If you are skipping around the internet, looking for a happy story to lift your spirits, well, today you’ve come to the wrong place.
On Sept. 15, 1981, Mike Sharp—one of America’s better amateur athletes—was riding his bicycle when he was hit by a car driven by 91-year-old Elmer Peterson. Sharp traveled more than 250 feet through the air before landing on his head and shoulder.
His life has never been the same.
Once upon a time, Sharp was a super-stud. At Shawnee Mission East High he was one of the state’s top distance runners, and as a cyclist competed with the prestigious Bike Rack Racing Team. He ran competitive at Emporia State, and once compiled a blistering 31:28 6.2-mile race. During one year, Sharp ran 41 road races—and won 17 of them.
Now, Mike Sharp often wakes up and wishes for death. He is in constant pain, and has yet to figure out why God—or whoever—put him in this position. Although he is unable to do much physically, Mike has worked myriad hours as a researcher for Pat Jordan, one of America’s best writers (he also helped me with my Roger Clemens biography. He is as unique and decent a man as I know).
Mike Sharp, the Quaz is yours …
JEFF PEARLMAN: In the early 1980s you were a competitive cyclist with a bright college career in front of you. Then, on Sept. 15, 1981, you were hit by a car traveling 55 mph. You were thrown 254 feet into the air, over two lanes of traffic, before landing on the median on your right shoulder and head. I’m sure you’ve told the story hundreds of times by now, but I’m wondering—do you still vividly recall the accident in your mind? Like, specifically, what images and sounds and feelings do you remember from that horrible day?
MIKE SHARP: Yes, I do vividly recall what happened to me when I saw the bumper reflection under my arm when I just stood up to climb a huge (45-degree angle) hill. I contacted a witness 13 years after the accident because I was trying to get a law passed in Kansas for mandatory testing of drivers over age 80. The House bill never left committee and others who I approached to try and get the bill passed called it, “political suicide.”
Kansas has the largest elderly population per capita in the United States. The witness told me some of what the accident report didn’t say. She was traumatized as well and remembers the day in great detail 30 years later. We have since become friends. I woke up remembering being prayed over by two of the main witnesses, as the elderly driver kept on driving and a farmer in a pickup truck made him stop a half mile later. The women were coming back from a revival from Lawrence, Kansas. I remember their prayers and I couldn’t see because the sun was in my eyes, so I thought I was dead. I also couldn’t see because of damage to my occipital lobe from my head injury and I had my glasses ripped off my head. The paramedics arrived at 12:15 but I do not know what time it was when I was loaded into the ambulance. I was hit at 11:45 I told the paramedic that my thumb was broken—my thumb’s volar plate was torn and I could turn it all the way back, almost touching my wrist. The bone was crushed and was in a cast for two months but the volar plate wasn’t re-attached until I had my hand reconstructed 14 years later and they took a tendon from my wrist to replace the ligament that had been torn in the accident. I flew so far in the air or traveled so far on the ground that, according to a witness, it looked as if I were shot out of a cannon. I remember everything from the first hospital and the next. I had my legs and knees scrubbed out with a brush—that got the sand and some of the gravel out, but it was torture. I split my head open and they had to sew that up or staple it and I had the injury to my left calf—it was sewn and stapled shut. The nerves had been destroyed and it is still numb where the wheel went through my calf. I had my left glute punctured by metal under the bicycle seat that went through the seat on impact—not the seat post but metal rod at the end of the seat. I remember, when she saw me for the first time after the accident, my mom saying to me, “I told you not to ride your bike to Lawrence!” Which was typical of her—not “How are you?” But “I told you so.”
I had X-rays at the first hospital and it was torture to be twisted and bent around over and over for dozens of X-rays. Then I was transferred to a trauma center where they cleaned the wounds and sewed and stapled them shut. My brother almost passed out when he saw my calf muscle. I remember being left alone in a room with a bunch of monitors on and my head in traction.
