No one thought he would live

Pictou Advocate sports

It was an August afternoon in 2001. I had driven from Dartmouth to attend Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Stellarton.

As usual, I was seeking a story for my next column.

Like the old saying, “It never rains but it pours.” There were several potential subjects that day.

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Ricky Fraser, my old pal and the guy who gave me my first newspaper job at the Evening News, was being inducted posthumously. It was just too bad he didn’t live to see it.

Other inductees included Billy Dee, whose vision sparked the creation of the local hall; George Manos, a major volunteer with the Johnny Miles Marathon since it began; Doug (Tites) Cantley, a great candlepin bowler and the best softball umpire I ever knew.

But I passed on them all.

Instead, I was seeing a wonderful human interest story in a guy, 42 years old, who hadn’t even been involved in sports in his growing-up years.

I speak of Mike Lees.

More than two decades earlier, in 1979, he was given up for dead after he was critically injured in a motorcycle crash at Blue Acres.

In time, however, he would live a miracle.

Yet even when it was known he would survive, he was being told he would never walk again.

So there he was, at that 2001 ceremony, being inducted.

He looked proud as he walked to the front of the stage. He wasn’t in a wheelchair. He wasn’t using a cane. His limp couldn’t even be detected by anyone who didn’t know his story.

Being inducted into a sports hall of fame? The years between the accident and the induction had altered his life forever.

His story, really, started with the accident.

“I was just turning 20,” he told me. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was cut off on the highway. They never thought that I’d live, let alone walk. I had over 50 operations, mostly bones. I had over 55 fractures. Then I lost my right leg and my left knee. I had both hips done, and my wrists and my shoulder and my jaw, and even my teeth.”

It was obvious, as I listened, that he had, indeed, come through a miracle. What else could you call it?

It was a long, sometimes depressing journey.

A year passed — at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre and Victoria General Hospital — before medical people believed he would survive.

As we talked, I saw no bitterness, no anger, just a man who was simply grateful and thankful. A man happy to be alive.

So who was he?

Mike and his family lived in New Glasgow until he was 16. Then they moved to a farm in Durham. He went to West Pictou District High School, worked on the farm, and developed a love for music. Sports weren’t a part of his life.

“I actually didn’t get into sports until after the accident,” he explained. “Basically, I spent a few years in a wheelchair. When I was in Halifax in hospital, I got involved in wheelchair basketball and swimming as therapy.

“Then a member of the Nova Scotia wheelchair basketball team asked me if I would be interested in joining them. I said, ‘Sure.’ I became a member of the Nova Scotia Dolphins swim team just because I was always a good swimmer. It just ballooned from there.”

The team competed in Ottawa, travelled throughout New England, went to highland games, competed in Nova Scotia and national championships.

Mike loved it.

He was at the Canada Games in British Columbia, the Johnny Miles and Joe Earle road races at home. He entered every competition he could.

He even got to a world championship.

“That was the year of the introduction of wheelchair sports into regular able-bodied sports, which made it more significant. I did the shot put, discus and javelin, against Czechoslovakians, guys from Poland and Russia, places like that. I got a bronze in javelin.”

After his long rehab in Halifax, Mike returned to the family farm.

“I did everything. I never stopped doing anything. I even got back on a motorcycle two months after I got home. I never let my injuries stop me. I still rode horses. I still drove all the farm machinery, everything from tractors and combines to tractor trailers.

“So I always had a positive attitude. My father always gave me that ‘never quit’ attitude. My parents were very proud that I pulled out of (the accident) because nobody figured I would.”

He had a new perspective about life.

“I took more appreciation of the fact that there are a lot of people that I met, thousands of people that I met through (disabled) sports. It’s a whole different way of life that most of us don’t even know about.”

In 1991, Lees decided to attend university in Toronto to study prosthetics and orthotics, artificial limb making.

“I would go to the children’s hospital and meet children with missing limbs, and counsel them on how to use prosthesis and give them the attitude that nothing is unattainable. Try, at least try, I would tell them.”

I’ve wanted to talk about Mike again because, I believe, it was one of the most moving interviews I’ve ever conducted.

His attitude was first class.

“I’m just glad to be alive, to be here,” he told me that day. “Attitude is everything. You have to be positive, always be positive. Without a positive attitude, I would never have done anything.

“Everything happens for a reason and I’m a great believer in fate. Nothing happens for no reason at all. For this (accident) to happen, it meant there was a bigger plan for me, and I just had to figure it out.”

No wonder he’s in the hall of fame.

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Hugh Townsend
A New Glasgow native and Nova Scotia sports journalist for more than 60 years.