I first met him in a crowded high school hallway. He was down on hands and knees trying to pick up his books, while a group of students were kicking them down the hall poking fun at him. Sadly, he was laughing right along with them. When he got back up, I noticed his right leg was cruelly bent. He disappeared into a sea of students dragging it behind him. I prayed that I would see him again soon.
The next time I came to school I spotted him eating alone in the corner of the cafeteria. I could have avoided him. He wasn’t the kind that would attract other students to the popular meeting I led each week. But something drew me to him. We struck up a conversation, and soon after I initiated a mentoring relationship. His name was Raymond Rice.
Raymond, a Native American, grew up with an abusive father. He had contracted polio, which twisted his right leg inward at a severe angle. It made his gait painful to watch. He was orphaned as a small child, carted from house to house, until finally a family adopted him. His complexion was darker than most of the kids in his Scandinavian community. He had always been the brunt of cruel jokes.
One day we discussed how the Bible called life a race, and the importance of striving to win that race every day. Raymond confided that he didn’t see himself ever running in such a way as to win. But, one day things began to change. We were hanging out in his room. It was late August, and we were discussing what he could do to make his senior year really count. He wanted to touch people, leave a spiritual legacy behind. He wanted to find his race and win the prize. We ran through some options, but none seemed valid. Then I mentioned the idea of him going out for the cross-country team. Silence. Raymond starred back at me as if a knife had gone through his spleen.
“The cross country team,” he breathed, almost too low to hear. I couldn’t tell if he was mad, or just exasperated.
“Yea, right,” he finally said. So, I dropped the subject. On the way home I had a knot in my stomach. Had I gone too far? Was it fair to ask an invalid to do something as crazy as join the cross-country team? ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘this isn’t going well. Could you just open Raymond’s eyes to your special plan for him?’
Later that day I got a call from Raymond.
“I’m on the team!”
“What team?” I asked. “The cross-country team,” he said excitedly. “I just called the coach; I’m in!”
Raymond had told the coach that he didn’t want to be an exception because he was handicapped. He would do whatever the rest of the runners had to do, no matter how long it took. Several days’ later cross-country practice began. I knew several runners on the team, and would occasionally run with the squad. I will never forget how Raymond limped up to the other guys, smiled and introduced himself. I remember thinking that this couldn’t be the same guy who just 6 months earlier had sprawled out in the school hallway collecting his books. The other runners looked curious, but didn’t say anything. The coach looked uncomfortable. Raymond began to limber up.
He never missed a step of an assigned run. Day after day he was dead last in every workout, by a country mile at least! Pretty soon, his teammates began to ask why he joined the team. Raymond would smile and shrug his shoulders, and keep right on going.
Gradually, the guy’s skepticism turned to respect. Not only did Raymond do every workout, but also while he ran, he would yell out encouragement to the other runners. They seemed to get strength from him. If Raymond could do this with one twisted leg, they could certainly do it with a two perfectly good ones. He began a Bible study with interested students that met once a week on Fridays. They wanted to learn about what motivated him to push through such overwhelming obstacles. Suddenly, Raymond was beginning to see the fruit of his dream to make a difference.
On the very last day of practice the coach showed up with a grocery bag tucked under his arm. He loaded the team on a bus and drove them down town. After stretching out, he called them together and announced that their last practice would be in honor of someone who had epitomized the spirit of the team. He pulled a shirt out of the bag and gave it to Raymond. It simply read, “Raymond Rice Day,” and gave the date. In the center was a huge picture of Raymond grinning like he usually did. The coach told him to put it on, and the team applauded. When it was time to run they insisted that he go to the head of pack, and they ran the entire three miles around the lake, behind him.
My lasting image of Raymond will always be his first day of practice. The team was already on the activity buses ready to go home. The coach looked at his watch, pacing the walkway. Then suddenly I spotted him coming up the hill, panting like a locomotive, contorting his frame, pushing beyond reason. I starred in disbelief, along with everyone else as he smiled and headed for the showers. I smiled too, because I knew God had enabled the least likely to rise above social and physical challenges.
Just the kind of work He loves to show off.