I remember that a nurse reached for my hand to take my pulse and I reached for her hand and she held it all night long until the sun came up. Amazingly, fourteen years later, when I told the hospital that I always wanted to thank her, someone in the HR department told me she lived nearby. I looked in old phone books and found the address and went to her house. She and her three daughters were at the door, and I had just had my hand reconstructed. I told her why I was there and that, instead of getting angry at the old man who hit me (and who never apologized to me) I chose to think about her. She reached for my hand and I remembered her touch. It was an incredible feeling. She said that she was a special duty nurse and was assigned to my room because the orthopedic nurses could not see my call light and I was in the OB/GYN wing! She told her daughters that the smallest gesture of kindness can sometimes make the biggest difference in someone’s life and it did in mine.
Because of her kindness, I am not so angry at Elmer Peterson, who was born in 1890 and who, on that horrible day, hit me at 55 mph without ever touching his brakes.
J.P.: Amazingly, you returned from that injury to run in the National JOCO Cross Country Championships in 1982 and 83, running a 14:47 5k and a 31:28 10K. How the heck were you able to return like that? And why didn’t the good health sustain?
M.S.: I was focused only on running—school was secondary. I only dated when I was injured. I have ADHD and I learn differently than others. I knew enough about my strengths to know that being 6-foot-3 and 160-170 pounds, I had a lot more weight to carry over every step. On track races I got beat easily by little guys but in road races and in cross country, I would fly up the hills, using my upper body strength and down the hills I would stride out as far as possible and as quick as possible, just like I had in cycling. I created an insane pace—4:25 for a first mile of a junior college five-mile race. I had to make it so hard to out-run the little guys that I could defeat them mentally and discourage them to try and catch me. I ran what I consider to be a world-class workout a year to the day from my accident—a 4:16 mile, a 6-minute mile, a 4:23 mile, a 6-minute mile and a 4:26 mile … with no rest. I doubt many runners could do that.
I had to be the Kansas University track manager, where my running idol was back running as a pro being sponsored by Nike and coached by his college coach Bob Timmons. Coach Timmons did not acknowledge what I had endured and overcame for 28 years and I never understood that. But this man who has dementia, remembers 28 years before when I was at his home to interview him about what he endured in World War II. He was amazing to have a productive life after fighting 33 days in Iwo Jima. He was lucky he was only 5’1″ and I assume that had a lot to do with his survival. He fought in the Phillipines and Japan and Northern China after several attempts to get into the Marines. He and I fought over training methods for years and for burning out athletes and harming them with insane workouts.
Coach Timmons said each semester that I was not fast enough. Then I ran the summer at the University of Oregon and I got much faster and he said come on out. I was running 60-70 mile weeks for 1 ½ years. Then he told me to come on out but his 100 miles per week and 100-degree heat were too much for me. I had heat exhaustion in eighth grade and had always had heat problems. I ran two weeks for KU cross country when the last workout was 105 degree and repeat miles after a three-mile warmup. One guy dropped out from heat problems … and he was the prized freshman. The senior runners complained to Coach about the damage to all of us and he finally stopped the workout. The van broke down and we were stuck riding in the back of Coach Timmons pick-up and the seven tallest had to stand, myself and Jim Ryun. Every hill we went over, the tallest would fly off the bed of the truck and the little guys had to hold our legs to keep us in. What no one realizes is that brought back memories of my accident and I wanted nothing to do with Coach training me after that.
