lower portion of my left leg is the nearest available piece of wood (even though it’s technically fiberglass). I knock it.
“Let’s see that glorious swing,” says Ian O’Connor, the third member of our group. “You ready for this?”
I am ready. As the ball itself already suggested: I am back.
Day 1 was Aug. 9, last year, a day that will be impossible to forget, because on that day a gaggle of solemn-faced doctors gave me a simple diagnosis: The portion of my left leg below my knee was unsalvageable. They could prop it up with stern braces and fruitless hopes, or they could do what needed to be done.
“It’s called a BKA,” one of them said. “Below-Knee Amputation.”
How did I get here? It’s a long story. Let’s give the Cliffs Notes version: Thirty years of playing basketball and spraining ankles without caring to properly rehab them had taken a toll. A staph infection last April had done its part, and years of trying to manage diabetes had thrown a few punches, too, causing neuropathy in both feet.
The kicker, though, was that unlike many who live with neuropathy — and thus experience poor blood flow — my condition was exactly the opposite. My circulation was excellent.
But over time last summer, I developed a condition in the ankle called “Charcot” — in essence, the bones, ligaments and cartilage of the joint were slowly vanishing. You can live with that condition for years — unless you have excellent circulation.
Then, it’s like the tide washing your ankle out to sea.
Bad break, I guess. But that had actually already been trumped by a remarkably good piece of serendipity.
“People can do more than they think they can do.”
These were the words of Dr. Richard Goldstein, my podiatrist, who’d begun treating me when I suffered the staph infection. This was about two weeks before I sat in Valley Hospital, being given the official diagnosis. He had warmed me up with an unofficial one.
“This isn’t something to think about now,” he said over the phone, minutes after studying my latest X-rays and seeing, in essence, that I no longer owned a left ankle. “But maybe in a year, maybe two, you should think about if your quality of life wouldn’t be better with an amputation. If you get out ahead of it, we can do it below the knee, which is preferable. Just think about it.”
I did. And it was among the most essential conversations I’ve ever had. From that moment, I began to visualize a different kind of life — one unhampered by a rogue limb that was simply never going to get better. So two weeks later, when another infection landed me back in the hospital and forced a difficult discussion of what to do next, I was ready.
As they wheeled me into the OR that night, an aide took a black magic marker out of his coat pocket. I decided it was a good time to be glib.
“Make sure you get the right leg,” I said.
“Actually, I think you mean the ‘correct’ leg,” the aide responded. “Because I’m pretty sure we’re taking the left one.”
I knew I was in good hands.
I expend a lot of ink writing about teams: good ones and bad, good teammates and bad, how good chemistry can inspire ordinary teams to greatness and bad chemistry can doom talented teams to rubble. Let me tell you a little about my extraordinary team.
You’ve met Dr. Goldstein. Dr. Mitul Patel is the vascular surgeon who performed the procedure. The day after that he visited me, inspected his handiwork and asked if I had a goal I wanted to set for myself. I said golf. He said, “I think you can aim for next June.”
There were an army of friends, and co-workers, and even a few subjects about whom I’d written (and not always kindly) who reached out, constantly. There was, of course, my wife, Leigh.
By Day 7, I was transferred to Kessler Rehabilitation Center in Saddle Brook, N.J., and that’s where the roster of my team expanded to include seven people for whom I’ll never be properly able to give ample thanks. We talk all the time about how a star can make the rest of a team better? These stars all conspired to make me better.
There is Jackie Corcoran, my occupational therapist, who literally had to teach me how to re-learn basic tasks in everyday life.
“From the start, I thought you would succeed here,” she says. “From the first moment there was so much processing in your mind, but you seemed willing to be open to all the possibilities. That’s half the battle.”
There is Shane Mata, my primary physical therapist, who was tasked with the unenviable chore of getting me to stand for the first time on one leg with the help of support bars and his sizeable gift for putting nerves at ease.
“We’re here for the roller-coaster ride,” he says, laughing.
Early on, he would quote from “Invictus,” by 19th Century English poet William Earnest Henley: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” It was only later he revealed that Henley, too, had been an amputee.
There is Marybeth Ryan, the leader of Kessler’s inpatient program, who took a special interest in making sure my “good” leg remains that way — “The biggest thing is having the will to want to change and do new things,” she says. “This is a whole new process.”
And there is Joe Reda, my prosthetist.
