TEMPE, Ariz. — Sheldon Davidson braces against the arms of his wheelchair, shakily rises and shuffles into a slight turn. Sliding his hands through the slots of his crutches, he steadies himself, takes the first stilted steps toward the finish line.
Kids scream as they race past. Hundreds of runners buzz in conversation. The boisterous voice of the race announcer blares across Sun Devil Stadium.
Davidson doesn’t look up, doesn’t make a sound, his focus solely on that checkered line ahead.
Step by agonizing step, he stabs a crutch into the turf, then a foot. Stab. Step. Stab. Step.
Sweat streaming from under his Arizona Cardinals cap, Davidson makes his slow-but-determined journey across the grass under the hot desert sun, arms straining against the crutches, legs wobbling as his daughter lingers a step behind, just in case.
These final 42 yards are his.
The stroke that left him partially paralyzed, contorted his mouth to one side and nearly took his life — none of it was going to stop him from finishing upright.
By the midpoint of Davidson’s final march, everyone in the stadium has turned their attention to the solitary man with the singular purpose, screams of encouragement echoing off the empty seats in the upper reaches.
Inspired by their support and the memory of someone he never met, Davidson staggers past the banners and balloons, the cameras and kids, across the raised line in the middle of a football field before collapsing back into his chair.
“I wish I could have walked more, been able to give more support,” Davidson said after completing his difficult trek this past April.
If he only knew how much he had already done.
I first met Davidson at his Mesa home in the summer of 2011.
Sitting in his living room with slivers of the asphalt-melting sun peeking through, Davidson quietly wept as he talked about his hero, Pat Tillman, and why, even after his stroke, he continues to do the 4.2-mile run in honor of the fallen football-star-turned-soldier.
I had gone to Davidson’s house to speak to him for a story I was writing about the living legacy of Tillman, the former NFL player killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004. The idea was to talk to people whose lives were genuinely changed by the programs set up in Tillman’s name or just by the memory of the man.
Of the nearly two dozen extraordinary people I interviewed, Davidson stuck out the most.
Davidson’s only contact with Tillman was to tell him good game once at Arizona State, yet was so moved by his story, his beliefs, that he vowed to run at a charity race in Tillman’s honor every year.
Even after a stroke paralyzed the left side of his body in 2007, Davidson continued to do Pat’s Run.
The first year he was pushed by his daughter, Jennifer Goins. In the years after that, he walked for stretches whenever he had the strength.
Disabled and in his early 60s, Davidson doesn’t need to put himself through this. Doctors even told him to avoid trying to get around without his wheelchair, much less walk across an uneven football field on crutches.
That wasn’t going to stop the man friends and family call Shelly.
A military police officer for the Army during the Vietnam War, Davidson feels a deep, indescribable connection with Tillman. And because Tillman never allowed good enough to be good enough, Davidson pushes himself through the run every year, finishing those final 42 yards — Tillman’s jersey number — on his own, never letting the searing pain that runs through his body or the spirit-sapping fatigue get in his way.
This run, this one day of the year, means everything to Davidson.
“Even though his journey was cut short, I just wanted to keep going,” he told me that day more than a year ago. “I felt like it was the least I could do after everything he gave.”
Leaving his house that day, fighting back tears of my own, I knew I wanted to do the 2012 run with Davidson and his daughter.
Pat’s Run started in 2004 as a gathering of friends and family who wanted to celebrate Tillman’s life shortly after his death.
It has since ballooned into an event that draws 30,000 people from all over the country and has become the major fundraiser for the Pat Tillman Foundation, an organization created to help fill gaps in the GI Bill.
Fueled by Pat’s Run, the foundation has raised over $5 million, with $3.2 million of that going to the Tillman Military Scholars, a program developed to help servicemen and their family members earn degrees or complete certificate programs.
“It was started as a celebration of Pat’s life; no one thought of it as a fundraiser,” said Marcy Fileccia, deputy director of the Pat Tillman Foundation. “It’s amazing how far it has come.”
