It began with a letter. Rosemarie Miley was not one to express her views in letters to the editor, but she could hold back no longer: New York Jets lineman Dennis Byrd had become paralyzed from a C-5 fracture to his vertebrae, which prompted Sports Illustrated to carry a cover story on NFL violence that announced, "The Carnage Continues."
Rosemarie sat down with a pen and paper and wrote the following: "My son broke his neck 19 years ago playing high school football. Since then our home has been hell on earth. The injury has altered the life of our family and the lives of our son's friends. I am sure the majority of SI readers 'love' football. I ask them to spend one day with my son. They will feel the terrible pain he endures. They will feel his frustration at being totally dependent on others."
The letter went on. But the gist of it was this: Someone has to do something. Football is destroying lives.
To her surprise, Rosemarie found her letter printed in the Jan. 18, 1993, issue. To her further surprise, she received a phone call from me a few days later asking if I could drop by and take her up on her offer to spend a day with Buddy. An editor at the Daily News had pointed out the letter to me and seemed to think it would be a good feature story. Had I known where that would lead —the publication this week of my first book, Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion — I would have taken better notes. But on the day I drove out to see him, I looked upon Buddy Miley as just another assignment, which is to say, I would write about him and would be off doing something else by the time the paper printed the story.
On the day I dropped by, Buddy seemed happy to have the company. It was just before his 37th birthday, and he had been a quadriplegic for 19½ years. In a football game during the fall of 1973 at William Tennent High School, where he had been a star quarterback who carried himself with the cocky attitude of his hero, Joe Namath, Buddy fractured his C-4 and C-5 vertebrae. It happened as he was running an option play; he had held onto the ball instead of handing off or passing. In a split second of horror in that game against powerful Plymouth-Whitemarsh, he was swept under in a pileup of tacklers, as if he were a surfer upended in a collapsing wave. It was a clean hit, yet devastating: Buddy would be paralyzed from the neck down.
What impressed me as we spoke that day was his honesty. It seemed to imply: So you want to know what this is like? Well, I will tell you exactly what it is like. The pain he experienced was intense. It would come over him in spasms, as if he had been stunned by a Taser. But he also spoke of the loneliness that had pervaded his life. Friends who had once stopped by to visit him in the early days of his injury had become few and far between. They had gone on with their lives, married and had children, Buddy told me. "People forget," he said. He had come to accept it, yet he explained to me as I prepared to leave: "Being unable to walk is not the hardest part. The hardest part is the longing." What he would not have given to be average, to have a job and a wife and children to come home to at the end of the day.
I liked him. But I suspected we would never meet again. This is the nature of reporting. Quick intimacies are formed, but they dissolve just as rapidly. I spoke with Buddy once again on the phone, just a brief conversation to see how he was doing, but did not think of him again until I was sitting at home one evening in March 1997, when the office called with the news: Buddy Miley had been found dead in a Michigan motel room. It appeared to have been a suicide, and it happened to have been aided by Jack Kevorkian, the so-called "Dr. Death." Years later, Al Pacino would play him in a biopic, but in 1997, he was one step ahead of the law as he left bodies strewn across Michigan in his effort to promote euthanasia. Buddy was the 49th of about 130 patients who embraced his grim mercies.
It was not until a year later that I discovered who had gone to Michigan with Buddy, when I sat with Rosemarie; her husband, Bert, and five of their six adult children to do a follow-up story. Everyone I hoped to see that day was there except for Jimmy, the youngest. Cryptically, Rosemarie explained that "it would have been just too emotional for him to be here." Rosemarie later confirmed to me (although not for publication at the time) that it was Jimmy who had gone to Michigan with Buddy. In the ensuing years, I would occasionally call Rosemarie just to talk — we had become friends. But I had become increasingly interested in Jimmy. I suspected that he was carrying an immense burden on his shoulders, even if he had just gone along with what Buddy had asked of him. I asked Rosemarie if Jimmy would like to talk with me. Always, she replied: "He is just not ready."
Seven years passed before he could bring himself to sit down with me in 2005. Rosemarie called one day and told me, "Give him a try." I called him and we agreed to have a no-strings-attached talk: If at the end of it he chose not to move forward, I wouldn't write about it. We met at a diner in Warminster, and he told me his story: How Buddy had had enough, that for years he had talked on and off of suicide. Jimmy said he assisted him because "Buddy was somebody who never got what he wanted. I just thought for once in his life that should happen, even if it was just to die the way he wanted." Once a catcher in the Los Angeles Dodgers' system, Jimmy had had a car accident and suffered neurological injuries from which it would take him years to recover. No one understood better than Jimmy the ordeal Buddy had endured.
