The Trials and Triumphs of Danny MacKinnon


I heard that Danny MacKinnon used to be a no good kid just like the rest of us, until his dad took his life over. I was sitting next to him in some intro level, required Geography class, when he leaned over and said, “How can you like those losers?” Those were the first words he ever said to me. He said it in reference to the Atlanta Braves jersey I wore, number three, Dale Murphy. “I don’t know how anyone can like them, and “The Murph””, he said with a sarcastic tone, “The Murph can’t even tie Pedro Guererro’s shoes.” Danny was obviously a diehard Los Angeles Dodgers fan who tried to prove their superiority through statistics. The type of statistics he threw at me were those only a true baseball nerd would know. A guy drops competitive hatred lines like those on a fella, and two things will happen. Fellas either throw down or a competitive hatred/friendship is born. For us, it was the latter. We exchanged notes, “The Murph goes three for three with a homer and three RBI’s, and Pedro strikes out twice, 0-4,” was one such note I scooted across the desk. We whisper, talked baseball for the rest of the year, until an unusual friendship, indigenous to young men developed. I wanted to hang out with Danny, outside Geography class but he was always too busy. I began to think Danny MacKinnon might be something of a snob.

“He’s not a snob,” a mutual friend said. “He is busy, too busy. His dad booked his whole life up. There was an incident in high school. No one knows what happened, but there was an incident.”

Danny’s mom won the wars in the MacKinnon household, prior to the incident. She wanted her boy to have fun in life, nothing more, and “He doesn’t like sports as much as you do Tom.” She fought her husband on many issues she considered crucial, and she won those wars. “Life is short,” she said to him in many ways. “He will only have one childhood. He will only go through high school once. Let’s let him enjoy it,” she said. Danny was special. He was their only boy, and she accused her husband of wanting to live vicariously through him.

No one knew what the incident was, but Tom MacKinnon took charge of son’s life after it. We could only guess that the incident was a small and relatively insignificant incident that Tom used to win the wars in the MacKinnon household. Some of us guessed that the incident was one of those bad road incidents. The type of incident where no one gets hurt, and there’s no damage done, but it suggests that a teenager might be headed down the wrong road. We assume that Tom decided the best way to prevent his child from going further down that road was to book his son’s whole life up. He probably thought the best way to prevent Danny from going down a bad road was to prevent him from having free time or leave him so exhausted that he doesn’t have the energy to go out with his friends.

Whatever the incident was, Danny was implicated, and it prompted his dad to stop volunteering to work overtime to engineer his son’s life. Tom MacKinnon became the coach of his son’s basketball teams, his baseball teams, and his flag football teams. In doing so, the man discovered he had a talent for coaching young boys, and he continued to work as an assistant coach for Danny’s high school teams, when time permitted. When his kid wasn’t playing organized sports, or doing homework with his dad, he was practicing, and when he wasn’t practicing he was lifting weights, jogging, and playing pickup games with neighborhood kids in the local park. After high school, Danny’s immediate future was mapped out. He received a division II, college scholarship for basketball, and he was able to choose a school well-known for turning out bright engineers. His whole life was mapped out until another incident happened, before he could take one step into a classroom or a basketball court for the college. The second incident was a freak accident that involved a forklift and sheet metal on a Summer job.

His doctors warned him that his future was grim. “I didn’t even know what the word grim meant,” Danny said, “but I really didn’t have to know. All I had to do was look at my dad’s face and hear my mom’s tears to understand the gist of this word grim.”

“You should’ve lost complete functionality of your legs,” the MacKinnon’s primary physician said with a specialist in his background nodding, and an x-ray of Danny’s legs further back. “You didn’t, and in the grand scheme of things, you should consider yourself lucky.”

“What does lucky mean?” he asked with disdain.

