Open up to the back page of Sports Illustrated on any given week and you'll see the sports world in black and white. In the life of columnist Rick Reilly, there are two types of sports personalities. There are the villains who embody everything that is wrong with sports, like Yankee fans, Canadians, and the antichrist Barry Bonds, and then there are the virtuous heroes who transcend the realm of athletics with their noble actions, such as Roger Federer, Lance Armstrong, and any person who plays sports with a disability.
"Every athlete has a different body type. Just like everyone else, I was out to do the best I could."
So it is not surprising that in September 2005, Reilly brought national attention to the story of Bobby Martin. Though he was born without legs, Martin played high school football for Colonel White High School in Dayton, Ohio. Since he was never comfortable with prosthetics, Martin swings across the field on his arms at breakneck speeds, running the 40-yard dash in just over six seconds. As a backup nose tackle and special-teams player his senior year, he racked up 41 assisted tackles, 7 solo tackles, 3 sacks, 6 hurries, and a fumble recovery.
Though his stats were impressive, the media frenzy that surrounded Martin was not ignited until a ref disqualified him from a game during halftime for not wearing shoes. The absurdity of a ref demanding that a player without legs wear shoes, coupled with the callous comments of a Cincinnati radio host (since fired) who dismissed Martin as a "freakshow," caught the attention of the national press. Soon Martin and his high school were fielding interview requests from ESPN, the Boston Globe, Oprah, and of course, Reilly. When they discovered that Martin was charming, funny, and confident, the media realized that this story had legs.
Meanwhile, Martin also is working on an autobiography of his experiences that he says will be released in the fall. And he has parlayed his story into sponsorships with companies like Under Armour and Velocity Gym. (Martin says his agent is working on a sponsorship deal with Powerade.)Though the typical Martin story is framed as his triumph over adversity, he's also been accused of using his disability to gain an unfair advantage. When Martin used to wrestle, the competitors he grappled with were all in his weight class, but because of the distribution of his weight, Martin's upper body was disproportionately strong. Martin marched undefeated through his local conference all the way through to the state championship, where he finally lost after tearing his rotator cuff. Throughout his wrestling career, Martin perceived that some people thought it was unfair of him to compete. Though nothing was said to him explicitly, he was sure that people noticed a wrestler with a torso that weighed as much as other kids' whole bodies. Despite this advantage, Martin tells Gelf he had no qualms about competing. (He also thinks that South African sprinter and Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who runs in prosthetics, should be able to compete against able-bodied competitors.) "Every athlete has a different body type," Martin says. "And just like anyone else, I was out to do the best I could."
In fact, Martin thinks that his disability can be an asset in football as well. It allows him to surprise his opponents with his strength and keep a very low center of gravity, a key for any lineman. Just don't label him as disabled. "The word 'disabled' makes me think there is something I'm supposed to be but I'm not," Martin says. "God made me the way he wanted to make me, distinctive and recognizable."
Related in Gelf: An interview with Rick Reilly.