Mike Ward lives by a simple philosophy.
If you're standing still, you're in the way.
Living out that mantra became a little trickier the day a doctor told him he'd never walk again.
Trickier, mind you.
Ward has been a paraplegic for almost four decades, the result of a broken back when he was still a teenager. But ever since that accident changed his life, the Oklahoma native has been helping to change other people's lives.
“Wheelchair sports has really opened a lot of doors for me personally,” Ward said, “and was able to help me reach out to a lot of folks.”
On Saturday, Ward will be inducted into the Wheelchair & Ambulatory Sports USA Hall of Fame. On a day when most eyes in our fair state will be on the gridiron, he will be recognized for accomplishments that might not be widely known but that should be wildly celebrated.
He has made life better for thousands.
Sports has always been part of Ward's life. A lineman, he played high school football in Moore, spent a year at Wabash College in Indiana, then had a short stint on the Oklahoma State football team before deciding to focus on his academics. He transferred to Oklahoma, where his younger brother, Jeff, had signed to playing football.
To make some money, Mike Ward took a job unloading cargo trucks in Oklahoma City. He was on the loading dock one day when some cargo broke free and fell on him. He never lost consciousness and realized what had happened. He had broken his back. He had no feeling in his legs.
He was paralyzed.
When the doctor confirmed it later at the hospital, he had one more bit of information for Ward.
“You aren't ever going to walk again,” the doctor said.
“You don't know me,” Ward thought.
He had been taught by his parents to believe that he could do anything, that there are no barriers. His injury, as bad as it was, didn't change those beliefs.
And yet, in the first few months after the accident, Ward found that he was imposing limits on himself. He was back at OU, working toward a speech and hearing degree and living in an off-campus apartment. While he went to class, he didn't do much else.
“I was content to stay in my little apartment where I could control everything,” he said.
Then, he met Rich Harrell, another young wheelchair-bound paraplegic in Norman who had been injured a few years earlier. Like Ward, Harrell had played sports throughout his life. As they talked and got to know each other, they realized they still had a desire to compete.
They formed a wheelchair basketball team.
That was in 1974, a time when attitudes about the disabled were still raw in this country. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was still more than a decade away, and it was common for people to think nothing of using hurtful terms such as cripple.
So, the idea of a wheelchair basketball team was lost on some people.
Even the fiancé of the guy who agreed to coach the team struggled to wrap her mind around it.
“Why would anyone want to play wheelchair basketball?” she asked. “Why do these guys want to play? Why?”
She failed to understand that their accidents hadn't extinguished their competitive fire.
“It had nothing to do with showing the world anything,” Ward said. “It's internal — ‘I want to compete.' Of course, once you're able to prove to yourself that you can do these things, then you can do anything.”
Ward decided to try other sports. Powerlifting. Javelin. Discus. Shot put. He ultimately made two Paralympic teams, in 1988 and 1992, and competed in events across the country and around the world.
Along the way, he met people who were once like him. They suddenly found themselves disabled, and they needed help. They needed motivation.
That prompted Ward to help found Oklahomans for Independent Living in 1985. The nonprofit organization works to assist and empower the disabled in and around McAlester, where Ward lives.
It has a staff of 10, a reach of eight counties and an impact on hundreds.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that Ward had to first help himself. He had to break free of the comfort of his apartment. He had to shake off society's belief that his wheelchair limited his life. He had to start the grueling process that one day allowed him to walk again with the help of leg braces.
He needed a strong will and an internal drive, needed them every day since his accident.
Those fires were stoked by wheelchair sports.
“Once you prove to yourself that you can do stuff athletically,” Ward said, “there's nothing that's going to hold you back.”
Nowadays, Ward splits time between Oklahomans for Independent Living and his audiology practice in McAlester. He's been married for 32 years, has two grown children and is also a grandfather.
He's definitely not standing still.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125 or at email@example.com. You can also like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.