So, the first phone call. This call didn’t go to the kid. It couldn’t – I didn’t know the kid’s name, just knew he was a member of the Lawrence Central football team. Knew he had a story.
So I called the coach at Lawrence Central, a young man named Jed Richman. He has stories up and down his roster, football stories like the running back headed to the University of Cincinnati and the punter ranked among the country’s best. Academic stories like the whole roster, dogged for years by academic underachievement, giving up Saturday mornings to attend study tables. Special things are happening with the football team at Lawrence Central, but this story, my story? The most special.
The most delicate too. This is how I started the phone call to Jed Richman:
“I’m calling about a kid on your team. I don’t know his name, but he has a story, and, um, I don’t know exactly how to say this but …”
“His name is Emanuel Duncan,” Richman said.
Tell me about Emanuel, I said.
* * *
So, the prognosis.
It’s terminal, this disease that has Emanuel Duncan in a wheelchair. Teenagers with Duchenne muscular dystrophy often don’t see their 20s. Emanuel Duncan is 19. He doesn’t know how much time he has, doesn’t even ponder the question. His coach is hoping he can graduate next spring. His mom is hoping he can mark off the final item on his bucket list, but she doesn’t know what it is and asks me to find out. (And I did, Mom; I’ll tell you in a minute.)
Emanuel isn’t hoping for a damn thing. He’s planning his future, because that’s the kind of kid he is. Some have lived into their 30s and 40s with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), and Emanuel is thinking of being a football coach, which he is right now. He’s a football coach at Lawrence Central, a student-coach, though he’s more than that.
“If Emanuel’s up, we’re up,” says the punter, Nash Griffin. “He’s the morale of the team.”
Duchenne muscular dystrophy turns muscles into fat, which is why Emanuel’s foot started dragging when he was 13, tipping off his mom that something was wrong. It’s why his hands aren’t cooperating like they used to. It’s why he’s the fastest wheelchair driver this side of the Mississippi. Eventually, Duchenne comes after the heart – it’s a muscle, you know – and in recent weeks Emanuel has been dealing with an irregular heartbeat. He’s seeing a specialist.
He’s thinking ahead, to his career. He could coach. He could work for a team in NASCAR or Indy Car, maybe as a crew chief. Maybe driving the car. Don’t you dare park Emanuel Duncan in some stupid box. He’ll rev up his wheelchair to 6 mph and run you out of his way.
“That’s how I met you,” Jed Richman was telling Emanuel the day I visited football practice, one coach smiling at the other. “You were going down the hall so fast, I had to jump out of the way!”
Emanuel is smiling, and explaining.
“I heard the fight song,” he says.
See, this is what they do at Lawrence Central: Kids have seven minutes between classes, and after six minutes the loudspeakers play the school fight song – Hail to the Victors, also the fight song at Michigan. When Emanuel Duncan hears the fight song, he knows it’s time to get moving. Until the song plays? He has people to talk to. He’s one of the most popular kids at Lawrence Central, Emanuel Duncan is. He knows almost everybody, and if by chance he doesn’t know you, he’ll talk to you anyway.
He’ll say something funny, maybe about your glasses.
That’s how this whole thing started.
* * *
The kid’s glasses were just goofy. A year ago Bryan Rutland had some cool specs, big old black plastic frames like the ones worn by LeBron James – remember that name, OK? – but Rutland broke those glasses playing baseball, and now he was wearing a small pair of knockoff frames. And Emanuel Duncan couldn’t let it go.
“Those glasses are too small,” were pretty much the first words Emanuel said this past spring to Rutland, a star receiver on the football team. “Your head’s too big.”
A few months later Bryan Rutland told him the football team needed him.
Football? Emanuel Duncan didn’t know much about football. Plus, the wheelchair. Football? This is what he said to Rutland:
“You for real?”
Yeah, he was. Rutland had already gone to his coach, though Jed Richman is more than a coach at Lawrence Central. He’s a force of nature, the kind of coach any parent would be thrilled to have working at their kid’s school. Richman and his staff spend those seven minutes between classes in the halls, mingling with kids, lifting them up. Rutland had seen that. And he thought Emanuel Duncan could use some lifting. He sent Richman a text message.
Can we get this guy involved?
Sure, Richman said. Then he spoke to Emanuel and laid it out: You’re not a manager, but a coach. Don’t pick up cups and footballs. Pick up us.
“He’s so inspirational,” Richman was telling me. “He’s a coach – he’s my coach. He has this great moxie about him, and he always knows the right thing to say. He’s in a guy’s ear after a tough play or a tough practice.”
This is what Bryan Rutland had in mind. Understand, Rutland wasn’t doing Emanuel a favor. He was thinking of himself and his team. He was thinking: We need some of what Emanuel has.
“He’s so inspirational,” Rutland says. “When you think about yourself and you feel down, man, other people are going through worse. I don’t complain about anything anymore. Against North Central I had a fever, 103 (degrees), and I didn’t tell anybody. Everybody’s sick, everybody has a fever.
“Emmanuel is going through something way worse than a fever. I just played. It was raining and cold. I just played. Look at Emanuel! He’s so upbeat. He doesn’t talk about it.”
Right. It. Spend a little time with Emanuel, talk to his coaches and teammates about him, and you can forget about it. And aren’t you lucky?
* * *
So, the bucket list.
Emanuel’s mom, Robin Kimp, doesn’t know what’s on it anymore. Her son went to ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn., thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He talked with Stephen A. Smith. He could have talked to Smith’s partner on First Take, Skip Bayless, but he didn’t.
“I don’t like Skip Bayless,” Emanuel says, and if you didn’t love him yet, you do now.
Emanuel has been to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s seen the cars, the mechanics. He joined a wheelchair soccer team and went to Florida for a tournament. Scored a goal. Bucket list stuff, crossed off.
Look, this kid’s hell on wheels. Next time you’re on 71st Street, keep an eye out for the little black sports car. That’s no car, silly. That’s Emanuel, wheeling a mile or so to Walmart or the Dollar Store or wherever he wants to go, because that’s how he lives this life he was given. To the best of his ability, he does what he wants.
What does he want? I ask him for his bucket list. And this is what he says:
“My bucket list is to meet LeBron,” he tells me. “That’s the one thing I want to do. Meet LeBron James. That’s my role model. He inspires me to do everything. To be a good person, to put other people first, to live your life and do what makes you happy. If I meet LeBron James, that would make my day. I wouldn’t ask for anything.”
Doyel: Butler soccer, local woman make magic
I tell Emanuel that LeBron is a great guy and would no doubt be honored to meet him. I tell him, let’s see if the Cleveland Cavaliers are coming to Bankers Life Fieldhouse this season to play the Pacers. Emanuel and I have talked several times, in person and on the phone, and now we’re on the phone and I’m telling him to wait as I look up the Pacers’ sched–
“They’re here Feb. 1,” he tells me.
How did you get that so fast?
“I’ve got the Cavaliers app on my phone.”
LeBron would be lucky to meet this kid. It’s like what Bryan Rutland was thinking when he tried to get Emanuel Duncan on the team. The football team needs, LeBron needs – everyone needs – a little bit of what Emanuel Duncan has.
Find Star columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel