Rick Slaughter: Wheelchair athlete, former addict, coach, role model
By Rob Simbeck
MARCH 22, 1999: "I had it all, man," says Rick Slaughter. "I thought nothing could touch me."
He was 17, a junior at Nashville's Overton High, driving home from a date with the senior prom queen. A terrific all-around athlete, he had been the state's top-ranked tennis player 14-and-under three years earlier. He was still good enough that he could step out of his car stoned on good weed and beat just about anybody they put across the net from him.
Yes, there had been problems. His relationship with his father, a Church of Christ preacher and the college tennis coach at David Lipscomb, wasn't all that hot. His dad was strict and Rick could be cocky. And yes, he'd left Lipscomb a year earlier after he'd been caught skipping school, so stoned on liquor and Quaaludes he could hardly talk. But those were minor glitches. As far as Rick was concerned, life was good.
At that moment, on June 22, 1979, he was 20 minutes past his midnight curfew, but he was stone cold sober and feeling terrific. He had KDF cranked, and "Stairway To Heaven" had just come on the radio of his Volkswagen Rabbit.
He took the right turn from Harding Road onto Franklin Road a little wide, and realized he'd come awfully close to sideswiping a Metro cop stopped at the light on Franklin. Blue lights appeared in his rearview.
"I lost it," says Rick. "In that instant, I thought about the hash in my pack of Marlboro Reds and about the Bacardi 151 in the glove compartment, and I thought about getting into a lot of trouble."
He took the first left he came to--Curtiswood--and stepped on it. The cockiness in his bloodstream began to overcome the fear.
"I was indestructible," he says. "I was tougher than that car." On the third turn, his right tires dropped off the shoulder.
"I tried to pull it back onto the road," he says, "but it was like I was on ice." The car careened across the road. A mailbox popped into view, hit the bumper, and disappeared beneath him. The Rabbit spun, its back end slammed into a tree, and it flipped through the air, traversing a driveway, and landing on its side.
Rick found himself on his back under the car, his upper body outside the driver's side window, his right arm pinned behind his head. His legs were wrapped around the steering column.
People from nearby houses came running. "Can I call your parents and let them know where you are?" asked a woman. Rick said no. He figured that after he got to the hospital, he'd get some stitches, find a way home and make up something to tell his parents about the car.
Soon there were policemen, firemen, and paramedics everywhere. They sawed the steering column off to free his legs. They pulled him out, placed him on a stretcher, and began to carry him toward the ambulance.
"Hey," Rick said. "Would you put my legs down?"
One of the paramedics looked down at him and said, "They are down."
"I knew then," says Rick, "that something was seriously wrong."
PushIt is a Tuesday night in 1999. On a basketball court on the campus of Vanderbilt University, an inbound pass launches a fast break and 10 bodies hurtle downcourt. A defensive player sets a pick, planting himself in front of an opponent who crashes into him, does a flip, and lands on his back on the floor. The player who has taken the spill, a 13-year-old named Derrik Bassham, pulls himself with an agile motion back into his wheelchair and works his way into the lane in time to pick up a rebound.
The gym is in the Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital, and all 10 players are in wheelchairs. Derrik lost both legs two years ago when he fell under the wheels of a train in Murfreesboro. A teammate lost the use of his legs in a car accident. Many of the rest have spina bifida, a congenital spinal defect that has left them unable to walk.
They are members of the Music City Thunder, a team for boys and girls high school age and younger. The game is part of a weekly session that includes passing and shooting drills and windsprints--lots of windsprints. For two hours, players make and blow lay-ups, hustle and dog it, register delight and disgust. They range in age from 11 to 18, and there is the same mix of fat and skinny, weak and sculpted, tough and not-so-tough you might find anywhere.
Leading it all is a coach who could be out of Central Casting. Parents and youngsters alike know him as someone who pushes his players hard. He is off to one side, his big arms folded, his gaze intense. "Come on, hit the boards!" he yells. "Come on. Come on. Down and back. Let's go! Move it. Push! Push! Push!"
The coach, Rick Slaughter, knows his reputation for toughness and smiles when he discusses it. "This is not Rick's Romper Room," he says. "I didn't start this program to be a baby-sitting service."
For all the tough talk, Rick is an open and affable man. Even with the kids, there is the occasional high-five, and the subtle back-and-forth smiles that indicate this is someone who has made a connection. Along with the respect they grant him, his players genuinely like him. Perhaps most importantly, they know he is one of them. He knows about doctors, therapists, and rehabilitation centers. He knows about pain and loss and limitation, and about self-doubt, self-pity, and despair. What he is passing on, though, is what he has learned about going beyond all of those things.
A world-class wheelchair athlete and a success in the business world, Rick Slaughter is, 20 years after his accident, an example of what it is possible to be and do with a severed spinal cord.
