As Martel George asks the nine 9- and 10-year-old boys seated on the plastic border that rings the playground behind Shamrock Gardens Elementary School in east Charlotte to introduce themselves, he’s sweating — both literally and figuratively.
Literally, because it’s an unseasonably, brutally hot early-October afternoon. Figuratively, because he came into his debut as coach of Shamrock Gardens’ Let Me Run program a little nervous. He is, after all, a 26-year-old part-time student at Central Piedmont Community College who suffers from cerebral palsy; and he did, after all, voluntarily sign up to lead a team of boys as they engage in activities such as ... well, running, for one.
In fact, George is the first person who uses a wheelchair ever to serve as a head coach for Let Me Run, an organization aimed at elementary- and middle-school boys that was founded in Charlotte 10 years ago and has since grown to 112 area teams plus 175 more across the U.S.
“I was even making jokes about it with Jay (Seago, director of the Greater Charlotte region of Let Me Run) when I first met him,” George says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, nobody’s gonna believe that I’m gonna be able to teach them how to run.”
He would quickly come to realize that the program more-generally stresses the importance of teamwork, relationships, emotional growth, strong self-esteem and an active lifestyle, and that to be a good Let Me Run coach you simply have to be a good role model for young boys.
And in that respect — although he has never taken an unassisted step in his life and by his own admission knows basically zero about running — he’s as suited for this position as anyone.
‘I wanted to feel strong’
George was born with a form of cerebral palsy called spastic diplegia, an incurable neurological condition that affects the muscles and coordination in his legs.
Though as a child he worked on physically taking steps with the aid of assistive equipment, it was an extremely arduous task for him, so he essentially always used his wheelchair back then (and continues to use it as his primary means of getting around now).
This would be a challenge for any family, but it was uniquely challenging for his: At one point, while growing up in New York City, George, his two sisters and his mother lived in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in a tenement in Harlem. His mother eventually developed a hernia from carrying her son and his chair up the long flights of stairs in the building.
In spite of his disability, he dreamed of — somehow, someway — playing in the NBA or the NFL, or becoming a professional wrestler in the WWE, or serving his country by joining the military.
The closest he could get to fulfilling those dreams, as a kid, was when his friends would let him shoot around with them on the basketball court. But after awhile, George would have to excuse himself so they could play an organized pick-up game.
“If I could put it into words, it was envious, ’cause I couldn’t do it,” George says, generally, of what it was like to watch his friends do the things he physically couldn’t. “So yeah, I wanted to run. I wanted to feel strong.”
It wasn’t until his final year of high school — after his mother enrolled him in Albertson, N.Y.’s Henry Viscardi School for severely disabled children — that George got his first taste of organized adaptive sports, as a member of the school’s wheelchair basketball team. As it turned out, all of the messing around with his friends paid off: He became known as “the wheelchair Kobe,” and he led his team to a league championship in his first and only season.
With renewed confidence in himself, he started attending Hofstra University on Long Island in the fall of 2011; but financial hardship, health problems, and a campus that was challenging to navigate from his chair forced him to drop out before he finished his freshman year.
Then, in the fall of 2012, Hurricane Sandy barreled through New York City, leaving the foundation of the Far Rockaway-Queens apartment building in which his family was living in disrepair.
George already was longing for a fresh start. Now his family needed a new place to live. His mother had already previously been contemplating Charlotte, on the advice of friends and extended family who’d fled New York for the Carolinas.
It seemed like the perfect time to head south.
Finding a way
Getting his motivation back took some time (as did qualifying for a student-loan forgiveness program that would relieve his debts to Hofstra), but in the fall of 2018 George finally got back on a college track at CPCC, where he’s enrolled in the human services technology program with an eye toward a career in social work.
He also joined Atrium Health’s Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program (better known as ASAP) and took up sports he never thought he’d be playing — tennis and curling, for instance.
This fall, he’s taking a course called “Interviewing Techniques” that comes with a volunteer requirement, so he registered as a volunteer with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The first person to call was Jay Seago of Let Me Run. And when George told Seago about his disability, Seago didn’t balk.
“I was pumped up about it,” he says. “Honestly, I think anybody can motivate kids. It doesn’t matter your physical ability. It’s your ability to get across to them. I mean, we have kids in our program each year that are in wheelchairs, why not have a coach that’s in a wheelchair as well?
“My only concern was whether or not he would be able to navigate the area where they run, because I knew where they run at Shamrock Gardens is kind of down a hill in a field. So I wanted to make sure that that would be doable for him.”
He needn’t have worried. George always finds a way.
On the first day of practice, he needs assistance getting down the front steps of his mom’s house — which is not wheelchair-accessible — in the Plaza-Shamrock neighborhood of Charlotte; then he rolls himself up the crest of the hill at the foot of his street and onto Shamrock Drive, then coasts a few blocks against the mid-afternoon rush. (There’s barely a shoulder on the south side of Shamrock, so yes, he’s basically hurtling into oncoming traffic. He avoids the raggedy sidewalk on the north side because it’s arguably more dangerous than being in the road.)
Fortunately, the main entrance of Shamrock Gardens is less than half a mile away from his front door.
And although getting down to the grassy area where the boys meet can be tricky — after taking the wrong path and finding an opening in the fence far too narrow for George’s chair, Seago and assistant coach Joseph Melrose help him slip his body through it and Seago lifts the chair over it — one can easily imagine George just shrugging and taking the long way around if he’d been by himself.
“Win, lose or draw, even if I lose a hand I’m gonna get to my next destination,” George says.
Hitting his stride
Shortly before meeting the nine boys on his team for the first time, George is making small talk with Melrose as the two men move down a hallway toward the gymnasium at Shamrock Gardens.
“I’m probably the first person y’all ever met to be a coach that doesn’t know much about running,” says George, sounding a little nervous as he tells a variation of the joke he’s offered more than once to Seago.
And Melrose gives the same reply as Seago: “Well, truthfully, the program is more about character-building...”
Once the boys are gathered behind the school, Seago and Melrose do much of the talking up front, but it’s George who takes the lead on getting the kids to introduce themselves, it’s George who fields an innocent question from one of them about whether he’s ever played sports before, and it’s George who watches most closely as they take their laps around the perimeter of the school in the heat.
About halfway through practice, Seago excuses himself to head back to work, and the minute it ends Melrose takes off, leaving George alone for the first time with the group he’s tasked with leading on Mondays and Thursdays for the next seven weeks.
He still seems a little nervous.
As the boys start making their way along the sidewalk leading from the playground area back to the school, one of them notices George struggling to muscle his wheelchair up the incline, and offers to push him.
George gratefully accepts, so the boy wraps his fingers around each of the handles of the chair in a vise-like grip and leans into it, as the new coach’s face finally relaxes — and breaks gently into a smile.