TIME OUT with Joe Flanagan

These terms are used often in the world of athletics. While they may be tossed around a bit too freely at times, there certainly are many stories of courage and moments of inspiration in sports. Miracles? Depends on your definition, I suppose.
These can certainly be uplifting and, well, inspirational to us. I’m not going to downplay the wonderful stories and examples we’ve all read about, seen and heard.
However, there are times in life when you meet courage and inspiration face-to-face and it has nothing to do with digging deep to overcome fatigue or injury, nothing to do with making a miraculous catch or hitting an improbable shot for victory. It’s the inspiration and courage derived from a true-life miracle.
Kay and I had that opportunity this past weekend at the ELCA Nebraska State Synod Assembly where Patrick Henry Hughes and his father, Patrick John, were the Saturday evening featured guests.
Patrick Hughes’ name may ring a bell with some of you. You may remember seeing his story on ESPN last year. In fact, if you watched the ESPY awards show, Patrick Henry and his father were the winners of the “Disney Spirit Award” in 2007 for being part of the University of Louisville marching band.
OK, if you aren’t familiar with the story, you’re probably wondering what’s so special about being in a marching band? There are thousands of students in marching bands all across the nation, right? Yes, there are, but I’ll venture probably no other  quite like Patrick Henry – and his father.
You see, Patrick Henry Hughes has had a few uphill battles in his young life. We all have some ailments, aches and pains, maybe even more serious conditions. Well, try to imagine this combination … Patrick Henry was born without eyes – they simply never grew. He also has a condition that inhibits him from straightening his arms or legs past 90 degrees – so, he’s never walked. His hips are also displaced and he’s had to be treated for several other problems, such as having two steel rods inserted in his spine for severe scoliosis. It all makes a person’s sore back and aching knees seem pretty inconsequential, that’s for sure.
Patrick Henry’s health issues are only the tip of the story, however. Mostly, this is about his indominatable spirit and amazing talent. Despite the obstacles he’s faced, this young man has become a straight A college student, an accomplished musician and, yes, a member of the marching band – with a little help from Dad.
Patrick John Hughes is quite open and honest, telling how his dreams were crushed after his son was born. Like so many fathers, he’d dreamed of playing catch with his son, shooting baskets with him and watching him grow into a strong young athlete. Those were his dreams, though, and had nothing to do with the plans for Patrick Henry’s life.
Patrick John noted one of his favorite quotes came from the late Jim Valvano, who shortly before his premature death from cancer, said “If you want to see God laugh, tell him your plans”. Indeed, no one in the Hughes family could have envisioned the map of Patrick Henry’s future.
How about first playing notes on a piano when you’re nine months old? Or playing songs by ear at two years of age? Who could have imagined Patrick Henry performing old standards by grade school and tackling the most complex blues and classical compositions by the time he was entering high school? All while being an honor student.
In recent years, Patrick Henry has studied with a Juilliard graduate, perfecting Bach, Beethoven and other masters. He’s an accomplished vocalist and plays a variety of instuments, including the trumpet. And, therein, lies the rest of the story.
When Patrick chose to attend the University of Louisville, the passionate director of the Cardinal marching band was determined that this remarkable youngster would be a member – and not just from a stationary seat tucked over by the sidelines. Well, if Patrick Henry Hughes is courage, Patrick John is inspiration.
The elder Hughes took a graveyard shift with UPS, working 11 pm-6 am each night. After a few hours sleep, he attends all of Patrick Henry’s classes with him, then teams up with his son to become a practicing member of the Louisville marching band. Pushing young Patrick’s wheelchair, this indefatigable Dad marches, twirls and dances through every manuever of every Cardinal performance. Amazing.
Father and son did not do any of this to become famous. But, famous they have become. As Patrick John said, “I dreamed, like many, of having a son who would become a great athlete and be featured on ESPN Sportscenter highlights – you know, the Da, Da, Da … Da, Da, Da. Well, little could I have imagined Patrick Henry being the focus of a six-minute ESPN feature and touching millions of lives.”
Since the television exposure and awards the Hughes’ have traveled across the country, making personal apperances and sharing their inspiring story. If I remember correctly, I believe Patrick John said Nebraska was the 43rd state they have now visited.
At the same time, Patrick Henry is a full-time student, majoring in Spanish, and beginning to assess his future. He said that future could be as an interpreter, a musician or, eventually, even an ambassador. His dreams aren’t small, and believe me, after hearing him perform musically Saturday, they shouldn’t be.
Patrick John proudly noted that his son has been, basically, an A student throughout his life. Patrick Henry interrupted and gleefully noted that wasn’t entirely true, that he’d actually had straight F’s for some time. Faith, Family, Friends and Freedom.
Many would call Patrick handicapped. Knowing his story, do you think he feels he’s handicapped? No, Patrick Henry Hughes is blessed – and he’ll quickly tell you so.
So, too, were we blessed this past weekend. We were able to see a miracle face-to-face and draw inspiration and courage from the story. Thank you Patrick – younger and elder.
(To view the original ESPN feature film clip, go to and type in patrick henry hughes in the search box)