I signed with Phiddipidies/ Nike racing team and I got free shoes, clothing and equipment bags and entry fees paid. I ran off and on with the team and I ran what I wanted to and didn’t run what I chose not to. I couldn’t do that if I had been on the college team. So I reached my goal of running with KU’s runners, I ran in the team time trial and I finished seventh, which would have made the cross country team. I had run the year before and finished 11th, while in junior college. My best 10K race, I ran with some of the country’s best. At the six-mile mark, my running idols were breathing heavily and I was not and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ and I just exploded and made up nearly 100 yards the last quarter mile of the 10K and I passed at least two Olympic Trials qualifiers and many KU Scholarship athletes and finished fourth among KU runners. My shoulder popped out that race and it never stayed in place again. I tired racewalking and I won the novice division at Nationals. I walked a 20K by myself and was close to Olympic Trials Qualifying but I dislocated my shoulder in both races and often during training and other races attempting to race walk. I tired punting and kicking the football, which I was good at but not great at. I tried throwing the knuckleball and then playing right field in the men’s senior (over 30) baseball league. I got a double my first at bat and blew out my shoulder the next game. I did, however, have one assist from the outfield, throwing a runner out at 2nd base. I had wanted to play baseball for so long. The next game I had zero hits and blew out my arm trying to throw a guy out at second again. I had tried the shot put and hammer after I bulked up and gained 90 pounds and I won my age division at the 1994 indoor Master’s Nationals. When I destroyed my shoulder for good I gave away all my track and field equipment to a junior college that I worked part time at as meet manager and director of officials. I had my first neck surgery 22 years after the accident and five months after the accident the surgeon said I could run, so I ran on my favorite place in the world, at the horse trail near my hour that was mile marked and six miles long. I had not run in years and was 252 pounds at that point. There were holes everywhere but I knew the rocks and holes like the back of my hand—I had run their so much. I hit the two mile mark in exactly 12 minutes but I was afraid of a heart attack if I went further. I was like a race horse that was set free. I damaged my neck so bad from that run … I hurt for two years.
In 2007 I rode in and was honored at a “Ride of Silence” ride held each year around the world honoring those injured or killed by cars on roads. I was so afraid of being hit and riding my recumbent bike that I turned my head back and fourth over and over again and I caused a problem in my neck that resulted in the second neck surgery. That surgery failed. Six months later I had a posterior fusion, which was the worst pain in my life. I knowingly had the surgeon put a rod inch into my neck muscle that was there for three years before it was taken out last year. I had another anterior, my third, a year later to put a plate in where the surgeon was supposed to fuse at the same time he fused the back of my neck. It pushed everything forward and I could not talk and had swelling all around my neck. I have never been able to do anything athletic since the surgery in 2007. I can’t look up or down. The short version of all of this is that, I just wanted my body back the old man stole from me. I did that even at the cost of my losing my right arm. Slowly my hand stopped working that had been crushed and I had terrible neck and knee pain. In 1988, I had scar tissue removed from my knee. The odd thing was, the scar tissue held my knee in place because the accident caused a complete tear of my MCL that had been torn in the accident.
I left out that I was the manager of the KU Track team the semester after the accident. Coach Timmons did say, 28 years later that if he had to do it over again, that he would have recruited me if he had to do it over again, that I was a competitor. I had never brought up my running career to him that day, just World War II.
M.S.: Finally, here is the list of what I am dealing with. I feel so stupid. I fell asleep until 4:30 sitting at the computer. Because my neck is fused and I can’t look down very far, I fall asleep almost sitting straight up. God it was cold but felt so good to get under the blankets with a basset hound. Maggie Mae kept me warm.
Here is the list of what I am dealing with:
• Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal—I will become a quad if my vertebra pinch my spinal chord.
• I have cervical disc disease, which is pretty much similar to the above as far as results.
• I have throracic Outlet Syndrome where a nerve is pinched from my neck to my shoulder that makes my arm numb and heavy and then it hurts like hell. It is just like I had been hit by the car.
• I have stage one kidney disease, which won’t change because I am staying on the same nerve pain medicines and all my other meds. It will just get worse and I will never do dialysis. I have had enough tubes in me. Meds, unless changed, will destroy my heart, liver and kidneys. Kidneys hurt, kind of a random intense pressure, different from all other pain I have.
• I have traumatic arthritis in all the joints that were injured in the accident, which makes the joints age twice as fast. I fear that the 250 feet that I bounced and rolled and slid had to do a great deal of long term damage. Approximately 98,000 pounds of force is needed to throw a 170-pound man 253 feet through the air and then travel another 250 feet on the ground. It is amazing to think of the speed I must have been traveling to travel 500 feet, half in the air and half on the ground. My joints are 98-years old. My hips and knees are bone on bone, they cause me incredible pain.
