One day. That was the projected lifespan of Creg Rinehart by the doctors who brought him into this world and said he didn’t stand a chance. Three months premature, weighing only two pounds, and blind, they said that Creg would not last more than one day. He was diagnosed with the most common developmental disability in the United States—cerebral palsy—placed in an incubator for six months, fighting to stay alive. That was fifty-one years ago, and Creg is still defying the odds.
Today, if you attended a basketball or baseball game at Marion Military Institute in Alabama, it is highly likely that you would run into Creg Rinehart, or at least, hear him. Never mind the crutches or the custom shoes, Creg has been braving the elements and the obstacles of life for many years now to watch and cheer for his beloved MMI Tigers. He fills his role as MMI’s biggest fan with ardor and passion— encouraging the players, analyzing the game, and yes—bothering the referees. And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
Creg lives with his family in the Perry County community of Heiberger, population 943. Our paths first crossed on my first day on the job as head men’s basketball coach at Marion Military Institute in the nearby town of Marion. That day, one lone vehicle was parked in the circular drive as I pulled up to the William H. Ireland Center for the very first practice. As I parked my car and headed to the gym, a man was searching for enough grit and energy to get out of that car.
“You need some help?” I asked in my ignorance.
One crutch hit the ground, followed by a pair of custom leather shoes with Velcro straps and pieces of metal on the soles.
“No, I’m fine. I’ve just got to get into the gym to watch basketball practice. We’ve hired a new coach” the man said.
As the other crutch hit ground, I watched the rigor it took to simply stand—a motion I have always taken for granted—the labor and strain it required of him. I remember the sweatbands that cuffed his wrists, the way his salt-and-pepper hair and strident blue eyes glistened that bright cold January afternoon, and the way he robotically ambled, plodding forward in lockstep as the metal soles scraped the concrete.
He was wearing his customary attire: an MMI t-shirt, denim pants, thick-as-a-silver-dollar eyeglasses, sweatbands and watch.
I walked over to introduce myself.
“I’m Al Blanton. I’m the new coach. It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Creg Rinehart. Nice to meet you too, Coach Blanton.”
“Call me Al.”
A relationship had begun. At that moment, little did I know the extent of the impact that this man I barely knew would make on my life. What he has meant cannot be adequately measured nor appropriately described with my limited writing ability. But I believe that God intersected us there in that moment.
I believe that God gave me Creg Rinehart when I needed him most.
After I was hired, I received a crash course on Creg 101 from Athletics Director Michelle Ivey, who cautioned me that MMI’s biggest fan had no intention of harnessing the zeal he so proudly displayed for the orange-and-black.
In our first home game, Creg sat two rows behind the bench and had an ongoing conversation with the players, the coaches, and the referees. A nervous wreck already, I not only had to deal with the severities of game strategy, substitutions, and player motivation, but a boisterous, overexcited Creg.
After the game, I surmised that it just didn’t seem right for Creg to be in the stands. His place was on the bench, as part of the team.
So, I asked him if he wanted to be my assistant coach.
“Al I’m not sure about that. I’ve never done that before,” Creg offered.
“Well, I promise I won’t make you wear a suit and tie or send you on any recruiting trips. All you have to do is just help me,” I replied.
“I can do that.”
Creg became the bright spot and a sense of unity during two difficult seasons of basketball. He went on road trips with us, ate meals with us, gave pregame speeches that would make Knute Rockne, God help him, look clumsy.
I always took great pride in watching the players rally to assist him in getting off the bus and to and from the gym. On one occasion as two of the players were helping him into the gym, Creg slipped and fell on a slick floor. I heard the thump from inside the gymnasium and ran over, frantic, to see if Creg was hurt. When I got there, six or seven of the boys had already surrounded him and were picking him up off of the floor. Although I was mad at first, later on I smiled on the inside when I thought about how much those players loved our assistant coach. I was hoping that these moments with Creg were teaching them a little bit about serving other people, about manhood, about what really mattered in life.
Creg customarily traveled with us on road trips that were no more than two or three hours away—Selma, Tuscaloosa, Jasper. But in January 2007, I asked Creg if he could go with us to Jacksonville, Florida for a two-day tournament at Trinity Baptist College.
“I’ll have to ask my parents,” he replied, at 48.
A couple of days later I got a phone call from him, informing me that he could go.
