A Whole New Ballgame
Paralyzed Former Athlete Pursues a Career on the Hill
At noon on a recent Wednesday, Senate Aging Committee intern Tim Strachan sits in his Dirksen office, pecking out a Social Security white paper on his computer. His desk is piled with policy books and newspaper articles. Fox News is on the television. Scott Nystrom, a senior policy adviser on the panel, hovers close by, offering guidance on how to fine-tune the bar graphs in Strachan’s report.
On the face of it, it is an ordinary scene, save for the fact that Strachan, 29, is paralyzed from the chest down.
“I’m a fortunate quadriplegic,” he says cheerfully. Though he has “deficits” in all four limbs, he is still able to move his arms, but not his triceps or hands. With the aid of plastic “peckers” strapped to his hands he can type “pretty darn fast,” he says.
The 6-foot-3-inch former quarterback has come a long way since he broke his neck more than a decade ago in a freak beach accident. Back then, he says, “it was a struggle just to get my arms up to my face. … I’d have to inch my arms up my body.
“It probably would have been best if I stayed that way because I eat way too much,” he concedes with a laugh.
A few minutes into the interview, a female co-worker pops her head into his office to check up on Strachan’s occasional smoking habit.
“No cigarettes,” she admonishes.
He rolls his eyes.
“I’ve got more mothers,” Strachan mutters, his voice trailing off, before he quickly adds: “It’s all in good fun.”
Tragedy and Renewal
When Strachan, a top-ranked high school football star at DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., broke his neck diving into the Delaware surf more than a decade ago, his story made national headlines.
Strachan had been destined for the big time. He had been named one of the top high school quarterbacks in the nation, along with future NFL stars Peyton Manning and Donovan McNabb. Penn State’s legendary football coach Joe Paterno had offered him a full ride, as had the University of Maryland. (Both schools kept their scholarship offers on the table after his injury.)
But on Aug. 5, 1993, a day at Bethany Beach with family and friends turned into a nightmare.
Strachan remembers dropping his stuff on a blanket before running into the ocean “just like everybody does” and diving in. The next thing he knew, he was floating face down. “I couldn’t flip over or anything and there were hands hitting me in the face, and then I realized they were mine, and I didn’t know it. That’s when I figured something was wrong.”
From there his memory is sketchy, he says. When he finally regained consciousness in his hospital bed, a metal “halo” was screwed into his head to stabilize his neck. He had no idea what had happened and was stunned to hear the nurse say he wouldn’t be returning to the field that season.
Still, throughout a five-month hospital stay, he says he never asked the unfathomable. Once while praying, “I almost said, ‘Why me?’ and I didn’t, and I never have because up until then for 17 years I never asked why I was such a good football player,” he says. “Everybody has their cross to bear.”
Instead of allowing discouragement to set in, he embarked on a self-styled therapy routine, graduated from high school and earned a bachelor’s in rhetoric from the University of Maryland, where he also served as an assistant football coach and still found time to be a sideline reporter for Terrapin football games — a role he continues to this day. He founded a charity to raise money in part for The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, and launched a part-time career as a “professional motivational speaker.”
What began with occasional speeches at elementary schools led to more prestigious paid engagements. “A parent would call and say, “Hey, I work for U.S. Office Products. Will you talk at our employee recognition night?’”
Now, Strachan says, he’s on a sort of “unofficial Merrill Lynch circuit.” Last year when the stock market wasn’t doing so well, he spoke to a group of “disgruntled” stockbrokers at Merrill Lynch’s D.C. office. The morning of this interview, Strachan booked a gig at a Merrill Lynch office in Philadelphia. His speeches have been so well-received that he’s considering putting together a promotional video or DVD in the future.
Whatever progress he has made in the years since his accident Strachan directly attributes to the efforts of Lindy Marin, the housekeeper of a family friend, who has worked with him tirelessly.
“She was the first person to say, ‘We are going to stand you up.’ The first person to say, ‘We are going to try and build you something so you can try to walk,’” he remembers. “The first thing we ever built was parallel bars just high enough to go under my armpits. Then it got too cold so we built a three-tiered walker to go under my armpits. … It’s like a cage on wheels.”
Two to three times a week he is lifted into a mountain-climbing harness connected to ropes looped through a pulley system attached to the ceiling so he can exercise on a treadmill. Nearly every year since his accident, he makes a pilgrimage to a Miami hospital to do biofeedback therapy. He likes the philosophy of the doctors there, who he says unlike most physicians, “think if you stick to it you can actually gain more functions after three years.”
Despite his physical limitations, Strachan says he doesn’t want any special treatment. “I try to deal with what I got,” he says, adding that he hasn’t found Capitol Hill particularly difficult to maneuver. Save for the fact that his desk was recently raised onto blocks “to give [him] a little more clearance” and the door to his office adjusted to swing freely on its hinges, there is little indication that the office’s occupant is disabled.
“Some people who have been injured as badly as he was can’t” adjust to change, says Aging Committee Chairman Larry Craig (R-Idaho.). “He’s obviously been able to move on.”
Each morning, Strachan drives himself to work from his parents’ Kensington, Md., home in his adapted “Redskins burgundy” Chrysler minivan. When he whizzes down the Dirksen corridors in his motorized wheelchair, he raises his arm in a fist-like wave to so many associates and friends it’s impossible to keep count. At the elevator en route to lunch at the Dirksen cafeteria, he holds back.
“After you,” he says. “I’ll take what’s left.”
At the moment, Strachan, who graduated from Georgetown Law School in May and recently passed the Maryland state bar, is preoccupied with finding full-time employment. When he’s not working at the Aging Committee, Strachan, who has also served as an intern on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is meeting “with everybody and their mother” about jobs, preferably on the Hill or in the lobbying industry.
So far, he says he’s gotten some good advice from ex-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), but with his internship set to wrap up in December, he’s yet to have any formal interviews.
His cellphone rings. It’s a buddy from law school, calling him to let him know he was offered a position as a lobbyist for a union.
“I got him in touch with the guy and the guy tells him he’s going to give him a lobbying job. I don’t know why he didn’t give me one. That’s messed up,” Strachan says in a rare expression of frustration.
The moment passes.
There are, after all, other things to lighten his mood.
He’s excited about his work with the Victory Youth Centers, a Catholic nonprofit that aims to build gymnasiums throughout the Washington, D.C., metro area. He’s also looking forward to Thanksgiving, his favorite holiday. He’ll spend much of this week attending charity events, and then there’s his upcoming anniversary: He first asked his now-fiancée, Leslie Neale, “to go with [him] in the second grade” on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Three years ago, the couple started dating again; and last year, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in the same spot at their Holy Cross Elementary School where he’d first asked her out more than 20 years ago, he proposed. The two are set to wed next summer.
Though Strachan acknowledges he may never walk again, that doesn’t mean he’ll give up hope.
“My dream today is not only to walk, it’s to play football again,” he says. “Hope can take a person to extremes.”