• I have osteoarthritis where I have had surgery in my left hand, which was crushed in the accident. It is bone on bone, my neck is destroyed. My right shoulder is destroyed as well as the thoracic Outlet Syndrome. My left knee is worse than it ever was before I had surgery on it.
• I have gravel floating to the surface in my right elbow. I had gravel removed six months after the accident.
• I have Central Pain Syndrome or centrally mediated pain where the pain signals from my body don’t give the correct signals to my brain. My brain sends signals to my body that doesn’t give my body the correct signals. One incredible symptom of this is waking up in the middle of the night with massive leg pain and I wake up every night and it is hell.
• I can no longer walk 100 feet because the vibration that goes to my neck. I have to be in the wheelchair that reclines. I can’t use my electric wheelchair for long stretches because I can’t hold my head up. I also can’t propel myself in the manual wheelchair because my right arm doesn’t work and if I try it just sends pain up my spine. ( I rely on the kindness of strangers to push me where I need to go and so far I have never been stranded.) The same goes with driving. It just kills my neck and it has become too much. I have to find a solution.
• Traumatic Brain Injury. If you look this up, it causes all of the following symptoms plus many more that I don’t have but may get one day.
• Post concussion syndrome. I have a terrible time writing and talking. I can’t remember things like I used to. My memory was my gift and it is slipping away. My photographic memory is the same, I remember pretty much every significant moment of my life.
• Post traumatic stress disorder. I relive the accident every morning because when I wake up, I am blind without my glasses like I was at the time.I have to wait until the medicine kicks in for that to go away. Being in the car brings PTSD right back. I hate it and I hate driving and being in a car.
• Cervicogenic Headaches: From the head and neck injuries. I get pain behind my left I and often and less often I get dizzy like I used to.
• Depression from the grief cycle repeating itself for 30 years. For each loss of function and mobility and loss of pride. Plus disfunctional family issues. Constant talk of divorce. Wife is unhappy and I can not do a thing to change that. When I get sad, I get really sad and it is so hard to come back out of my hole. I bounce but not as high and not for as long.
• I have a sever case of sleep apnea. I stop breathing 45 times an hour. I haven’t been using my machine because it is in Betty’s bedroom and I forget to take it out of there. I am at risk of stroke and heart attack because I don’t use it.
So that is what I deal with every day. I am home bound and go out only if I have a doctor’s appointment and I have it set up so I go only every other month now.
J.P.: In your e-mails and Facebook posts, you come across as extremely anti-cycling; almost as if you think people should no longer ride bikes. Am I right in this read? Do you think cycling is too dangerous?
M.S.: Every time we take to the open road, we entrust our lives to a safety net of legal protection and basic human decency. That system has failed. The above quote is from Lance Armstrong. I do not know if I can say it any better.
J.P.: Do you ever think—What would I be doing now had I never been in the accident? What would my life be? And, along those lines, what would you be doing right now? What would you be?
M.S.: I would have loved to own a bicycle store. I do love cycling but I believe the rails to trails programs are the place to ride and not the streets and highways. You take a risk of dying anytime that you are on public roads and I am against it.
That or do what I did for a living for 19 years as a researcher/reference librarian. I loved what I did but once I started taking morphine I was half as good and twice as slow.
I was an education major but even five years after high school, kids changed so much that I couldn’t handle that they didn’t have the same drive that the girls and guys I grew up with did and that I did. In Kansas City we had some of the top boys and girls and often many boys and girls in the same event ranked nationally. Now it is very rare if that happens. There are more distractions, there is more academic competition, more homework, video and computer games, cell phones and hand-held video games. We grew up without cable TV and we played in the sandlots every spring, summer and fall until dark during the school year and all-day-long baseball in the summer and basketball indoors in the winter. We coached ourselves and had no adults around. We had zero traveling teams and there were no tryouts for competitive 8-year-old kids in all sport like they have now. Now the schoolyards are empty in the suburbs, often even the inner-city basketball courts are empty. The inner-city baseball fields are almost always empty, at least in Kansas City. So I am glad that I did not become a coach because the most serious athletes that I have seen are people a few years younger than me who are incredibly dedicated to their sport.