“Well, you’re not going to consider yourself lucky in rehab,” the specialist added. “If you complete the regimen we’re prescribing, you’ll gain more functionality, but that’s a big if. With you being a top-shelf athlete in our state, we give you a better than average chance of completing the rehab, if you show the same grit and determination that you displayed on the court, but that’s still a big if. It’s up to you Danny. We’re not going to sugarcoat this, even if you complete the rehab in a spectacular manner, you’ll experience various levels of pain in your legs for the rest of your life. You’ll also experience moments, with your legs, that will forever alter the life you knew before this accident.”

Even with those warnings, Danny MacKinnon was not what anyone would call a model rehabilitation student in the beginning. He spent some of that time feeling sorry for himself. Who wouldn’t? Prior to the incident, Danny MacKinnon was considered a top-shelf athlete in the state, and no matter how many second opinions they received, Danny was told his plans for an athletic future were over.

“There’s so much damage here,” a second specialist said, “that if you listen to your physical therapists, and you excel in your rehab, you might eventually regain enough functionality to walk without a limp. I’m not going to kid you though, Danny, it will be a test of your resolve to reach that point. Most people don’t.”

That wasn’t enough to get him going either. He was awful to the physical therapists and their assistants, and he made their lives miserable.

“I was a little bitch,” Danny said to characterize his first few weeks. “If I couldn’t play sports, I really didn’t want to do anything else. I went into a full-fledged depression, because I couldn’t accept the idea that everything I spent my whole life doing prior to that awful day in September was dead and gone. The mental rehabilitation was much more grueling than the physical aspects of it, but I eventually reached a point where I buried the old Danny MacKinnon and decided to give birth to a new one. I can’t remember if I came up with that idea on my own, or if one of my physical therapists thought it up, but I eventually shocked my doctors by achieving a level of functionality just short of what fully capable people take for granted. I’ll never have a normal gate pattern, but I can now hide my disability so well that most people who don’t know me, can’t see my limp, or my struggle to appear normal.”

I wanted more details. Everything I heard about the incident was secondhand, and if I was ever going to write about it, I wanted primary source information. I thought Danny MacKinnon’s story needed to be told. I thought his story might prove to be an inspiration to others in similar situations in life, but when I called him to ask him for more details, Danny MacKinnon didn’t have the in-depth answers I was seeking. I initially thought this had something to do with the idea that the horrible accident happened so many years prior to our phone call that he either forgot some of the details, or he wanted to put it all behind him now that he was a successful podiatrist, living a full happy life. I also considered the idea that he wasn’t a reflective person. Throughout the phone calls that followed, in which I asked him questions that I thought up after our first phone call, both of those characteristics played a part in Danny’s answers, but the central driving force of Danny MacKinnon’s inability to define his miraculous recovery lay in the idea that he was just a doer.

“Was it painful?” I asked him.

“Yes.”

“The rehab I mean.”

“Yes it was painful,” he said. “Every day, every exercise was a new test of the pain threshold.”

This man of few words said he did what his therapists told him to do. Back then, some therapists used scream therapies. They got in your face and screamed you into more reps. He didn’t like his therapists, and he grew to loathe them, but they helped him achieve what they said would buckle an overwhelming majority of those suffering similar injuries.

Danny MacKinnon eventually became a model student. He used the athlete’s mentality to overcome overwhelming odds, but he didn’t analyze anything he did. Even while immersed in the physical and mental rehabilitation, he apparently didn’t analyze the steps in the process in the manner I would’ve. It’s the difference between doers and analytical and reflective people. Reflective people build narratives to a point where they imagine how a local news network might report on it. Whereas a doer might sum up everything they do with a line such as, “Life deals you some twists and turns, and you have to deal with them when they hit you.” That was how Danny summed up his inability to give me what I wanted.

