Jackie Robinson's daughter honors Utah boy who fought cancer
As a child, Sharon Robinson would watch her dad walk out to the middle of the frozen lake near their home to test the ice before letting her skate.
Now, as an adult, Robinson views the memory as a metaphor for what her father, Jackie Robinson, did in sports in 1947, when he became the first African American to break Major League Baseball's color barrier.
"He stepped out alone, and he did it against great odds," Sharon Robinson said during a Wednesday visit to Holladay's Morningside Elementary. She noted that despite her dad's athletic prowess, he never learned to swim.
Sharon Robinson spoke with students about her dad's accomplishments and those of Utah fifth-grader Steven Blodgett, 11, who won an essay contest inspired by her father. Steven wrote about overcoming bone cancer and a leg amputation, and his essay was chosen as one of 10 winners out of 18,000 submitted from across the country.
Her visit follows the recent release of "42," a movie about her father's entry into Major League Baseball. He played with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which won six National League pennants in his 10 seasons, and he was named National League MVP in 1949.
"You certainly talked about the teamwork with your family and having courage," Sharon Robinson told Steven in front of his class. "Those were two values that were very important to my dad."
The contest, called "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life," asks children to write about how they used values demonstrated by Jackie Robinson commitment, citizenship, courage, determination, excellence, justice, persistence, teamwork and integrity to overcome challenges. Sharon Robinson developed the program, which began in 1997, with Major League Baseball and Scholastic.
Sharon Robinson said she was especially struck in Steven's essay by his attitude about having his leg amputated. "He sort of threw in there he was an amputee," she said. "It hasn't taken over his life."
Steven was diagnosed in 2011 with osteosarcoma after he developed a limp and noticed swelling near his kneecap. He underwent chemotherapy and later a type of amputation called a rotationplasty, in which doctors attached his lower leg and foot to his upper leg, removing the middle portion, allowing his ankle to act as a new sort of knee joint. He also wears a prosthetic.
The tone of Steven's essay is optimistic and grateful. He says he couldn't have gotten through it all without his family's support. He also wrote about courage and determination.
"Every scan I learn that I am cancer-free I can go on with more determination than ever," Steven wrote. "Determination to keep on going, while keeping up socially, emotionally, physically [which may be the hardest, considering the leg situation], and mentally."
Steven's mother, Sonja Blodgett, said he's focused on not letting the amputation hold him back, playing sports at recess and continuing physical therapy.
"We're really proud of him," she said, "not just for winning the essay contest but also how he's overcome barriers he's had."
Jackie Robinson was familiar with health challenges as well, his daughter said Wednesday. After he left baseball, she said, he developed diabetes, eventually going blind in one eye and having trouble with his legs.
"He always thought that was his toughest barrier," Sharon Robinson said, "because he didn't have control over it."
She said her dad would be thrilled to see the contest inspired by his experiences.
"He loved children," Sharon Robinson said, "and the fact that I could take his life and turn it into something today's children could get inspired by, I think he'd love it."
She gave Steven a new computer, a set of T-shirts for his class, a computer for his teacher and a book she wrote. She told Steven she was proud of him. The admiration went both ways.
"He was amazing," Steven said of Jackie Robinson. "He overcame lots of things."
Classmate Maya Wagner, 11, called him a legend.
"Our society today," Maya said, "would be a lot different if he didn't break the color barrier."
The Tribune's Sean P. Means on '42'
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