“Look, we can give you a leg that will let you do whatever you want to do,” Joe told me after we first shook hands. “But I’ll say this: If you’ve never rock-climbed before, now probably isn’t the time to think about taking up rock climbing.”
“How about golf?” I asked.
Before that, there were 19 days of inpatient therapy at Kessler. There were six weeks back home, where I was limited to a wheelchair and thus to only one floor of my two-story house. There was a trip back to Kessler to receive my first temporary leg, a perfectly terrifying moment eased by Marybeth’s kind, guiding talent and encouragement, followed by another 10 days as an inpatient learning to use my new wheel.
“You seem very excited by all of this,” Dr. Anthony Lee, Kessler’s amputee rehab specialist, said one day. I told him I was, but there was a razor-thin line between excitement and panic. But the truth was, I trusted my team. It was Dr. Lee who said early on: “If you can still keep working, that would be good. We’ll worry about your leg, and you worry about your brain.”
A moment, if I may, about that brain. I am emphasizing much of the positive aspect of this journey, but I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t admit to long nights of uncertainty, profound moments of dread. But again, my team. The brother of my friend, Kevin St. Pierre, had a similar procedure done eight years ago. At one of those vulnerable moments, Mike St. Pierre texted me:
“One realizes how much more inner strength one possesses when you have no choice but to adapt. Stay positive.”
Since mid-October I’ve returned to Kessler twice a week for an hour of outpatient rehab, and met two more indispensable members of my team, PTs Cynthia Macaluso and Gianna Bracco. It was Gianna’s clever and relentless urging to complete obstacle courses at every visit that actually allowed me to negotiate a tricky shortcut across railroad ties so my wife and I could make a concert on time. And that prompted a notable benchmark in all of this.
“I think you’re ready,” Leigh said.
She was right. I was.
First, of course, there was life to tend to. And I am happy to report that spending the past 10 months as an amputee has reinforced my belief that people — 99.999 percent of them — are inherently nice. Doors are opened. Chairs are held out. I walked into a UPS store to send a fax and when I asked the price I was told: “It’s on the house,” and it was obvious it wasn’t because the clerk liked my Carver High School T-shirt.
The other 0.001 percent was represented by the woman at my gym who suggested I wear sweatpants instead of shorts from now on. When I asked why she said, “I think you know why.” When I said I didn’t, she said, “It makes my daughter uncomfortable to look at it.” To which I replied, “I can tell her from experience that life is full of disappointments.”
Sometimes, the generosity morphs into something … well, else. There was the older lady at a hotel in Miami who walked over, extended her hand and said, solemnly: “Thank you for your service.” I responded as Ralph Kramden might — “Hummana-hummana-hummana” — and she was gone before I could explain.
There was the lovely Swedish woman who saw me ambling around the airport, wished me well, asked if she could pray for me, and when she was done said: “Lord, you have given sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf; please grow his leg back.”
(Update: Sadly, that has not happened yet.)
My Airedale, Desmond, thoroughly enjoys licking my fake leg, unable to understand why it isn’t quite as salty as the other one. One day, as I was seated in the shower, he barged in and slurped the leg with great enthusiasm until it toppled over, a logistical calamity that I was able to solve by fishing it back with a handy cane.
And there was Tom Thibodeau, after the first Knicks game I covered in person, who shook my hand and said: “Well, the scouting report on you was always that you couldn’t jump very well to begin with.”
That is an accurate scouting report.
I would like to say that first ball at River Vale CC’s No. 1 hole flew straight and true, but I am a reporter bound by ethics. I should also mention this was not the first time I’ve taken a mulligan on that hole. And I am delighted to tell you I hit the do-over flush (we still need to work on weight transfer), and it rose high and relatively straight and landed about 100 yards away. It fell softly into the distant grass; I remained upright. Win.
I’ve never had a hole-in-one. I doubt it would feel as satisfying.
“And you are off!” Rob said with more than a trace of glee.
I would like to report that the final putt, a 20-footer on No. 9 with some bend on a very fast green, dipped triumphantly into the cup, but even urged by someone yelling, “It’s a Cinderella story!” it didn’t quite work out that way. No storybook start, no Hollywood finish.
But I walked off the green — and, yes, the third word of the sentence is the big one — and felt something you almost never feel when you play golf.
People really can do more than they think they can do. Especially when you’ve got a hell of a team behind you.