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Memorable efforts


Marvin Lewis

One of Marvin Lewis's big-time mantras when the AFC North is in session is "One Play At A Time."

Don't grouse or dwell about the bad plays. Make the next one better. Lewis believes in the concept of a short memory so fiercely that "One Play At A Time" is the motto of the Marvin Lewis Community Fund that reaches out to kids trying to overcome the day before.

Short memory?

How about no memory?

Meet Nick Whitmore, a Mason High School senior bound for pre-med at the University of Toledo and another one of Lewis's Amazings, that annual group of five MLCF college scholarship winners that always seems to churn out admirable stories more astonishing than the year before.

Let Lewis tell this one.

"Here's a kid," says Lewis, shaking his head, "who collides with a tree during a cross-country race when he's a sophomore, falls down, suffers a traumatic brain injury, finishes the race, and doesn't remember anything before that. Nothing. The first thing I asked about was his parents. He had to relearn who his parents were."

Lewis had begun to think he had heard everything. That happens after a decade of doling out more than $6 million to the Cincinnati region with the centerpiece of Lewis's  foundation remaining the 50 or so $20,000 college scholarships.

Kids from single-parent homes working two jobs. Kids with no parents working like a mother or father. Kids who watched a parent die or go to jail. Kids who lived with their grandparents. Kids from down the Ohio River to the Cincinnati projects to the sprawling suburbs overlapping the I-275 belt.

All with a grade-point average of at least 2.75, a varsity letter in at least one sport, and commitment to community, which are the three major criteria for each of the $20,000 scholarships.

And for the 10th time this Sunday afternoon following the Marvin Lewis Golf Classic at Lebanon's Shaker Run Golf Club, Lewis presents the check to the winners. If the scholarships are the linchpins of his foundation, then the tournament is one of the flagship franchises in Cincinnati giving.

From the celebrity closest-to-the-flag competition that starts the day, to the nearly 20 Cincinnati restaurants that sprinkle the course, to the silent auctions that close the proceedings, Lewis has made it one of the Super Bowl dates on the tri-state calendar. How do you make an outing an event? Of the 122 active head coaches or managers in the four major professional sports leagues Lewis is the only one to serve as chairman of the Board of Directors for a charity or foundation in his name in the same community for a decade.

This year the stories don't stop with the kids. Look at his rookies this season that have arrived on the Bengals roster.

Running back Giovani Bernard's mother died when he was seven, starting his family's slide into poverty. Defensive end Margus Hunt didn't start playing football until he was 21 because before that he'd been a world-class discus thrower in his native Estonia. Running back Rex Burkhead's friendship with cancer-stricken seven-year-old Jack Hoffman sparked a national crusade and an Oval Office visit. Cornerback Onterio McCalebb saw his drug dependent mother taken from him in fourth grade before his father landed in jail, leaving him to bounce from home to home until he secured a scholarship at Auburn.

So what hasn't Lewis heard? Maybe he would just leave the scholarship interviews this year to his executive director, Barbara Dundee, and …

But then when he began to listen to Whitmore's interview, he hadn't heard it all before.

"He's got a great outlook on life," Lewis says. "One of the things we look at in choosing these kids is finding people who are going to be successful for the rest of their lives. He's really committed to finding a field that lets him help people. Of the five kids this year, three want to go into medicine."

Whitmore has whittled his career wish list to three professions: an emergency room surgeon, a pediatric surgeon, or a cardiologist. He's got a jump start because for the past couple of years he's volunteered at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Mason branch visiting patients with physical therapists as well as spending time with families of patients while they are in the waiting room.

"His injury was so fresh that I think that was something that drew him to PT," says Michelle Whitmore, the mother that had to reacquaint herself with her son. "He was always very helpful prior to the injury, but as a teenager, I think he realized how in life it is important to help. He had to learn to ask for help and that's a difficult thing for a teenager."

Michelle, am intervention specialist for special needs students at Madeira High School, admits it would get frustrating with the scrapbooks and the pictures. She and her husband Doug, a branch manager for a supply company, along with his four younger siblings, would try to show him all that had come before. And there would be no recognition. (And the doctors say there probably never will.) She says now they can joke about it—"But you did like broccoli before"—and there are what she calls "glimmers" of memories for him. But what is important now is now.

"It was kind of natural being with my parents. They were with me through the whole thing," Nick says. "From the moment I woke up in the hospital. And I had to stay in the house and not go out for about a month. But the toughest thing was going to a high school of 3,000 kids and not knowing anybody."

But they knew him.

"It kind of showed true colors," Nick says. "A lot of my friends stayed around and supported me. Others, not so much."

And there were new friends, too.

"I'm not very shy," he says with a laugh. "That makes it easy."

There had been a bit of a dip, naturally, in his studies shortly after the injury. But his cognitive loss was little. He struggled in the aftermath with A.P. American History and Spanish, but he rebounded to finish his career with a 3.7 grade point average and the enormous admiration of the faculty.

"As a junior in my honors Anatomy and Physiology class last year, he caught my attention," writes science teacher Carol Lehman in her letter of recommendation to MLCF. "His genuine kindness, sincere willingness to help anyone in any way stood out in class immediately. ... Nick's grades were very good, his work was always done well and on time, he was always prepared academically and he did very well in class; but this was just the tip of the iceberg of the lasting impression Nick would leave on me."

That's his story. He had been born on Nov. 8, 1994 and been reborn Oct. 2, 2010, of sorts, when he was passing runners during the three-mile race and somehow was pushed or fell or slipped into the tree.

"There was about a mile left," he says of a race he ended up finishing in 18:46.

But how or why doesn't matter here. It's not first impressions. It is lasting impressions.

Just ask Feliz Hall, the aquatic supervisor for Mason. Hall had been impressed by what Whitmore did his freshman year in the pool, but was disappointed he didn't show up the next year, having no idea what happened to him. When she saw Nick happening by the pool a year later when Nick was a junior, Hall asked him where he had been and was greeted with a polite, "I'm sorry, but I don't know you."

When Hall got home that night, she read a fascinating email from Nick, again apologizing for being rude and explaining the injury.

"The very core of Nick is to consider another's feelings, even when it means to reflect on painful parts of his own," Hall wrote in her letter of recommendation to the committee.

The two wouldn't be separated again. Whitmore became a lifeguard for the Mason community pools and this past year he volunteered as an assistant junior varsity coach with Hall comfortably putting him in charge of swimmers that needed to improve.

"At that first practice it was clear that he could inspire children to reach within themselves," Hall wrote in her letter of recommendation to MLCF.

For Michelle Whitmore, there had been a lesson in those scrapbooks and it might be a mantra that stands right up there with "One Play At A Time."

"We have moved on. We've moved forward," Michelle says. "Memories are great to have, but the important thing is to make good memories."

It turns out that her son has been a great reminder for Lewis.

"It always teaches you. There are a lot of things that go on in people's lives," Lewis says. "And some things that happen just aren't always unique to you and your family. Wait around for five minutes or talk to five different people, you're going to find something else that's pretty interesting."

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