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Old friends

I chatted today with one of my oldest friends. She lives on the other side of the country; we don’t talk often, and I see her even less frequently.  Anne and I met in kindergarten, and despite the fundamental differences in our personalities and interests, she was probably the person outside of my family who I spent the most time with during my childhood.

I started thinking about the significance of old friends today after Anne and I hung up. I was telling her how much my son Michael misses sports, as he’s recovering from ACL repair, and she asked if it was okay for him to swim. I told her that yes, it was, but that I’d asked him, and he didn’t really want to go to the pool. And besides, I told her, he’s really not a great swimmer.

Without missing a beat, Anne said, “Oh, so THAT’S something you passed along to him!” She’s absolutely right. I can swim, but I didn’t learn how to swim until much later than all of my peers, and it’s something I’m not particularly skilled at. At camp, my friends (including Anne, by the way) passed swim test after swim test, learned to dive, and passed lifeguarding classes. I never made it past the beginner swim group (which was obvious to everyone, because back in the day, at our Girl Scout camp, we wore colored swim caps that indicated which level we were in, and I spent summer after summer wearing that stupid red cap).

What struck me was that a little detail that most people don’t know about me was right at the front of Anne’s mind, decades later.

This is what’s so great about old friends. They share the little secrets that seemed so important when we were kids — the things that don’t matter so much now, but helped shape who we’ve become as adults. I’d bet Anne remembers who my first crush was. I know I remember hers. I know that her elbow had a handful of tiny pebbles in it, because she’d fallen (off her bike, I think), and the scrape was never completely cleaned out. Anne knows that for whatever reason, in 5th grade, I volunteered to play the baritone horn in band. And that because she was more than a few inches taller than me, stronger and more athletic, I would carry her flute home, and she would carry home my baritone.

Anne knows that I was a nerdy perfectionist. I know she was a much better athlete than I was (mostly, I think, because I was never interested in playing sports as a kid). I know she had a paper route (because I took it over for her one week when she was on vacation, and gained a new respect for her when I experienced how difficult it was). But we were both good students who loved to read. We rode our bikes, made prank phone calls, and watched episodes of the Brady Bunch.

I only remember getting into one fight with Anne. We were about 10 or 11, and as was the style, we were wearing tube tops, which at the time, neither of us had any business wearing. I can’t remember what the fight was about. But it’s the only fight I’ve ever had that turned physical. Let me just put it this way: you can’t be an adolescent girl wearing a tube top and throw a punch without things getting weird. I remember the fight ending when we noticed our tube tops were around our waists, and we started laughing.

Now that’s something only an old friend can appreciate.

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An unlikely connection.

What does a 25-year-old, 300-pound NFL offensive tackle have in common with a 60-pound 9-year-old kid who played one season of flag football in third grade before deciding that it was too early and too chilly to ever want to do it again?

Not much. And everything.

Throughout Michael’s journey of having his meniscus and ACL repaired at such a young age, there have been few perks for him. Thankfully, we live in a suburb of New York City, so we’ve been able to get him excellent orthopedic care at Hospital for Special Surgery. And because we see surgeons there, on occasion, Michael has gotten to meet a professional athlete who is also being treated by these surgeons. The doctor who performed Michael’s meniscus surgery in October happens to be the team orthopedist for the Knicks, and we bumped into J.R. Smith just a few hours before the surgery.

A month and a half later, Dave took Michael to the hospital for his first post-op appointment after his ACL repair, and to have his stitches removed. On the way down the hallway, they briefly saw a man so large and athletic looking that they assumed he was a football player. And that man – Kansas City Chiefs offensive guard Jeff Allen – saw Michael as well.

jeff allen

Curious and concerned that someone so young had appeared to have undergone such a serious procedure, Jeff asked the office staff if he could say hello to Michael, and maybe offer him some reassurance. After all, he was here for a surgical follow-up with the same doctor for his own season-ending injury. Unfortunately, Michael was already in an exam room, having stitches removed from his five incisions, and the staff thought it would be best not to disturb him.

wheelchair

Thankfully, though, the office staff told Dave and Michael that the man they’d seen in the waiting room  had wanted to say hello, but had already left the office. With privacy laws in place, they couldn’t provide his name, but since Michael and Dave had seen him, they went online and quickly figured out who it was. Dave decided to take to Twitter to track down Jeff Allen, thank him for trying to meet Michael, and see if he could somehow connect the two. After a few days, Michael received an e-mail from Jeff Allen:

Hey Mike! I didn’t get to formally meet you. My name is Jeff Allen and I play offensive line for the Kansas City Chiefs. I saw you in passing while you were in a wheelchair at HSS and I wondered what happened to this little guy! I’m so sorry you have to go through this, but know everything happens for a reason and it’ll only make you stronger. I’m also on the road to recovery just like you. I tore my bicep tendon during the first game of the year and had to get surgery. I decided to fly all the way to New York from Kansas City to get my surgery because HSS is one of the best hospitals in the world for surgery! So no worries – your doctors did a great job. Get that ACL back to 110% like a champ!

We were impressed that someone with so many other things going on took the time to e-mail a boy he’d never met. But what happened after that impressed us even more.

In typical 9-year-old fashion, Michael replied to Jeff’s initial e-mail with a brief message. What we didn’t find out until a few weeks later was that Michael had e-mailed Jeff a few more times — to ask how his recovery was going, to tell him that he’d picked Jeff for his “team” on his Madden Mobile game, and to let Jeff know that he’d been given the okay to walk around without crutches at home.

Jeff replied to every single one of these e-mails:

That’s great to hear, man! Glad you’re healing up well. I’m actually close to being fully recovered.

Wassup Mike! I’m fully recovered, and it’s good to hear that you’re feeling a lot better. Keep working hard in rehab. I know you’ll come back even stronger than before.

Dave went back to Twitter to thank Jeff for keeping in touch with Michael. Jeff replied that Michael was “now his little buddy,” and that he was happy to do it.

Thank you, Jeff Allen, for understanding that being in the NFL gives you the power to give a boost to a 9-year-old. Thank you for understanding that you have more in common with this boy than many people might think.  Thank you for knowing that the few minutes it might take you to reply can lift Michael’s spirits more than you can imagine. Thank you for giving him the same supportive messages that come from his family, but can sometimes carry more weight because you understand what this kind of injury really means to someone who loves sports.

We are now fans of the Kansas City Chiefs. And especially the offensive tackle with the big heart.

 

 

 

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