Danny switched from dreaming about playing college basketball and eventually becoming an engineer, to dreaming about a life as a physical therapist, to dreaming about becoming a podiatrist. He told everyone he knew that he wanted to do for others what the physical therapists did for him, and he thought his story might stoke the fires of any patient who stood precariously over the fault line in the manner he did. When I asked him why he decided to switch to podiatry, he said, “Somewhere along the line, I switched.” He made a couple jokes like, “I think I saw how many hot girls were in podiatry, and I decided that’s for me.” I laughed, but I heard too much about Danny MacKinnon to think he would switch careers over something that silly. It might have been sarcasm too, because I couldn’t think of any female podiatrists, but I’m sure there are some.

Over the course of a couple years, he built a successful practice in a small town, and his friends said he put as much temerity and resolve into building that practice as he put into his athletics. He turned into a substantial, serious man, and that’s when it dawned on me that Danny MacKinnon simply forgot why he switched careers. I don’t know if the Danny I met, after years of separation, was so busy, so happy, or so fun that he didn’t think too much about any of the life-altering decisions he made, but I think he genuinely forgot why he made those decisions. I think he also forgot why he was so driven to rehabilitate himself and the little details of how he drove himself. This may seem improbable to anyone who doesn’t know Danny MacKinnon, but I think he forgot the finer details of his life. He wasn’t particularly humble and nothing he said over the years led me to believe he was an egotistical man. He was just a just-the-facts-ma’am type of guy. These characteristics were such that while I didn’t think he would ever trumpet his accomplishment in an egotistical manner, I didn’t think he would shy away from giving me details either. He just forgot the details of a story that I would’ve told everyone I knew about them so often that they would have tired of hearing them. I might’ve asked that these details be be chiseled into my gravestone if I had to endure them. Danny MacKinnon forgot them.

“You could inspire others, suffering similar incidents,” friends might say if it happened to me. “Your inspirational story of overcoming the odds could appeal to healthy and unhealthy types. People love stories like these.”

If someone suggested that I sell my inspirational story to a Reader’s Digest, I’d have a story like this one typed up, printed, and in the mail the following Monday. I would be so proud of my ability to overcome the odds to walk again that I might even embellish the story to have my “I” character walk onto a court one more time to sink one ceremonious, jump shot in a college basketball game. Danny MacKinnon’s story is not a Rudy tale. His injuries were just too severe. If one were to provide in-depth details of Danny MacKinnon’s incident to a specialist who never heard of him, they might be better able to tell us what a miracle it is that Danny can not only walk without assistance but he helps anyone who suffers similar problems.

The idea that the gist of Danny MacKinnon’s story ended with him becoming one of the most successful podiatrists in his area might be what keeps his story from being After School Special material. How does a screenwriter make a man examining the x-ray of his patients’ feet a dramatic conclusion? It’s not the exclamation point at the end of a story most writers seek. It’s more of a period to those who have never heard skilled specialists inform us that the prospect we’ll ever walk again are grim, “or if you do, it will be excruciatingly painful.” To those of us who know the details of what this teenager had to overcome, and what this man still deals with and will have to deal with for the rest of his life, it is a story we feel compelled to tell anyone who will listen.

As inspirational as Danny’s tale is to those of us who know some of the details, it pales compared to story we think he could’ve told if he remembered more. If he kept a journal of his daily travails, the progressions of his mindset, and the motivational techniques he used to get through the day, we think he could’ve written a motivational best-seller. Danny simply forgot the necessary details he would’ve needed to make his story feel more complete.

“How could you forget?” we asked him.

“I just did,” he said. “I guess I just didn’t consider the details as important as you do.”

When Danny MacKinnon fell out of line with an incident in high school, his dad took control of his life. He drove Danny, like a drill sergeant in the Marines, to be the type of kid who had tunnel vision. He basically took Danny’s identity and image away from him and gave him a new one. That mindset probably drove Danny to become a top-shelf athlete in his state, and that same level of intensity later drove him to overcome the odds and achieve surprising levels of health. If it’s true that Danny MacKinnon was a no-good kid like the rest of us, before I knew him, and he was as directionless as the rest of us, then perhaps the greatest gift his dad unknowingly gave him was a relatively freakish level of tunnel vision that we could all use in our lives.

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