The Tuesday evening sessions are part of a program called FIRST--Functional Independence through Recreation, Sports, and Teaching. It got started because Rick spends a great deal of time at the Vanderbilt Seating Clinic and the Vanderbilt Spina Bifida Clinic, selling durable medical supplies for a local firm called Ed Medical, Inc. Among those supplies are custom wheelchairs, which he sells to kids with debilitating spinal injury or illness. The chairs are lightweight, mobile, and maneuverable. They are perfect for sports, something Rick knows because he made his living for years playing and teaching wheelchair tennis, basketball, and racquetball. But while the equipment is available, Slaughter was galled to discover there were no organized sports programs for kids in wheelchairs.
"My mom shuttled me around from sport to sport when I was their age," he says, "and these kids didn't have that. They were resigned to keeping score or just watching."
Slaughter had what he called "a vision--a wheelchair sports program to introduce kids to all different types of sports they could play from their chairs." He wanted, he said, "to afford them the same opportunity all able-bodied children have--a place to play with their peers, compete, excel, and have a sense of belonging."
Finding willing participants was no problem. Finding a place to meet was a little trickier. School gyms were booked solid with their own sports programs. Other facilities demurred because of liability considerations. Finally, Vicky Pitner, special needs coordinator at the Williamson County Recreation Center, offered the facilities.
The core of the program is a monthly Saturday morning group for kids of all ages and skill levels. They learn wheelchair mobility and hand-eye coordination with races and obstacle courses. They swim, play tennis, and run track and field. Slaughter plans to add waterskiing this summer. There is a Tiny Tots program, led by Heidi Kessler, pediatric physical therapist at Vanderbilt, which introduces children ages 3 to 7 to sports and lets them meet older kids in wheelchairs. The older kids with more advanced skills, plus the interest and motivation, take part in the Tuesday night sessions.
"These are my athletes," Slaughter says, and he treats them as such. There are tough team rules. Grades have to be kept up. There is no missing practice. Rick doesn't take lip. And players who go on basketball trips to cities like Charlotte or Birmingham have to be capable of handling every aspect of day-to-day life--dressing, bathing, and toileting included.
The idea of using sports as a metaphor for life to motivate young people has been a coaching tool longer than the whistle. In many cases it's just so much bull used to get a few wins. But with this coach and these kids, it's not a trick.
"This is not just about sports," he says. "It's much more about being independent, about teaching these kids what they can do that they've never thought they could do."
SurrenderA few weeks after his accident, in a room at St. Thomas Hospital, Slaughter was lying on his stomach on a "Striker frame," which is like being strapped to an Army cot, always facing either straight up or straight down. He was facing down when the neurosurgeon came in to talk to his mother one day.
"Do you know what's going to happen to my son?" she asked.
"Your son has severed his spinal cord," the doctor said coldly. "His chances of walking are slim and none."
"I lost it," Rick says. "I was so mad. I was really, really mad at God. I used to ask out loud, 'Why, God, did this have to happen? Why me?' I thought I was the chosen one. And now I was lying there with tubes all over, not even able to go to the bathroom by myself. It was not a good time. But with all that, and despite what that doctor said, I was going to walk out of that hospital."
When a man in a wheelchair rolled into his room and asked if he'd care to try wheelchair basketball, Rick says, "I basically told him to stuff it."
Until he could walk out, rock 'n' roll and alcohol would have to keep his spirits up. He listened to Skynyrd, .38 Special, Alice Cooper, and Edgar Winter. On his first weekend pass, he went out with a friend and got toasted. He was in "a big grandpa-looking heavy wheelchair they'd issued me," wearing his hospital gown. The catheter in his penis was connected to a little urine bag that hung from the chair. When he returned drunk several hours later, his gown got caught in the lobby door. "I'm butt naked, with this bloated, crystal-clear bag of urine hanging from the chair, headed across the lobby," he says. "That was the way I was going to deal with my accident--drink or smoke or snort it away."
When surgeons implanted metal rods to help stabilize his backbone, Slaughter knew he would not be leaving the hospital on two feet.
He was taken to the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, a then-new facility with an almost instant reputation for quality care. There, Slaughter found people like a brain-injury patient with a half-shaved head who simply said his name over and over. "Damn," Rick thought. "This is like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."
The answer to the pain, to the mental anguish, to the stark reality of a life without the use of his legs, was alcohol and drugs. He made friends with the patients and staffers who liked to drink and get high.
"You can't just drink a six-pack in a rehabilitation center and drop the cans in a waste basket," he says, "so we had a technician slide back a ceiling panel and put the cans up there. There's no telling how many cans they found up there after I left."
But if the party animal in him wouldn't be denied, neither would the athlete.
"I really got into physical therapy," he says. "It was a way for me to get out my anger, and they kind of let me run my own program. I wanted to get as strong as I could and get out."
