When it comes to Canadian sports heros (at least from an American perspective), the list can be rattled off pretty quickly.
Wayne Gretzky. Bobby Orr. Gordie Howe. Mario Lemieux. Steve Nash.
After watching Nash’s ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Into the Wind,” I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make such a list without including another man: Terry Fox.
Fox, who lost his right leg to bone cancer in 1977 at the age of 19, was the focus of the film directed by Nash and Ezra Holland. It made its U.S. debut Tuesday.
After losing his leg, Fox became determined to do anything he could to help find a cure for cancer. He was particularly affected by the young people — younger than him even — he saw in hospitals ready to quit in the face of the terrible disease.
Fox decided shortly after his leg was removed that he would run across Canada, with the help of his prosthetic, to raise awareness and money for cancer research. From April to September of 1980, Fox ran 3,339 miles in 143 days before he was forced to stop the run when he learned that his cancer had returned. He died less than a year later, just short of his 23rd birthday.
On the journey he raised nearly $2 million for cancer research and an ensuing telethon raised more than $10 million. And what did Fox get out of all his efforts? Nothing but the satisfaction of furthering his cause.
At a time in sports when athletes sit out training camp over contract disputes or demand trades possibly to cash in before new labor rules go into effect, it’s refreshing to learn of an extraordinary athlete who selflessly dedicated himself to a cause for the benefit of others. Fox’s efforts continue today as the Terry Fox Foundation has raised more than $500 million for cancer research.
What was even more refreshing was Fox’s attitude through a journey that began in obscurity and rose to international renown. Through it all, Fox never saw himself as something special or anything different than everyone else.
“People are treating me like a hero, like I’m something above other people,” Fox said at a speaking event along the way. “I’ve never been treated like this before and it almost hurts me.”
Fox clearly didn’t want his newfound fame to get in the way of his mission. He wanted it to be about his cause. Accordingly, he turned down all offers of endorsement and promotion.
In the context of the sports environment we live in today, Fox’s story is truly remarkable. Here’s a 22-year-old amateur running on one good leg, living out of a van thrust into the national spotlight and offered all kinds of opportunities to benefit personally.
How many 22-year-olds do you know that would say no?
The story itself is incredible, and from what I saw, Nash did it justice. What sets Nash’s film apart from other versions of the Terry Fox story (there are two) and stories like it was the amount of Fox’s voice in the story. Through old footage and a narration of Fox’s journals, the film captures the character of Fox.
The sheer determination and humble selflessness show through in footage of Fox speaking, and the repetitive slapping of rubber against asphalt heard throughout illustrates Fox’s endless drive to make a difference.
Some might say the amount of footage showing Fox awkwardly running along the road is too much, but it serves as an indicator of Fox’s desire to keep fighting day after day. He refused to take days off, only doing so under great pressure from friends and sponsors.
The old footage of Fox himself, as opposed to a Hollywood rendering, make the story more real and tangible. You actually see this guy ambling along in a pair of sweaty shorts. And the interviews within the film shed a bright light on who Fox was and the challenge he faced with tremendous courage. Set to a standard soundtrack for the type of film, the story left me wanting to know more.
Maybe there isn’t much more. Maybe the hour-long film told the entire Terry Fox story in some people’s minds. To me though, no length could truly tell the story of what Fox accomplished, in part because his life’s work continues to inspire and motivate.
There’s no way to measure the number of lives Fox touched, and as an American, I can’t even begin to fathom the reach of his inspiration. He is to Canadians similar to what cyclist Lance Armstrong is to Americans, except Fox was a 22-year-old kid.
I’m not saying there aren’t others like Terry Fox out there; we just don’t know about them yet. Thanks to Nash, we’re one closer.
“Into the Wind” will run again Monday, Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. MST on ESPN2 and Saturday, Oct. 9 at 10 a.m. MST on ESPN Classic.