Generally speaking, the Musial Awards are intended to honor extraordinary moments of sportsmanship that take place over the past year. But tonight, as we mark 10 years of the event in St. Louis, we break slightly from tradition to celebrate a wonderfully uplifting story that occurred in May 2012. That year, we missed out on honoring John Blaine, Matt Woodrum and Matt’s classmates for a heartwarming display of determination, caring and compassion. Our 10th anniversary celebration tonight gives us a chance to go back and recognize them for their remarkable sportsmanship – albeit a few years overdue.
“Just because I’m handicapped doesn’t mean I can’t try.”
— Matt Woodrum
Grade school field day is usually a nice, little celebration that ends a school year. Matt Woodrum and John Blaine elevated it to a celebration of perseverance and breaking boundaries and school spirit that inspired people worldwide.
Diagnosed as an infant with spastic cerebral palsy, Matt is challenged by walking, let alone running. But when Mr. Blaine, Matt’s PE teacher, told him about field day, Matt said he wanted to run the toughest and longest race, the 400 meters.
“He has the heart of an athlete, just not the body that allows it,” said his mom, Anne Curran. “In fact, I was a little worried he might overdo it, but I tied his shoes tighter and he lined up.”
Matt fell behind quickly and seemed to tire, so Mr. Blaine ran to his side and asked, “You’re not going to quit, are you?”
“No way,” Matt said. So Mr. Blaine stayed by Matt’s side.
“I am not surprised Mr. Blaine joined Matt,” Anne said. “He always seemed proud of Matt’s determination to run no matter what.”
A few students, some of whom had finished the race, saw Mr. Blaine encouraging Matt and joined the pair, chanting “Let’s go, Matt, let’s go,” which turned into a rallying cry for the school. By the end of the race, nearly the entire student body followed Matt, cheering as he crossed the finish line.
“Many of Matt’s able-bodied peers opted out of that race because it’s too hard,” John said. “I was proud that they recognized that not all victors cross the finish line first.”
From Colonial Hill Elementary School outside Columbus, Ohio, the video inspired people worldwide.
“A soldier in Afghanistan saw it and wrote to say, every morning when he wakes and is sore and puts on his boots in the hot sand, he will rise and think of Matt and keep going,” Anne said. “We never thought it would affect people around the world, but it’s a blessing.”
Three years later, the video continues to inspire. Matt and his family and Mr. Blaine have done hundreds of interviews. The story has been retold by ESPN, in a children’s book, and now at the Musial Awards.
“Who finished first in that race that day? No one is able to answer that question,” John said. “But when I ask who finished last, everyone can answer that Matt did. Matt’s victory is a lesson to us all. Great feats of effort, determination and perseverance are valued, supported, recognized, and celebrated, even by a bunch of 10- and 11-year-old kids.”
A freshman in high school, Matt still loves to run. “He puts holes in his shoes, dragging the left foot so much, so it’s hard to keep up buying them,” Anne said. The Musial Award, though, belongs not just to Matt but to the teacher whose encouragement inspired Matt, his classmates and the world.
“He has a special place in his heart for John Blaine,” Anne said, “because John never told him ‘no’ to running.”