When weight training became tedious, he went to an outdoor basketball court, where shooting baskets in his 58-pound wheelchair strengthened him. By the time he left, both his athleticism and his wild streak were going strong.
Rick transferred to Hillsboro High School, the only one equipped to handle a student with a wheelchair. He fell back into his old patterns--playing sports and hanging with a party crowd. After graduation, he went to three colleges, mostly for the social life. Finally, he blew off school altogether and went into wheelchair tennis professionally.
"The only way I survived for a long time was wheelchair tennis," he says. "That was my mask. I was still drinking and doing drugs more than ever, but I was trying to prove to myself that I didn't have a problem."
He played throughout the Southeast, then on the West Coast, working his way up. In the mid-'80s, he was ranked No. 2 in the world in singles tennis and No. 1 in the world for doubles with his friend and mentor Brad Parks.
And he was nuts.
When he was in Nashville, he would take a limo to the Gold Rush, roar for awhile, and take it home again. A tour of Jamaica found him looking for Rastafarians and their ganja. He smoked cocaine for the first time the night before the finals of the National Wheelchair Tennis Championships, not getting to bed at all. He would drink and snort coke for days without eating, which aggravated problems he had with kidney and bladder stones, urinary tract infections, and ulcers. He would be hospitalized regularly, getting shots of Demerol for pain, then come out and start on the coke and alcohol again. The success he was having on the court could not assuage the fact that he was angry at being in a wheelchair, and it very nearly killed him.
Ironically, through it all he was counseling new spinal-injury patients.
"Once a week," he says, "I was going to Vanderbilt's rehab center to ask the new patients if they were angry, and inside I was steamed. It's amazing. I wanted to help them but I couldn't even help myself."
He was prone to angry outbursts on the court, and became known as the John McEnroe of wheelchair tennis. He would often stay up for days, going in and out of blackouts. One early morning, he came to while being carried up the steps of a girl's apartment by a friend.
"My car was parked in three spaces, sideways, up on the curb, with the front end in the bushes," he says. "I remember being there in the glaring morning light, thinking, 'I'm either going to have to kill myself or change.' " He decided to try to kill himself.
He gave away many of his prized possessions and closed himself and his car up in the family garage. He could hear his parents coming into the house. Something made him tell his mother that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and needed help. He went into treatment and stayed clean for a short time, but it didn't last.
Late in 1988, in California for the national championships, he had two beers in the hotel bar. Two nights later, he says, "I found myself drunk in a taxicab on the way to meet a guy I didn't know to buy cocaine."
During that trip, there were plans to take a group of wheelchair tennis players to Seoul, South Korea, to put on an exhibition match in conjunction with the 1988 summer Olympics. Rick passed it up.
"I couldn't do it. Mainly it was because I was afraid to get over there and not have anything to put in my system. Plus, I was afraid of what might happen if I had to give a urine sample.
"Every athlete's dream would be to participate in the Olympics," he says, "and for me to blow that off because of drugs and alcohol made me realize just how powerful that stuff was. My whole life had been about competition. Everything was about looking good and about winning, whether it was the trophy or the grade or the girl. But I knew this was something I couldn't beat. During the time I'd been sober, I remember people telling me this was the one place where you had to surrender to win. And finally, I just surrendered."
Falling OutSlaughter has been known to dress down parents who dote too much on their wheelchair-bound children. The first time a child takes a spill at a FIRST workout, a parent may rush to him with a "poor baby" attitude. Rick has been known to cut them off cold.
"I'm here to promote complete independence, and part of that is teaching them to deal with adversity."
Adversity is something these kids know intimately. Many have had as many operations as birthdays. They often need help getting in the tub or going to the bathroom. What's more, they have the same hormones, dreams, and restless energy of other kids their age, and a need to do something with them.
"They don't get out in the back yard and play flag football and get rowdy like other kids," says one father. "This is their release, where they get to scream and whoop and holler and play and learn discipline."
Their parents have special challenges as well. Sometimes it's easier to dress or bathe a child who is unable or unwilling. There are enormous medical bills. Some have to remain with jobs just because of the insurance benefits. Others turn to TennCare or Social Security.
FIRST offers a great deal to both parents and children. The kids get a regular opportunity to make friends with others who know exactly what they're going through, and they get to learn assertiveness, independence, and teamwork. "Plus," adds Tammy Guy, whose son Burt is an 18-year-old FIRST participant, "they've got some wonderful role models."
Parents get time out of the house and the chance to talk with people in their situation, often making lasting friendships.
"One thing I like about this group," says Anne Lovell, whose son Geoff, 13, has spina bifida, "is that it's an opportunity for Geoff to have a great new group of friends." For Anne, as for many others, discipline and independence are especially prized by-products of the FIRST program.
