As the evening sun sets over Portland’s West Hills, cooling the October air and narrowing the gap between its temperature and the dew point, tiny droplets of water born high among the Cascade evergreens ascend over the Columbia and Willamette Rivers where they collect to form blankets of fog with silken hems that stretch well beyond the shorelines. The layer of moisture covers the eyes like a blindfold, forcing the tugboat pilots, with tows astern from their vessels, to navigate the river channels electronically, while their deep-throated foghorns eerily warn other mariners of their progress. Only when the fog is burned off by the angry intensity of the late morning sun do the pilots regain the perspective their eyes crave.
Eight miles south of its confluence with the mighty Columbia, the Willamette River flows past the University of Portland, perched high above the water and defined on two sides by the bluff after which the campus is nicknamed. At the south end of campus, dutifully standing guard over the modest city skyline in the distance and the Swan Island Basin below, stands William Clark, frozen in a metal whose minty patina can only begin to suggest the ages that have passed since he and Meriwether Lewis pondered their own perilous navigation of the big rivers of the Northwest, perhaps from this very spot. His arm outstretched, Clark points in the direction of Mt. Jefferson, ever-present, but like the obstacles in and around the river below, distinguishable only when the clouds have departed.
Perspective is fleeting, set askew by circumstance and changing with the clocks and calendars that measure the passage of time. In his first team meeting each year, Vince Lombardi, the hard-nosed, crew-cut coach of the Green Bay Packers told his team they must keep their priorities straight. “Men,” he would growl, “we have but three priorities in life: God, our families, and the Green Bay Packers.” But as center Don Curry would recall, once the season started Lombardi became very confused about the order of things. The coach’s pressure-packed job and aggressive personality altered the way he viewed the world, at least during the football season, when winning matters most.
Any coach pursuing victory knows there are times when priorities fall shamefully out of order, when we reject our faith and our families, sending them dismissively out of play like a scuffed baseball tossed to the dugout by the umpire. In those moments, as on the river below the Bluff, the fog forms thick and head high, masking our eyes and suffocating our lungs. Our ears turn deaf to the deep-throated warning horns, our eyes blind to the landmarks and beacons that try to guide us. Like the tugboat pilots navigating the big rivers through the fog, we lose perspective.
I am a flawed man and I view the world through cataracted lenses, opaque with self-doubt caused by the knowledge that my abrupt entrance into middle age was not welcomed by the achievements I expected by this point in my life. I was raised by loving parents and three older siblings who dutifully led me to believe I had been built of the finest roving and the sturdiest Pacific Red Cedar, certain to enable my passage through every channel I chose in life. It turned out to be a lie told by honey-kissed hearts, for while I may have had the confidence to enter the channels that tugged at my curiosity, I found them replete with white-capped waves that pounded my hull mercilessly and kept me far from the yacht-filled harbors for which I once felt destined.
At the center of campus, the majestic oaks beyond the right field fence at Joe Etzel Field loosen their grip on the yellow and orange leaves hanging from their autumn branches, gradually exposing Mehling, Villa Maria, and Corrado Halls, where students reside during the academic year. Adjacent to The Etz sits the Earle A. and Virginia Chiles Center, the domed arena that serves as the home to the university’s athletic department. From September to May, the building is bustling with activity: basketball and volleyball practices and games are most visible in the main arena, below the beautiful arches of exposed Glulam beams. And on the periphery, athletes in all sports are constantly coming and going — to and from their locker rooms, the training room, and various training spaces that are as familiar to them as their own homes. Visiting teams and a seemingly endless group of maintenance staff, contractors, and television production crews descend upon the building in a steady stream, filling its tributaries and flowing in every direction.
At the end of a long hallway, adjacent to the player/employee entrance and far from the other coaches and administrators who work in the building, sits a tiny office where my assistant coaches and I spent our time on campus when not on the baseball field. The oddly-shaped room resembled a narrow hallway and was located along the path worn by players, coaches, staff, and administrators as they entered and exited the building every day. Though welcome and encouraged, interruptions were constant and made the completion of administrative tasks nearly impossible during much of the year.