J.P.: You wrote an article for makingmusicmag.com where you explain how playing the clarinet has “been a lifesaver” and, were it not for the outlet, you “wouldn’t be here.” Was that true, or some hyperbole? What has music done for you?
M.S.: Music did save my life because I was lost in 1999, after my second shoulder surgery. I knew that I could never throw, or do so many things … the list of things that I could not do was so long, it was easier to choose the few things that I could do. I play the clarinet well and sax well and I have just about every instrument—I am just not as good at the others. I didn’t grow up playing band in school. I love the trumpet but it is probably my worst instrument. I had an accident on Jan. 3, 2010 where a Ford F 150 ran a red light and hit in front of my front tire and I went from going 40 mph to zero. I didn’t think to look at crash tests for the 2007 PT Cruiser until a couple of weeks ago. It has one of the worst crash test ratings. My neck took an incredible blow. It gave me a sideways whiplash and knocked me out when my head hit the car frame. Two months later I hit black ice on a on ramp to a highway and I did a 360 and then went backward 25 yards into the mud, the same impact from going 35 mph to zero. I worked at an engineering firm and I asked engineers what the “G” force on my neck was and they said between 6-11. My neck is fused from C3 to C7 in front and back. The levels above and below take all the impact and I have not had a good day since.
I played my clarinet publicly twice and once was at the famous Mutual Musicians Foundation where all the best jazz artists from the 1920s to 1940s played. I played by improvising for 3 1/2 hours without practicing all year long and I got lots of compliments from people walking to theit cars. That was at the famous Gem Theater in the historic Jazz District in Kansas City. It was one thing on my bucket list before I die. I could not, however play a single note on request. My brain injury from the recent accidents totally destroyed my ability to read music and make my fingers do what I wanted them to do. So I have played little music since and I have little outlets other than reading and watching movies.
J.P.: What is your average day like, beginning to end?
M.S.: My average day is I take my meds when my wife goes to work at 7 am and I sleep until around 1 pm. I take my afternoon pain meds and my other meds. I am on 16 different meds and I take many vitamins. I read and watch MLB TV for a few hours, I usually fall asleep again for a few hours and I am awake all evening, reading, petting my basset hounds or watching movies. I never watch the news. I cannot handle anything depressing or negative. I used to love to go to thrift stores and bookstores, but I only go to them when I have days with doctor appointments. I have to hold my head up with my right arm to sit at the computer and I spend a few hours trying to help others who are suffering from pain. I have met a few loyal friends but lots of people I never speak to. I am considering, as I have often, ending my Facebook account. I don’t know what difference I make. I have been told by the owner of a cycling site that cyclists know the risks and don’t want to be reminded of the risks. So I am not helping them at all. I have no idea what else I can do for others. I can never plan a day because I never know when I will have a rotten day and be in bed all day. It is probably better I focus on something else.
J.P.: You’re a very big proponent of having mandatory testing for drivers over age 80. This seems like such an obvious one—why do you think there are no states with such laws?
M.S.: The elderly vote and it takes years of dedication to get laws passed in a state. Look up C.A.R.D. in Missouri—Shel Suroff’s son was killed by a 91-year-old driver driving on the wrong side of Interstate 70. He swerved to miss him and every one else in the car was fine except Shel’s son. His car rolled several times and the roof over the driver caved in.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask you a loaded question, Mike: You were once an amazing, top-shelf athlete. Now you’re in a wheelchair. Furthermore, on your Facebook page you write, in a strikingly sad section, “I know that No one will ever love me again in a romantic way. That part of my life is over as well.” How have you been able to cope with such a striking and harsh downfall? Have have you maintained your spirits, your sense of humor? Or have you not?