Wheelchair-bound children are "wonderful manipulators," Lovell says. "They can make people think they're totally helpless." She once went looking for Geoff when he had disappeared, and found him across the street at a friend's house. He had abandoned his wheelchair, traversed a multilevel deck and was jumping up and down on a trampoline. "They can do what they really want," she says. "They tend to pretend sometimes."
She likes the fact that Rick pushes the kids. "He pretty much looks at you and says with his eyes, 'Cut the foolishness.' "
Burt, who has been in a wheelchair since the age of six, welcomes the discipline as well. "You find out you're tougher than you think you are," he says.
Rick's pushing was something Daniel Tidwell, who has spina bifida, disliked as a 9-year-old. "He really worked me hard," says Daniel, who is now 17. "He dogged me. But that's what developed me as an athlete. He was trying to get me to grow up, to bring a real competitive spirit to it while I was having fun. I didn't like it at the time, because I was too young to understand. But it paid off. He knew what he was doing."
Daniel's track and field career has been one of the real highlights of wheelchair athletics in Nashville. After a major operation that fused his spine when he was 13, he began training, and a year later his coach took him to Auburn to take part in a regional qualifying meet for the National Wheelchair Track and Field Championships. At his first national meet, Daniel finished second in every race distance he entered. The following year he won the 1500 meters, placed second in the 400 and 800, and third in the 100 and 200. Last year in Seattle he broke the national record in the 400 (61 seconds), won the 100 and 200, and took second in the 800 and 1500. Weight training had long been part of his workout regimen, and in 1998 he began competing, breaking the national record for the bench press in his class with a lift of 185 pounds. He runs a handful of local 5k races in the Nashville area, and he is looking to break into the international circuit on the track.
If Daniel is the example of coping with a lifelong illness, Derrik personifies overcoming sudden tragedy. He is pure teenage spunk, and on the basketball court he is high energy, intense concentration, and fierce competition all rolled into one. During a one-hour scrimmage, he tumbles headlong out of his wheelchair at least half a dozen times.
"I get a thrill out of falling out," he says.
Slaughter understands. "They want the chance to prove to themselves how tough they really are," he says.
Derrik was 11, playing with some friends in Murfreesboro along the railroad tracks when he had the accident that took both legs well above the knees. He met Rick last year at an Easter Seals camp, and Rick knew Derrik was a natural.
"He's got it," says Slaughter. "From the minute a game starts, he's all over it."
"I like it because it gives me something to do," Derrik says, "and it gives me the chance to hang out with other people in wheelchairs. Every Tuesday night I bug my mom, 'You'd better take me.' It's my favorite thing to do."
Slaughter is unabashed about the spiritual element in what he does. It was there, he says, in overcoming his addiction to alcohol and drugs, and it is here in the day-to-day machinations of the FIRST program.
"God put a lot of people in my path to make this program work and He still does," he says. "They're people who have no interest in it other than it makes them feel good to do it."
Daniel has picked up on the sentiment himself, assisting Rick in his Saturday morning sessions.
"I'm trying to give something back to him," Daniel says, "because he's kind of formed me into the athlete that I am." It is a notion Rick feels is the ultimate point of what he does.
"This isn't about playing and winning so much as about teaching them what they can do in their lives," he says.
"Getting involved in sports has helped Daniel in every area of his life," his dad, John Tidwell, says. "It's helped his self-motivation and responsibility. He works out with the football team lifting weights two or three days a week. He goes to school and goes to [FIRST] practice regularly. Plus, he's got a job working four days a week after school. With this program Rick's doing and some other things, like a good group of teachers and staff at Lighthouse Christian School, I feel like he's got a long-term future." He pauses, and adds, "He's going to be a leader someday."
If there is anyone who can help him weave sports into the overall fabric of his life and find meaning in the combination, it is Slaughter.
"Wheelchair sports have done more for my life than I will ever be able to say," Slaughter says. "First of all, it gave me self-esteem. For a while there, it gave me a purpose. It let me travel all over Europe, and meet people from all over the world. And it showed me that my life wasn't over. Now it's about the kids. I'm just passing it on."
Both kids and parents are grateful for him.
"Over the years I've met every kind of person in the medical industry, from doctors to salesmen, and you get to where you can tell when the concern is genuine," says Devon Rock, whose son Mitch is part of FIRST. "And Rick is a genuinely concerned guy."
"I guess the biggest thing I get out of working with these kids," says Slaughter, "is knowing I'm doing the right thing. I know I'm fulfilling my purpose. This work is one more reason why I was injured 19 years ago, and why I haven't died since. I know in my heart that this is where God wants me."
The journey has been a long one, and Rick admits that the person he was at the time of his wreck has been greatly tempered by life and experience.
"I was very selfish and I thought the world revolved around me," he says. "I'm still pretty cocky, but I'm a little more humble."
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