Pat’s Run sold out in advance for the first time in its history this year, drawing 28,000 runners to Tempe. There also were 2,600 kids who did the shorter version of the run and another 1,200 who did shadow runs in 25 cities.
Combined with the volunteers, the race involved over 35,000 people and raised more than $1 million.
The field isn’t your typical race crowd.
The lean-and-long 5K regulars are there, in the front, pushing the button on their watches and running full-out until they cross the line.
Behind them are people from all walks of life, abled and disabled, fit and unfit, newborns in strollers to 90-year-olds still limber enough to trot along a course that crosses the highway and circles back to Sun Devil Stadium.
During the 2012 race, a blind woman ran while holding the arm of another runner, several others were led by guide dogs. Dozens of runners with artificial limbs streamed through the crowd, dozens more rolled through in wheelchairs.
Members of all branches of the military were everywhere.
A disproportionate number of the runners were a bit disproportionate themselves, overweight but still pushing their legs to run, walking to catch their breath so they could run again.
Tillman spent his life reaching for greatness. The people who run in his honor strain beyond their comfort levels to do things they never thought possible.
“There’s a lot of different stories of people out there who just do the best they can, overcome the odds,” said Tony Alba, the Tillman Foundation’s marketing communications manager.
Davidson’s story had me up well before dawn last April 21, wondering why races start at a time when I’ve usually just gotten to bed.
Unable to find Jenn and Shelly in the mass of people at the starting line and with no cellphone service, I had no choice but to wait around the first corner of the course, knowing only that they were in one of the last groups. After more than two hours, they finally came wheeling up from the back, what I figured to be the 27,997th and 27,998th people to come through.
Shelly was in good spirits, which was nice to see since Jenn said he hadn’t been feeling well. The sun was brutally hot — on its way to becoming the first 100-degree day of the year — and was taking its toll on Jenn, who has asthma and needed her inhaler several times.
A couple of times going over hills, I got the honor of pushing a war veteran, soaking in the words of encouragement clearly meant for him but filled me with pride nonetheless.
About halfway through the race, Shelly climbed from his wheelchair and shuffled around to the back so he could push Jenn for about 50 yards, a juxtaposition that caused many of his fellow runners to watch and yell words of encouragement. He did it again closer to the finish, drawing the same reactions.
The true act of inspiration came after we walked through the stadium tunnel onto the football field grass.
Wobbling his way up, Shelly lifted out of his chair and into the slots of is crutches, taking the first shaky steps mostly unnoticed.
Davidson’s dash has become a tradition at Pat’s Run, so it wasn’t long until the crowd, with help from the race announcer, picked up on the last half of his march and started cheering.
I, on the other hand, was busy trying to get a good angle to take photos while jotting down notes on what was going on around the stadium. By the time Shelly crossed the finish line, I realized I had been so caught up with work that I had forgotten to bring his wheelchair to the finish line, as Jenn had asked me to.
Then Sheldon Davidson forced me to take notice of his moment.
Working our way through the crowd after the race, past the shouts of “Way to go!” and pats on the back, we went out to the concourse to get away from the noise.
I chatted with Jenn for a few minutes, then turned to ask her father how it went.
Leaning down to hear what he was saying, I looked under the brim of his hat and saw just what the day had meant to him.
While Jenn and I were talking, Shelly had been sitting in his wheelchair reflecting on Tillman, on finishing another run in his honor, doing it on his own, no matter how hard it had been.
As he looked up to answer my question, tears streamed down his face, leaving dark blots on his red race shirt.
Jenn told me this week that Shelly has spent the past three months in the hospital after two bouts of aspiration pneumonia.
I fully expect him to make it through this, find a way to do Pat’s Run again next spring, inspiring everyone around him by strapping on those crutches again.
When he does, I’ll be there with him.
This time, I’m bringing my 10-year-old daughter so she can see what a hero looks like up close.
Sign-ups started on Sunday, Veteran’s Day, and she’s excited about it.
So am I.