Jimmy would have given his life if Buddy could have gotten out of that bed. He told me that with a tear in his eye. Chills overcame me as I looked across the table. He said he would do whatever he could to get Buddy to laugh, even if he had to play the clown as a boy — which he did, often. Whenever Buddy said the word "orange," Jimmy had to stop what he was doing and do exactly what Buddy told him. "Stand on your head," Buddy would order. And Jimmy would do that. In search of a healing miracle years later, Jimmy would take Buddy to the sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France (see excerpt). Jimmy told me, "I was the arms and legs he no longer had use of."
As he spoke, I set aside the legal pad I been jotting down occasional notes on and just began to listen. It was easily the most remarkable story I had heard in 25 years as a journalist. It was also a story that I would soon learn would perhaps never be written. Jimmy was scared. He called me a few weeks later and told me to drop it. He was worried what people would think of him. "Buddy had a lot of friends," he explained. "What are they going to think?" He was also worried that he would find himself in jeopardy with the law. I told him I understood. I did not hear from him until a year later, when he called me up and told me he was ready. When the profile I wrote of him appeared in the Daily News in June 2006, the fears he had were washed away by a flood of supportive emails. When I spoke with him later, it was as if an anvil had been lifted from his back.
Seeing some of the comments from the people who wrote in, I became convinced that there was a universal appeal to the story. What happened to the Mileys could have happened to any of us. In fact, it had happened in my family. An aunt I dearly loved suffered a brain aneurism and had been left in a vegetative state for 10 years before she died. Creatively, I began to think of the story in terms not of football, or Dr. Kevorkian, but what happens to ordinary people who find themselves thrust into extraordinary circumstances. And it addressed what I believed were some hard questions: What is our duty to each other as human beings? What would you do for someone you loved?
I was not sure what I should do, except that I should do something. I helped HBO's "RealSports" arrange an interview with Jimmy. I did several versions of a screenplay, none of which were very good. I wrote a book proposal, only to hear that the story was perceived by publishers as a "downer." I set it aside. Close to 3 years passed, and I was looking through some papers in my office and found a letter that my agent, Andrew Blauner, had sent me after I submitted the proposal to him. Blauner began it by saying that he had just finished it and that he was so moved by it that his hands were shaking. I found a copy of it and looked at it with a fresh eye. I spent two weeks rewriting it, and Blauner once again sent it around. Within a week, we had a deal with George Witte, editor-in-chief at St. Martins Press.
But a book is not a piece of short-form journalism. The book I envisioned would be 70,000 words. I was not sure where 65,000 of them would come from until I had an epiphany. What happened in that split second on the football field that day so long ago at Plymouth-Whitemarsh had not just shattered the still-unlived life of Buddy Miley. It had changed the lives of countless others: Jimmy; his parents, Rosemarie and Bert; and the other adult Miley children — Bob, Joanne, Rose, Patti and Linda. Friends Buddy had played ball with as a youth found that their lives were no longer the same. And there was a woman in Alabama who had befriended Buddy — Karen Kollmeyer (then Karen Shields).
I asked Karen to help me "tap into the heart of Buddy." She did just that — and then some. She had come to the hospital each day to see him when they were in high school. A connection formed; indeed, they fell in love. Buddy had told her one day he would walk again and sweep her off her feet. It was pure fantasy — Buddy would never walk again — yet Karen became a projection to Buddy of the normal life for which he longed. For 23½ years, Karen weaved in and out of his life. Buddy contacted her 2 years before his death with the help of a private investigator. The deep feelings that had existed between the two re-emerged and continued until Buddy called her during his final hours to say goodbye.
I had one of the final interviews with Kevorkian before he died last June. I am sad to say that he did not remember Buddy, which shocked me because Buddy was so memorable. I know that because of how his friends reacted when I interviewed them. More than a dozen years had passed since his death, and yet within an hour of talking with me, they would be in tears. It was for that reason I did not go the cemetery where Buddy is buried until the book was published and I had an early copy. Buddy is not in the cold ground beneath that headstone. He has lived on in the hearts of everyone who knew him.
To read an excerpt from Mark's book, "Like Any Normal Day," click here.
For upcoming events, including a reading and book signing, click here.