Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #9 Alan Klaus and the “16-trap”

13620001_10154295122579919_5607232858839636359_nIn my previous post, I introduced you to Brian McMillan and the motorcycle accident that left him a paraplegic. That traumatic event triggered a trajectory in his life narrative that would land him in a wheelchair tennis tournament in Kansas City.

Brian’s life narrative can’t exist in isolation. Think about it. His life narrative is a “story.”  Stories happen and are given meaning via inter-connected spaces filled with the narratives of other people. Put another way, you, as a human being, are given meaning by others. So we need other people and spaces to give meaning to Brian, the human being with a life narrative. That’s where Alan Klaus comes in. Here’s the continuation of chapter three of my book:

As Brian was making his way through life and eventually falling in love with motorcycles, one Alan Klaus was on his life’s journey, which took a turn early in his life with the “16-trap.”

Alan’s Narrative

Alan was born in Beatrice (BeAtrice) Nebraska, a town 12,000 people. His dad delivered bread, and his mom was a medical transcriptionist. An all-around athlete, Alan played football, basketball, baseball, and tennis. In high school, his two major sports were the glory sports for a small town: football and basketball. The Orangemen of Beatrice Senior High had a loyal fan base, for football as many as 2000 people at every game. Life was good in the heartland for the young athlete.

Then came a pivotal moment in Alan’s life, only he didn’t know it at the time. It happened in the homecoming football game in his senior year, a Friday night duel in October, 1966. Earlier in the day, the homecoming parade proudly processed through downtown Beatrice, complete with floats and convertibles holding the homecoming king and queen candidates. Alan, the team’s quarterback, was among them.

It was a great night for an epic David v. Goliath football matchup. The sky was clear, and the night air calm and warm. The Orangemen, one of the smallest Class A schools in the state, were set to battle it out with Lincoln’s Northeast High, one of the state’s largest Class A schools and perennial state champions, holding the state’s No. 1 spot that year. Both schools were loaded with talent. But Lincoln’s team was anchored by Wally Winter, an offensive/defensive linesman who would go on to be an All American at Nebraska University. He was a beast.

In the first half of the game, Northeast predictably went up by two touchdowns. With only minutes left in the first half, the Orangemen pushed their way down the field. The fans roared, giving Alan and his team a much needed adrenalin rush. To take advantage of the momentum, Alan’s coach sent in a play called the “16-trap,” which called for Alan to fake a hand-off to the half-back on his left side, then pivot to the right and run behind his pulling guard. But guess who was waiting for Alan. The beast. Slam! Crunch! Thud. Silence. . . After his teammates dug Alan out of ground, he managed to take his team forward and score a touchdown. But the Orangemen ultimately succumbed 35-14 to the barbarians from Lincoln.

Alan’s back was killing him after the game. The following Monday he could barely walk. It was time to see the doctors. An x-ray showed a crack in his tailbone, and a back specialist diagnosed Alan with spondylolisthesis, a complication of the vertebra. The docs told him he would need surgery if he wanted to play football again. He went for it, and the surgeon chipped some bone from Alan’s hip and grafted it onto the cracked tailbone, which left Alan in a body cast until the end of July, 1967.

Not exactly a convenient time to be bound up from his hips to his armpits. Alan had been recruited to play football for the Air Force Academy. But because of the body cast, the coaches told him to wait a year, go to their prep school, and then start at the Academy. That plan didn’t sit well with the impatient athlete. So off he went to Valparaiso University on an academic scholarship, with the goal of playing both football and basketball. He wasn’t ready to play football when he got there—he was only a month out of the body cast, but he made the freshman basketball team. He played well in the first game against the junior varsity in October of ‘67, or so he thought.

Alan was at his dorm the next day when the freshman coach called. He said he wanted Alan to come in before practice for a chat. About his good play? Strategy for the next game? Hmmm . . . At the meeting he received what at that time Alan thought was devastating news: The team physician had seen Alan play the night before and concluded that because of the back injury Alan would be prohibited from playing any sports at Valparaiso. “What??” The only reason he had the operation was to play college athletics. He gave them letters from his doctors in Nebraska. Nope. “Before the end of my first college semester, I was put out to pasture.”

A frustrated Alan Klaus talked to Greg, his roommate and best friend at Valparaiso who suffered a career-ending football injury in his freshman year. Greg said he was going to transfer to William Jewell College in Kansas City. “Come with,” he suggested to his friend. Alan talked to the coaches at William Jewell and they said he could play as long as he could provide the approval papers from his doctors, which he did. Alan transferred after his freshman year at Valpo, and the athlete in him set his mind on preparing for basketball. “I’m coming back.”

It happened again. Because of college rules, Alan couldn’t play athletics during the fall semester of ’68, but he could practice with the basketball team. Right before the Christmas break, Alan was playing in an intramural basketball game with his fraternity brothers when he went up for a jump shot. The opposing player cut Alan’s legs out from under him and Alan landed on the court, hands first. Crack. It was over for Alan, if not for the rest of his athletic career, at least for his sophomore year. At that time in his life, sports was front and center. It had been his identity since high school. And yet again he faced a void.

What happens to so many of us when we’re robbed of what we see in the mirror of life—in Alan’s case a kickass athlete? Deep depression? Who would blame us?  Who would blame Alan? He stopped going to classes. As he slid deeper into the pit of depression, he had thoughts of killing himself. He talked to Greg. “If you take this to Jesus, he’ll help you.” Greg gave Alan the book, “Dare to Live” by Bruce Larson. He spent the whole night reading the book alone in his room. That night, Alan met up with Jesus. And that night, peace came to Alan.

Alan went on to letter in basketball and baseball at William Jewell. The tennis coach asked him to play, but Alan couldn’t find the time. Ehhh, it’s just tennis. He graduated from William Jewell in 1971, went on to get his MA in Clinical Psychology, and married Janene, his high school sweetheart. He started playing tennis regularly when he was about thirty-years old. Always the athlete, Alan swung his way into the top echelons of amateur tennis.

Life was good again for Alan. For him, the “16-trap” was not a trap at all. At his high school football team’s 40th reunion in 2006—four years after Brian’s violent encounter with a tree, Alan spoke to his former coach, “Coach, I want to thank you for calling the 16-trap in our Homecoming game in October 1966. Little did you know that that play changed my life and has resulted in the wife and children I have, the city in which I live, the job I have, and my eternal destination.”

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