Faces In The Crowd Bring Clarity

My hand accepts a paper cup anonymously extending outward from behind an orange water cooler. The cup feels cool to my fingertips.

“Thank you,” I said.

Turning back towards my bike, my legs feeling heavier than when I began the 84-mile trek, I hear an unexpected reply.

“No, thank you. Thank you for riding for my wife.”

Pausing, the words settle in. I turn and walk back to the voice.

“Excuse me,” I said. “What did you mean by thanking me for riding for your wife?”

Thousands of people are riding on this day. Literally speaking, 13,000 people will be cycling from Houston to La Grange during the first leg of a two-day bike ride. In 2015 the BP MS150 raised over $20 million towards funding research into finding a cure to multiple sclerosis (MS) – a chronic and unpredictable disease of the central nervous system.

The voice is kind, with kind eyes and a bushy beard.

“My wife. She has MS. Had it since 2002.”

Tending to the orange coolers ahead of him he shares of how his wife keeps MS in the background of her life, continuing to teach elementary school and not telling everyone about her journey.

“She refuses to let MS define her.”

Discreetly he points to the other end of the tables of volunteers.

“That’s her down there,” he said. Pride fills his voice.

Suddenly I see who I’m riding for – a face beyond the five black digits printed on the orange wristband circling my wrist. She’s smiling, inviting riders to grab a drink or a snack from the tables in front of her. But now I know she carries a secret, one shared only those of her choosing. And I’m riding for her.

But over the next couple hours I learn I’m riding for others as well.

In a town with population stretching on its toes to be north of two hundred, people lined the roads for the parade of cyclists. A single stoplight offered suggestions, but the sheriff’s car directs riders to pass through without pause.

To my right I spotted another sign.

“Thank you for riding for me – I can’t. I have MS.”

And again, I discover another face.

I stop and say hello. Sitting in a folding chair, she told me about how she’d wrestled with MS for decades – going through a myriad of test and treatments.

“I used to be active,” she said. “But when MS hits me, I’d lose all sense of my legs. They can treat it, but no matter how good it gets – even on my best days – I’m never up to the level of energy or ability as before.”

She smiles and we shake hands as I clip back into my bike.

As the miles accumulate, I recognize I am now part of something much larger than when I began the day. For me, I now know hidden between the thousands of faces are those who are counting on me to do what they can’t.

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Big Heart Comes in Big Package

The biggest hands I ever shook are also tied to one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever met.

My childhood was a different place from today. Parents shooed their children out the door, telling them to not come back except to eat. Kids treated their bikes like chariots, carrying them on explorations. And professional athletes earned modest salaries, many of them holding second jobs or taking in roommates so share the expenses.

And in the world of my childhood, a non-descript middle-class neighborhood located in an equally non-descript middle-western city, lived a lineman for the local professional football team. Cul-de-sacs were as common as dandelions in our community, each providing a gentle service of reminding you to continue your journey elsewhere. And one day at the end of one such street was a giant of man shooting basketballs towards the backboard installed above his garage.

Charlie, as we got to know him, was an offensive lineman for the local professional football team. With legs the thickness of tree trunks, his massive hands grasped a basketball like most would a grapefruit. And from his face, from where a Sampson-like beard grew, came a powerful, yet gentle, voice.

I’m not sure how our pickup games began. He could’ve waved us over one day or a friend told us to stop by. But at an impressionable age, my friends and I began playing afterschool pick up games with our new neighbor.

Charlie was a titan of a man by any physical measure. What I now recognize, as a parent and adult, he was also a giant of a man on the inside – positively influencing our lives during a critical point of our youth.

Back then, professional athletes were not celebrities. Interestingly, Charlie, who was a second round draft choice and would play offensive tackle for a decade in the NFL, barely attracted the attention of his neighbors. And similarly, to us kids, he was just Charlie.

What I remember of those afternoons were the grounded discussions we’d share between games. He’d ask about what was going on in our lives, listen, and warmly nod his head. Being a man of faith, he’d also answer questions we might have about life and God. His hand in our lives at the time was as steady as the legs we’d bounce off trying to sneak an inside layup.

We also learned his life was difficult and filled with pain.

“Every Sunday is like being in a car wreck,” he once said to us. On Mondays he’d move differently – the weight of the previous day’s game still physically taxing his body.

But he always smiled, shared laughs, and demonstrated to us how to be men. Respect others, be kind, work hard, and never forget our place in the universe, he’d say.

I do not have Charlie’s autograph. As a matter of fact, it never occurred to us to ask. And I guess, in the end, this demonstrates Charlie’s lessons successfully took hold in each of us.

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