In June, just as warm temperatures send Cascade Mountain snowmelt to source the Willamette River near Sisters, my assistant coaches left me behind and took to the highways to identify and evaluate the players who would flow into our baseball program in the future. Coaches from other sports were busy with their own off-campus recruiting; the students were on break; and my tiny little office was blissfully quiet, like the shoreline below without so much as a ripple to lap against its dirt embankments. It was a wonderfully sedate time of year when one could close his door, hear not a sound for hours, and enjoy the kind of production that is possible only in the absence of others.
In the summer of 2008, while alone at my desk and poring over data from the previous baseball season, a knock at the office door broke the welcome summer silence. With my assistant coaches on the road, I was in a strong work rhythm amidst the solitude, though a bit tired of staring at my computer. My chair was hidden from the view provided by the small window next to the door, and I debated whether I should answer the call. Eventually, I rose, crossed the small, strangely-shaped office, and greeted a man I did not know.
Tom Bridgman was, so he said, happy to meet me, and hoping that he and his son could speak with me for a while. Prospective student-athletes making summer college tours with their families are common, and my staff and I tried to make ourselves available when we were not away evaluating summer leagues. “Sure,” I said, “but where’s your son?” Tom stepped aside so his son, Sam, could maneuver his aluminum crutches through the doorway. I shook hands with both of them and offered them a seat in the empty chairs belonging to my coaches. Tom preferred to stand, and watched as his son clumsily navigated the descent into the chair closest to him. As I suspected, Tom and Sam were visiting several Northwest universities in which Sam had interest in attending. High on Sam’s list was a Division I baseball program; high on Tom’s was the fact that Gonzaga had already offered an academic scholarship.
Tom Bridgman is a Seattle dentist with a quick smile and a joyous sense of humor. He is a strong and practical man who does not appear to rattle easily, even when dealing with the most difficult of challenges. Before I could embarrass myself by asking what position Sam hoped to play in college – certainly his injury was one that would heal quickly – Tom began to tell a story about his son.
By the time Nikolaus Friedreich enrolled at the University of Wurzburg, the school had already opened and closed its doors once. An unstable German economy and a debauched student body that favored drinking, sex, and fighting over academic pursuit, forced the school’s closure just thirteen years after it opened – for the first time – in 1402, four centuries before Lewis and Clark first gazed upon the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. It took a hundred and fifty years before the fiercely Roman Catholic institution would be reborn, after which it would produce some of the world’s greatest medical achievements, including the discovery of x-rays, for which Wilhelm Rontgen was awarded the first Noble Prize for Physics in 1895. It is also the place where, before Rontgen, Nikolaus Friedreich cut his medical teeth and presumably developed his interest in dystrophic and ataxic conditions that affect muscle coordination. He eventually moved on to the University of Heidelberg, as a professor, where in 1863 he described the ataxia that bears his name.
Friedriech’s ataxia is a rare, life-shortening neuro-muscular disorder that affects muscle coordination from the toes to the fingertips. It is progressive, without cure, and treatment is scarce and largely experimental. Typically, those affected are diagnosed between the ages of 5-15 and are confined to a wheelchair within ten years. Those diagnosed in young adulthood experience a slower progression of weakened muscles, loss of coordination, vision and hearing impairment, slurred speech, scoliosis, foot deformities, diabetes, and heart disorders.
Sam Bridgman grew up loving sports. As a grade schooler, he was one of the best players in every game he played, a standout, as he recalls. But Tom and his beautiful and spirited wife, Amy, noticed their oldest son had an unusual inability to jump while on the basketball court. He was clumsy, didn’t look right; his legs didn’t quite seem to work. Many kids grow quickly and struggle with coordination before they gain control of their bodies. But while his friends were growing into their bodies, Sam seemed to be growing out of his. It wasn’t until he was fifteen that a pediatric neurologist diagnosed what was ailing Sam.
I had never heard of Friedreich’s ataxia, though the symptoms Tom described sounded a lot like Lou Gehrig’s disease to me. Gehrig, of course, spent seventeen years with the New York Yankees, playing more consecutive games than any player in baseball history — save for Cal Ripken, Jr. — on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The kid sitting across from me was an unknown, and had not accomplished anything of which I was aware. Sam was in fact not injured, as I had suspected when he entered my office; he was afflicted with a rare disease that betrayed the legs on which he stumbled, and would eventually force him into a wheelchair.