While we were in Jacksonville, the team took a sort sightseeing trip to St. Augustine, the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States. I let the players walk around for a couple of hours at their leisure while Creg and I visited the shops of the old town. I pushed Creg around in a wheelchair that day, for we had little time to take it all in. I was glad that he was able to experience this small enclave of history, and hoped that it would be one of the lasting memories of his life. It didn’t take long for me to realize that being able to spend time with him in that moment was one of the greatest satisfactions of my life.
While Creg could easily claim disability and receive money from the federal government, instead he works five days a week in the Marion Military Institute dining hall, taking up lunch tickets and greeting students and faculty as they walk in the door. He has been doing this for several years now. Every morning, Creg makes the twelve-mile drive from Heiberger to Marion to fulfill the duties of his job, to stay active and find purpose. But it is the people who come in contact with Creg that receive the greatest fulfillment, for Creg can turn a bad day into a day of thanksgiving in a jiffy.
So what is it about Creg Rinehart that makes him such a special person?
The first thing is that he pours his life into the lives of other people. Make no mistake about it, Creg loves sports, and he is indeed MMI’s biggest fan. But I believe that athletics has merely been the conduit for Creg’s greatest ministry—investing in the lives of young men and women.
Creg cares about each individual on a personal level. Those players know that Creg not only wants them to win but to see them succeed.
Creg is content with the person he is. There is not a selfish bone in his body, and he has no desire for self-gratification in any form. I believe that the only thing Creg wishes he could have done is to play sports just one time, to throw those crutches aside and break into an unbridled run. And it’s a shame, because he would have been the kind of player that I would want on my team.
There is no sadness in Creg’s life, only the pure joy of living. He lives with his parents, and he will probably never marry. He struggles daily to walk a mere ten feet. He has to have assistance in the most fundamental of life activities. Yet there is no anger within him regarding his condition. He never complains or questions why God made him this way, he just makes the necessary adjustments and rolls on with life.
Creg does not let his afflictions define him. As debilitating as his condition is, he runs through the tape of limitations and stretches his boundaries as far as they can go. When others tell him that he can’t do it, he says “Watch me.” When the odds are stacked against him, he says, “I’m willing to try.”
This, my friends, is called courage.
I could not imagine someone who has lived a fuller and more abundant life, even though wealth, travel, and fame have escaped him. Creg is the best person I know at squeezing the most out every inch of existence, caressing and holding the little moments of each day as if it were some precious jewel, some prized privilege, a gift.
I have never met a person, nor do I believe that I will ever again come in contact with anyone whose life is as captivating and inspiring as Creg’s. When I look at my life as a college professor, lawyer, college basketball coach, and writer, I feel that I have achieved somewhat modest success. But when my life is stacked up next to Creg Rinehart’s and all that he has meant to those around him, I can only look up in awe at the giant that stands in front of me.
I have often wondered why I chose the medium of basketball to live out a great portion of my life. As a player, basketball was a place that allowed me to run and jump and enjoy the beautiful freedoms that life had to offer. It was the playground that provided a group of young men the opportunity to work together, live together, share together, and suffer together.
The greatness of the sport, I have come to understand, is not so much the spectacle that it can create, or even the winning. The thing that truly transcends is the relationships that are built as men strive toward that end, toward victory, toward life.
I have said that there is nothing impure about this game I love— the game of basketball—that it is people who corrupt its rules and boundaries. I certainly besmirched it in my own maniacal way. But it is people that also give it life and pulse and meaning.
Without people, basketball is just a game.
I don’t know if this is what James Naismith envisioned when he created it, so many years ago. I don’t know if he thought too much about the kind of impact basketball could make on the fans, the players, the coaches, this country. But more than that, I don’t know where I would be if basketball had not led me to Creg Rinehart.
Creg taught me what basketball—what sports— is really all about. It’s about those ten or twelve young men who learn to live outside the lines by the way they conduct themselves within them. It’s about teaching them the fundamentals of life, not necessarily with statements made, but with courage shown, integrity displayed.
It’s the kind of lessons Creg Rinehart teaches me every day.
A true fan is not someone who worries about what he can get out of a team, but what he can give to it. Creg is that type of fan. Creg Rinehart’s life is an inspiration to every person that has ever been involved in the athletic program at Marion Military Institute— to every player, to every coach, to every person that sweeps the floor or pencils in statistics in the scorebooks, to me.
One day, they said. One day to live and the next day to die. But there was one thing in that frail child that those doctors severely underestimated.
The size of his heart.