You never know what days are going to be pivotal turning points in your life – the days that will plot your course. One of mine occurred on October 6, 1979, when I went to a college football game with my father. I was 12. On that Homecoming Saturday, Southern Illinois beat Illinois State 7-0, a detail I had forgotten until I looked it up. But it was a day I will never forget.
During the game, a player from Illinois State fumbled, and about eight guys dove on the turf for the ball. Seven of them got up. One player, wearing the maroon #30 SIU jersey, stayed down. Face down. My father, normally a talkative physician, joined the rest of McAndrew Stadium in a haunting silence. The announcer said the injured Saluki was Mark Hemphill, a player I’d never heard of before. I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t understand why they didn’t just help him to the sideline so they could check out his arm, or his leg, or whatever. But they just hovered around him. After ten or fifteen minutes an ambulance showed up and drove right on to the field, which I was certain was against the rules. Then they took him away on a stretcher and the game resumed. But I just sat there in a fog – wondering what had just occurred.
A week later they ran a feature in the newspaper saying that he had broken his neck and was a partial quadriplegic. He had no feeling from his chest down but could manage gross motor movements of his arms. Barring a miracle – which his family believed would come – he would never walk again. In a split second, Mark Hemphill had gone from star athlete to a person with a disability, right before my eyes. He left a dorm room in Carbondale for a rehabilitation hospital in St. Louis, his hometown.
I followed his case very closely. His care was paid for by catastrophic insurance carried by SIU for just this purpose, and his policy would end (if memory serves) after $1 million or two years, whichever came first. Mark Hemphill blew through $1 million in about 15 months. He was then left to apply for Medicaid, transferring the cost of his care to the taxpayers of Missouri. It also meant that his 24-hour care attendant would only be available to him 8 hours per day. He filed a lot of lawsuits that were unsuccessful, leaving him with a very uncertain future.
On September 13, 1980, SIU held “Mark Hemphill Day” at McAndrew Stadium. They retired his #30 jersey and all the proceeds from that game would go to Mark to help him pay his bills. And even though it was well over 90° that day, 17,150 fans showed up – the largest crowd in SIU football history. He sat in his wheelchair on the track, under the shade of a tree, due to the heat. Fans were free to go talk to him – but I couldn’t work up the nerve. I really wish I had.
Eventually Mark Hemphill settled into his new life as a person with a disability. He moved into his own apartment and took the nearly $35,000 raised from “Mark Hemphill Day” and purchased an accessible van, one where you controlled the ramp and all the electronics with a set of keys. He went back to school, studying computers at a community college. He was an inspirational figure in the disability community in St. Louis. And he was certainly a hero to one young Saluki fan back in Carbondale.
Friday, November 26, 1982 was a very cold day in St. Louis and Mark Hemphill was studying late at the library. It was the day after Thanksgiving and there weren’t many students around. He went home to his apartment, driving his van into a nearly empty parking lot. They’re not sure exactly what happened next, but the best they can figure out was that after the ramp was partially lowered, he dropped his keys.
And for Mark Hemphill, that’s all it took.
The official cause of death was listed as “exposure,” which was just a way to avoid saying he froze to death. In 1982, there were no cell phones. No one was around on the holiday weekend to hear him and his personal attendant wouldn’t be coming until the next morning. Mark Hemphill died because there was no one with him. His passing made the front page of the St. Louis Post -Dispatch and he was mourned throughout the disability community as a champion.
I’ll never forget the way I felt when I read the news. I was devastated and I just didn’t understand how these things could happen. I was only 15 when he died, but I still think about him a lot. I think about him every time a football player doesn’t get up at the end of a play. And to this day, I still get a sick feeling inside every time I drop my keys.
After I graduated from Miami, I went back to SIU and studied rehabilitation counseling, a discipline that helps people with disabilities become employable and employed. I wrote my master’s thesis about Mark Hemphill’s case and dedicated my doctoral dissertation to #30 of the SIU Salukis. Now I work helping people with disabilities get the technology they need to go to school, to get a job, or to just live independently. To be free.
I never met Mark Hemphill, because I wouldn’t go talk to him under that tree. I hope someday I’ll get to tell him how much he meant to me.