Unlike most high school students who visited my office with their father, Sam Bridgman did not want to be my starting shortstop, my cleanup hitter, or my closer. He did not want a scholarship and he did not want playing time. All he wanted was to be … involved. He had done some service work for the Seattle Mariners and was a manager for his high school team, once the diagnosis brought his playing career to an end just three years earlier. In college, he explained, he was hoping to do the same. That was why he was in my office. Funny: when I met Sam, he wanted to make an impression on the baseball coach. By the end of the meeting, I was hoping it was I who had made a good impression, and that Sam Bridgman would choose the University of Portland, regardless of what Gonzaga was offering.
In the fall of 2008, the University of Portland welcomed a freshman class of 794 bright and talented young men and women, each one eager to leave his mark on campus. University staff and upper class students organized a weekend dedicated to orienting these wide-eyed first-years who had arrived in cars and trucks and minivans, packed to the gunwales with clothing and food and electronics. As I had hoped, one of those new students was Sam Bridgman, who exited the family van on crutches, the tops of which gripped his forearms like the oarlocks of a river skiff. Within an hour, he was back in my office, asking when baseball practice started and when he could begin his job as our team manager.
Throughout the fall, Sam kept performance charts, captured some video of scrimmages, and provided praise and support to the baseball players. By spring term, he was already using his crutches less, relying instead on a wheelchair and a maroon motorized scooter that he drove to class, into the dugout, and onto the field every day. The symptoms of FA were progressing much faster than I had expected. Still, Sam was with us every afternoon and every weekend, watching and cheering as his friends and teammates effortlessly played the game he loved. He missed only occasionally, when the fatigue was unbearable.
The river of baseball failure moves with a notoriously swift and unrelenting current. Players and coaches alike find their egos tethered to the outcomes by which they are measured, floating playfully on the surface when things are going well, and sinking like an anchor when they are not. The tides are unpredictable and storms lurk closely off shore, sometimes turning glass-smooth water into whitecaps before you can return to land. In 2013, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series; a year later they finished last in their division, twenty-five games out of first place. In consecutive seasons, the team had gone from first to worst, and the way baseball viewed the Sox – indeed, the way the Sox viewed themselves – had changed completely and without warning.
In 2010, I coached a very good Pilots team that came within a game of breaking the school record for victories. At one point during the season we won nine straight, lost a game by one run, then ran off eleven more wins in a row. We were nationally ranked for the first time in years, and were on the verge of going to the NCAA tournament. But toward the end of the season we lost nine games in a row, six of them to teams ranked in the Top-25. I was devastated, could not see straight. And Sam Bridgman knew it.
Angry and frustrated with my team’s recent performance, my mood pushing me further from my wife and children, I crossed paths with Sam outside the ballpark one afternoon before practice. I was quiet and Sam spoke first.
“You know, you guys put a lot of time in just to get ready to play a game,” he said, looking up at me through sun-squinted eyes. “Taking the tarp off the field … batting practice … infield practice … grooming the field before the Anthem. How long do you think all that takes?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe three hours. Why?”
“Because,” he said, “that’s how long it takes me just to get ready for school.”
The words cut immediately, shame and embarrassment bleeding from my soul. Before me sat a young man in a wheelchair who would give anything to have played in the nine games we just lost. And here I was, feeling sorry for myself because my team had hit a skid. I’ve never felt more selfish. Sam Bridgman had, in just a few seconds, helped me see clearly what I could not see without him: there are things in life much more important than sports. Although he didn’t say it in so many words, Sam’s message was clear: Quit feeling sorry for yourself and spend a day in my shoes, buddy. Things aren’t as bad as they seem.
