Old friend lived with courage

Published 9:43 pm Saturday, April 7, 2012

STARKVILLE — Life is messy and inconvenient. No one knew that better than my friend Rusty Van Reeves.

This week, we lost Rusty. He was a few days shy of his 52nd birthday. I met him when we were boys in the early 1970s at Camp Binachi, the sprawling Boy Scout camp southeast of Meridian near the Whynot community.

We were fast friends. There was cockiness, a self-assurance about him that drew friends to him but at heart he was a country boy whose life was all out there ahead of him. Physically, he was a truly gifted athlete. There was not an ounce of fat on him. Tan, tightly muscled and brown from summers spent in the sun, Rusty’s hair was shoulder length and he walked like a coiled spring.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

That Rusty would become a middle linebacker on his high school football team as a freshman was almost a given. He was strong as an ox and loved both contact and confrontation.

Adored by the girls, envied by the boys, Reeves was at age 15 in a small Mississippi town in the mid-1970s what passed for a god — smart, funny, athletic and popular. He was an Eagle Scout and a lifeguard.

But the popular, competitive jock’s life changed on Oct. 10, 1975, in the third quarter of a football game between Reeves’ Newton High Tigers and the Forest Bearcats at L.O. Atkins Field in Forest. The Bearcats ran a reverse. Reeves moved in for a touchdown-saving tackle.

The collision was so violent that Reeves’ helmet and mouthpiece sailed 15 yards past the point of impact. Reeves suffered a severed spinal column at the C4 level. He almost died on the field. He never walked again after the injury. But he never stopped trying to walk and to live.

Rusty lived in a wheelchair for nearly four decades. Reeves knew a little something about loss — but he knew far more about hope. He also knows something about waiting. During those years, Reeves waited for medical science to advance sufficiently to give him back his freedom, his mobility, his life.

He didn’t mark time. Despite his disability, he wrote five books, a newspaper column, screenplays, and poetry. Despite his disability, he mastered computers, email and social media. Rusty continued his lifelong interest in art and music.

Despite his disability, Rusty knew not only the love of his mother and brother — his defenders and caregivers — but also of a compassionate woman. He reached out to friends — sending them notes, CDs he’d burned or poems.

Rusty fought hard for political causes that he believed in and feared no man in those pursuits. In short, Rusty Reeves was put on a hard road when he was 15 years old and he faced it all with courage, grit, and determination.

The journalist in me has not confirmed exactly how Rusty came to meet the fate of drowning after his complex motorized wheelchair carried him into his backyard swimming pool. The friend in me doesn’t think the answer to that question particularly matters. Life is messy and inconvenient.

Despite his heroism, I will not remember the middle-aged man in the motorized wheelchair. I will remember the muscular linebacker — the Eagle Scout shirtless in the summer sun — teaching younger Scouts how to row their canoes across the lake at Camp Binachi and loving every minute of it.

In 1975, at Baptist Hospital in Jackson, Rusty told me while still attached to the “halo” after his injury: “I’m still in here. I’m still me.” To the end, Rusty remained true to those defiant words.

(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com)