Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Fighting Dictators

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In the 1980s, Michael J. Fox was one of pop culture’s biggest stars.  For young boys he was a cool as it gets; for adolescent girls, his posters occupied prime real estate on bedroom walls. 

Fox rose to prominence playing the right-leaning, Ronald Reagan loving Alex P. Keaton in the hit television series “Family Ties”.  His on-screen charm quickly transcended the small screen via the role of a lifetime: the DeLorean-driving, time-travelling, guitar shredding Marty McFly in the iconic “Back to the Future” trilogy.  Somehow avoiding the Keaton/McFly typecast, Fox successfully returned to television in the 1990s on the show “Spin City”.

Life, of course, is never only about adoring fans and blockbuster films, literally or figurative.  And it certainly hasn’t been for Fox.  Not-so-great news arrived in 1991: Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  The actor would now have to figure out how this curve ball would impact a role he had been playing his whole life – that of Michael J. Fox.

Fox’s 2009 autobiography, “Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist” offers a powerful window into this evolution.  The title is a humorous play on Fox’s modest 5’4” stature and a direct introduction to the essence of the book - an inspirational story on coping with challenging circumstances.  Fox addresses many topics – his youth, career milestones, alcoholism, family life, parenthood, religion and his political fight for stem cell research – but the book is centered on a brutally honest account of his daily and progressive struggles with PD.

I just finished the book and am not ashamed to say that it stirred considerable emotion.  One excerpt, among many, that resonated was how Fox talked about fighting the progression of PD tooth and nail so that it did not dictate how he lived his life. 

The concept of a life-dictating force – and resisting it - is powerful.  The dictators are everywhere - some realized, some anticipated others inevitable.  They arrive early, on-schedule or by complete surprise.  No one avoids them all. 

The connections with sports are obvious.  There are many reasons for sports’ broad appeal; one that transcends teams and rivalries is an underlying appreciation for the journey each athlete took just to make it and the challenges all face in dodging dictating forces - day to day, week to week and year to year - to remain on the field, the ice or the court.   

In the ever-present battle between athlete and dictator, there are many inspiring stories of human achievement.  Let’s start with a trio of quarterbacks.  Tom Brady’s battle against age is redefining paradigms.  Russell Wilson, all 5’10” of him, successfully overcame the naysayers who labeled him too short for the NFL.  Lamar Jackson, “cursed” by elite athleticism, was once now infamously dismissed by former NFL executive Bill Polian as nothing more than potential NFL wide receiver.  

When considering athletes who have defeated the dictation of injury, I think of our World Series champion Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman (shoulder, foot), Howie Kendrick (Achilles), Trey Turner (broken hand/finger), Stephen Strasburg (elbow) all fought their own battles against serious injury to make October magic.  NBA players DeMarr DeRozan and Kevin Love have braved struggles with and removed stigmas attached to mental health.  Washington Mystics All-Star Elena Della Donne persevered through chronic Lyme disease.  Former Washington defensive tackle Tony McGee, one of “The Black 14” – 14 African American players kicked off the 1969 University of Wyoming football team for seeking a way to protest the prejudice policies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – made it to the NFL despite the overt racism present in a desegregated America.  For years, female athletes fought for equal access and equal institutional support; the US Women’s National Team has renewed the fight for equal pay.  And so many athletes have made it despite seemingly insurmountable social and/or economic conditions.

Age, injury, illness, racism, sexism, un-even access to opportunity, unconventional and misunderstood talent – these are just a few of the dictators that threaten what we do, how far we go…fundamentally how we live our lives.  Encounters are inevitable; as Michael J. Fox and the sports world prove, capitulation is not.

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