In a career that lasted nineteen years, Greg Maddux became the only pitcher in Major League history to win at least fifteen games in seventeen straight seasons. Yet, as he would tell you, Maddux felt his best – he entered the mental state of operation sports psychologists like to call The Zone – only about ten percent of the time he took the mound. He felt his worst just about as often. That leaves 80% of the time that Maddux felt … well, just OK: the back was tight; the shoulder a bit sore; got in a fight with his wife; the field was wet; the umpire was blowing calls; whatever. The problem with The Zone, as Maddux exemplified, is that even the best players are not in it often. Still, they perform. As my friend Ken Ravizza, a renowned sports psychologist, says, “It ain’t about being in The Zone, it’s about having good shitty days.”
Sam has not felt his best since he was a child. No one could blame him if he turned acrid, bitter towards a world that left the others standing among the daisies in the outfield grass, while he struggles in and out of the chairs on which his mobility depends. But in the six years I have known Sam Bridgman, I have seen him have a bad day only once – a single day when the office door closed behind us, and I held him in my arms, and we wept together and cursed his ataxic muscles.
It did not last long.
Friedreich’s ataxia may have slowed Sam down, altered the way he does things, but there is little that he is unable to do. Exercise remains a key part of his health – he trains in the weight room, his body wavering constantly, strained, awkward. He rides a special bike, skis down mountains, and plays basketball – all from a chair, with joy and passion and love.
And with that smile.
So bright, so powerful is Sam’s smile that it seems to find its target from more than one angle, like the morning sun that shines from above the horizon while reflecting off the water below. Unable to squint or look away, the campus community – students, faculty, staff, and administration –embraced Sam for the courageous hero he is. He inspired people from all walks of life and from small offices in every corner of campus. He travels the country to attend FA events. He excelled in school and in work. And he moved a campus and a community to help him raise money and awareness for FA research. Sam’s upbeat presence, while perhaps initially concealed by his lack of mobility and humble demeanor, is quickly revealed, drawing people close to him like an incoming tide that refuses to ebb.
Like Sam, I grew up a son, a brother, a student, a cousin, a nephew, and a friend to so many that I respect and admire. Eventually, I became a husband to a beautiful and talented woman whom I love deeply; a father to three lovely young ladies whose lives hold so much promise; and a coach to some of the finest young men I’ve ever met. By reasonable standards I have been blessed well beyond what I deserve. Yet, I have been jaded by a lifetime of competition that taught the tender boy I once was that the only thing that mattered was outperforming the opponent. So ingrained is the grotesque belief that my self-worth is entwined with my team’s performance, that losing makes me a bad person who should be isolated from his friends and family.
And then the fog rolls in.
It is human nature to bear the emotions caused by life’s experiences. I still hate losing as much today as I did before I met Sam Bridgman – competitive demons are hard to exorcise – and I still neglect important relationships with my family and friends. They are gracious because they have had a lot of practice dealing with the failures and shortcomings that force me into my shell, salty and unpleasant, like a geoduck resting in the sand. My growth is perhaps evident today only because when the fog does form, I can at least feel my bow bumping along the shore, my props dragging in the silt below. In those moments, I am quicker to think of Sam, to allow his wonderfully strong and powerfully positive smile to warm the air and burn away the fog, ultimately guiding me to port safely.
Sam Bridgman touched the lives of fellow students, professors, staff, and administrators at the University of Portland. The day he graduated, he stood from his wheelchair and walked, with great effort and help from strength coaches Brad Scott and Cat Wade, to collect his diploma from Fr. Bill Beauchamp. More than 5,000 people stood and cheered.
I was a part of the University of Portland for more than thirty years. In that time, I was in the Chiles Center to see seventeen year-old Boris Becker win the Louisiana Pacific Coast Invitational, just months before winning the singles championship at Wimbledon; I heard a speech from President Ronald Reagan; listened to John Denver; saw Robin Williams do stand-up; and thoroughly enjoyed the times when the basketball teams beat BYU, Gonzaga, Oregon, and St. Mary’s. I suppose I would be lying if I said the Chiles Center was never louder than the day Sam Bridgman walked across the stage, but not by much. And never was another person or team showed more respect. It was arguably my proudest moment, and that of the University that embraced Sam Bridgman.
When asked about his life with Friedreich’s ataxia, Sam replies, honestly and with wisdom and maturity beyond his years, “My brain still works, my smile still works, and the things I feel in my heart still work.”
With those words, I can see clearly once again.
— Chris Sperry, Baseball/Life