Friends, inmates push their limits

It began, as these things so often do in sports, as a personal challenge. Yesterday's achievement, no matter how audacious, becomes tomorrow's goal to go one better. Failure is not an option. It only drives you to succeed, regardless of the obstacles that might be set in your way.

We'll call them Mike and Joe. They have been friends going on 30 years. Joe is the war hero, the one with the Purple Heart for valor, earned during two tours of duty in Vietnam. He and Mike became friends long before exposure to Agent Orange took away Joe's ability to draw a breath without feeling a burning inside, and ultimately put him in a wheelchair. The wheelchair just brought Mike and Joe closer.

"Mike pushes me around," is how Joe tells it. "He pushes me first thing in the morning after our cell doors have opened until they close again at night. In between pushing me around, he cooks all my meals, sweeps and mops my floor, washes the walls with soap and water, helps me get in and out of the shower. He lays out clean clothing on the bed and pretty much does everything for me that I cannot do for myself.

"Mike loves pushing me around. I think in many ways I remind him of his father, but it goes deeper than that."

That's another thing about Mike and Joe. They are inmates at a medium-security prison in Shirley, Mass. Both are serving life sentences. I met them at a couple of the chapel sessions where my mother is a volunteer and which they faithfully attend twice a week. I have heard their prayers, and I am reminded of something the football player Tim Tebow once said to another group of inmates in another prison. Words that did not exonerate past mistakes, but offered a reason to press on.

"A lot of you have started the first, second and third quarters really bad," Tebow said. "You might be losing. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Because it's about how you finish."

For Mike and Joe, a dirt track in the prison yard would become their testing ground. Last spring, the Shirley inmates held a Walk for Hunger to raise money for Project Bread, the statewide anti-hunger organization. Inmates made pledges for each mile covered. Some outside sponsors did the same. One hundred and seventy men took part. The track is little more than a hard dirt path full of small rocks, rivulets and divots. This is where Mike decided he would push Joe in his wheelchair as far as he could until the clock ran out.

They covered 20 miles despite a blister on Mike's foot that made it look, Joe said, like he'd stepped on a land mine.

"When it was over," Joe would say, "Mike had a more heroic sock than Curt Schilling."

That was in May; the inmates raised nearly $1,300. Last month, there would be another walk, this one for the Toys for Tots program administered by the U.S. Marines. More than enough incentive for Mike and Joe to sign up, but for Mike, there would be more. The walk fell on the same day as the birthday of his younger brother, Danny, who had stood by him all these many years, sharing with him the life he had on the outside with his wife and three children. About five years ago, Mike said, Danny had been stricken with multiple sclerosis, the same disease that had taken their mother.

"The gene skipped me," Mike would say, "and hit him."

Mike went to Joe and told him he wanted to dedicate the walk to Danny. Further, he said, he wanted them to push past the 20-mile barrier, which they figured had to be a record for state correctional institutions. They had five hours to do so, which meant they'd have to average better than 4 mph. "We called Danny," Mike would say, "and told him of our new mission."

Mike and Joe thought they had an understanding that they would be allowed to get a head start on the rest of the walkers, taking the track alone for a half hour, but when they got there at the agreed-upon hour, the yard gate was locked, and there was no supervising officer to let them in.

As precious minutes passed, Mike was consumed by anger, and the feeling that he had failed his brother. He wheeled Joe back to his cell, where his frustration spilled over, until Joe pulled him up short. This is for the kids, remember? Joe said. And this stuff about failing your brother? Let it go. You haven't failed Danny.

They could hear the walk beginning. Mike still was frustrated, but when he asked Joe what he wanted to do, his friend said that he would do whatever Mike decided. They went to the yard. Mike skipped the check-in and began pushing Joe in the opposite direction of all the other walkers. He turned up his headphones, shut out the outside world, and propelled by anger-fueled adrenaline, he set a rapid clip.

Until, about 8 miles into the walk, the pain in his right foot forced him to stop. He pulled Joe over to a nearby picnic table, took off his sneaker and sock, and discovered another ugly blister. Record? Mike was wondering how he would even finish. The anger came in waves.

Joe had an idea. The inmates had to return to their cells for a head count, then lunch. "When we get back to the cell," Joe said, "let's get some tape and wrap that foot like you're Secretariat."

Just before the walk resumed, a group of guys from the chapel program asked Mike and Joe to join them in a circle of prayer. Mike was hardly in the praying mood, but Joe readily acceded. The group leader -- we'll call him Timmy -- looked directly at Mike and said he was going to read a prayer to St. Jude, patron saint of desperate causes.

"It is a prayer," Mike would say later, "that asks that we humbly accept the trials and disappointments and mistakes which are a part of human nature and implores the apostle of Christ to bring visible and speedy help where help is needed."

When the prayer was finished, each man in the circle embraced Mike and Joe, and sent them on their way.

The miles passed, but so did the minutes. With two hours to go, they had covered nearly 14 miles. They could not afford to slow down, but the record was within reach. If Mike's right foot was still hurting, he didn't even notice. Fortified by sips of the green tea Joe carried with him, Mike pushed on. "His arms and shoulders," Joe would say, "had to be on fire."

When they began their final lap -- the one that would ultimately take them to 22 miles, shattering their record by 2 miles -- Mike and Joe had company. The men who had prayed with them had begun a slow walk around the yard.

"I fell in line with them," Mike would say, "and we did the slow walk until we crossed the finish line as a whole.

"We crossed the line as a community. We crossed the line as friends helping one another."

There would be toys for the kids. There would be a happy phone call to Danny. There would be the satisfaction of doing what they had set out to do.

And there would be this.

"Mike still pushes me around," Joe would say. "He is my dear friend and he loves me. I well up with tears when I think about it."