For a paralyzed Vietnam Veteran, football is more than a game.
You know the NFL has entered the playoffs from the passionate exchanges you hear everywhere. Even in the halls of a VA hospital in San Antonio, Texas. This time of year is exciting for most fans, but for Vietnam Veteran, Cowboys fan and self-proclaimed student of the game, Don Townsend, football is a way of life.
It was an absolute chance meeting between Don Townsend and me. There was a documentation photo that needed to be taken. The regular guy was out. I grabbed the camera and headed down to the South Texas VA Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Unit. Don was on the SCI unit because a North Vietnamese Army soldier shot him through his shoulder blade. The bullet fragmented and shrapnel severed his spine, leaving him paralyzed.
Townsend, who has been getting care at the South Texas VA for 24 years, and came onto the unit for the majority of the football season, was not exactly thrilled to be in the hospital during the most exciting part of the year. A helpful brother took a bit of the sting off by working with the nurses at the VA.
“I don’t know who my brother talked to, some of the higher-ups I suppose, but I got to watch the entire Texas High School Football Playoffs right here in my bed,” said Townsend with a grin that was just as wide as the gridiron.
It’s not the first time that football has picked up the spirits of the Army Airborne soldier from the 101st. After his injury on July 5, 1968, he worked his way back to the U.S. through a series of hospitals, eventually getting back home where he admittedly said he was falling into a depression. He was looking for a purpose, something to do. He found football.
“Football became a passion for me,” said Townsend. “I really felt that football kept me alive.”
He has almost five decades in a wheelchair, but that also means he has five decades of football knowledge. His passion is evident, recalling plays from the late 60s, with every detail down to weather conditions. He realizes it’s not for everyone, but said it really worked for him. He obsessively studies the game.
Upon walking in his room, the first thing that stood out to him was the Green Bay Packers lanyard slung around my neck. As chances would have it, the Packers and Cowboys would be meeting that weekend in the divisional round of the playoffs. The second thing that jumped out was my “Northern accent.”
I couldn’t miss his grin, and it didn’t take long to dive right into football. I was expecting a volley of Packer jabs, (what I usually receive down here in Cowboys country), but he began peppering me with the rich history of the Vince Lombardi era. He threw facts at me that even a diehard like me didn’t know.
He repeatedly mentioned one player that was also a favorite of mine, number 64, Jerry Kramer. Old number 64 was integral to the Packers’ wins, coincidentally over the Cowboys, and he went into a game breakdown just as smoothly and efficiently as Pat Summerall. My mind was elsewhere.
A Purpose for that Jersey
The minute he mentioned Kramer, my mind went to the closet in my home office. I had a vintage Jerry Kramer jersey that had been hanging there for 11 years. It was destined to be on the wall in my man cave, but now I found its purpose.
We jumped back and forth between topics; his injury, the politics of war, his family’s service to this Nation, two brothers and a father who all served, and interwoven were several football lessons. You think you have it figured out until you meet someone who has experienced so much more.
Most people look at Don and feel badly for him, but he tells them he feels lucky. He holds dear his faith, and even thinks of himself or his brother who might have been one of the thousands who did not come back. He will be the first to admit he doesn’t like hospitals, checking himself out of one of his first, an old Army hospital.
That led to a dangerous fever, and a return to another hospital, this time, the VA medical center in Houston. He received care there until he found out they were opening the SCI in San Antonio, a mere 50 miles from his family in Mason, Texas. Ever since then, he said it’s been a blessing.
“I’ve been in a wheelchair for 50 years and the VA has not always been (just) good to me,” Townsend said emphatically. “They have been fantastic!”
He eventually married a lovely woman, who really brings joy to his life, although he let me in on the fact that she knows absolutely nothing about football, and he can’t stand her poorly timed inquiries about the game, during game time. But he continues to view the VA as a blessing, getting a home improvement loan and being able to make it comfortable and safe for him and his wife.
Would Give Cost of Living Allowance to VA Nurses
I told him that I view the VA nurses as football linemen, doing all the heavy lifting at the hospital and asked if they were treating him well. He answered with a recent conversation he had with his wife about a very small three-dollar cost of living allowance. She was less than impressed with it. He responded, “I’m not worried about the three dollars, heck, I would give that to the nurses that take good care of me.”
He even took President Obama up on a call for feedback from Veterans and called the White House to tell them about his experiences.
What impressed me the most is that he used his patriotism to shield himself from any bitterness.
“I just felt that it was my time to serve,” Townsend said a little more quietly. That drew a small amount of emotion from this strong man, who explained that his injury kept him from following the career path he had planned.
“I just always wanted to be a coach and a teacher,” Townsend said. “When I hear these high school boys, and the way they talk about their coaches, it stirs something in me.” He wanted to impart knowledge that would help young people for a lifetime.
I visited Townsend again one last time on his discharge date on the eve of the Cowboys-Packers game and gave him the jersey wrapped in belated Christmas paper. He opened it up and was momentarily speechless.
“This is bittersweet for me, why isn’t this great man in the Hall of Fame?” he finally said. True to character, I was glad to see that passion for football, and I hope the jersey looks great on the wall of his den where he can watch with his grandson.
My job at the VA allows me to meet so many amazing people like Don Townsend who taught me to look for positive things in life, having patience and finding the thing that truly makes you happy.
So, Mr. Townsend, I beg to differ. After a few conversations with you, it is abundantly clear you have become that teacher.
About the author: Steven Goetsch is a Public Affairs Specialist at the South Texas VA