M.S.: I can’t have sex because every movement on the bed vibrates in my neck and it hurts like hell. Everything works fine but I have given up because the pain is so incredibly bad. Crying after sex is not the best experience. I have always been the guy who was the “friend” to girls while girls chased the bad boys. I am still the same personality that I was in high school. I am loving and kind and compassionate. I am happy being a friend, a protector, wheelchair or not. I had my hand held by a friend a couple of hours this weekend and she gave me a couple of long hugs and that was enough for me. I love her very deeply and it is a compassionate love, which is fine with me. I think I help her as well. That is how I cope. I will be honest—all pain patients want to die 100 times a day and we always regroup. I did go to a new pain doctor last week and she was so unkind and lacked any form of compassion. The nurse had me put a gown on and the doctor didn’t even examine me. She didn’t read any of the surgical notes or look at all the 40 pounds of CT scans, MR’s and X-rays and injection notes. That day was the worst in a very long time. I trusted that I would see a new doctor that would take interest in my case and find a way to take my pain away and I did not. I really, really wanted to die that day. The next week my internal medicine doctor and I argued a bit about my treatment but she did not have all the facts and once she heard everything, all was at peace and she even let me not have to drive all winter long,—so I don’t go back for three months and I get my scripts by mail. Some days are better than others but once you have a basset hound on your lap and know that he or she loves you unconditionally, well, I forget all the bad and I regroup.
J.P.: You’ve been close to death. Very close to death. What do you think happens when you die? And do you think your experiences have given you insight most lack?
M.S.: In death I see myself finally in peace instead of fighting to live the past 30 years. The pain and suffering is more than I can handle and I want to be at peace. I wish I knew the reason on why I was saved. It isn’t sending messages to cyclists. I wish that the clouds would form some kind of message or something easy like that but I have no clue after 30 years.
• Rank in order: Tanya Tucker, Steve Blass, Pat Jordan, candied yams, Greg LeMond, Denzel Washington, Kenny Loggins, apple pie, Tony Blair: Pat Jordan, Greg ,LeMond, Denzel Washington, Kenny Loggins, apple pie, Steve Blass, candied yams, Tony Blair, Tanya Tucker.
• Do you believe Lance Armstrong is telling the truth about never using PED?: I am sorry to say that I believe his teammates. I think that had something to do with his divorce from his wife. She had to know. Teammates see everything.
• Would you rather have a nail hammered into your skull or 500 bees permanently glued to both hands?: Hands glued. I would rather have my brain with some function and I assume I could find a way to get them unglued eventually.
• What was your greatest moment as an athlete?: Winning Kansas City’s biggest 5k, St. Pats, in 1983.
• Five amazing things to do in Shawnee, Kansas: 1. Visit the lake at Shawnee Mission Park; 2. Walk or run the horse trails on both sides of the park.; 3. Cycling on the dozen’s of miles of bike trails.; 4. Any of the pastries at Barb’s Kolache Bakery.; 5. Funky Munky Music Shop.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a place crash? If so, do tell: I was on a plane that flew through a thunderstorm from Orlando to Tampa.
• You work with Pat Jordan. How would you explain his greatness as a writer?: Few writers write as visually as he does. He describes things without being wordy or boring. All of his books are incredibly hard to put down. I am afraid his class is a dying breed. What is taught in journalism school is garbage. What happened to investigative journalism? I read articles and I see the hole the write leave and that they leave stone unturned. Pat Jordan leaves no stone unturned when he writes an article or book. I was very happy to help him with that for 10 years. He is an awesome writer and man and I am honored to be his and Suzy’s friend.
• Will Kim Kardashian ever find true love?: I don’t know or care.
• You live in the same state as former Senator Sam Brownback. I always loathed him. Tell me why I’m wrong: I don’t trust any Senators or Congressmen. Jim Ryun was my running hero but he was a George Bush puppet and didn’t think for himself or listen to those in Kansas he represented.