By Kim Constantinesco
Imagine drinking your favorite beer out of someone’s prosthetic leg. That’s the “glass of choice” at Legapalooza, an annual fundraiser for the Dallas Amputee Network (D.A.N.), the largest and most active amputee support group in the U.S.
The idea came from bar manager, Tommy Donahue, 57, who for 30 years, has been running the day-to-day operations at Milo Butterfingers, one of the oldest sports bars in Dallas.
Donahue lost his leg in a hit-and-run in 1981. Since then, he’s been doing his part to support other amputees in their quest to “move forward” and fulfill whatever dreams they have whether it be running a marathon on two prosthetic legs, building a disc golf course for special needs people, or playing on the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team.
The later came true for Craig Till, 37, the only Texan on the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team. Due to a bone disease, Till opted to have his leg amputated at 16 years old. Afterward, he ballooned up to 238 pounds. Then, not only did he find soccer, but he discovered he had a true talent for the sport. That’s when he dropped to 184 pounds and made the National team.
“Without Tommy and Legapalooza, I wouldn’t be playing amputee soccer,” Till said. “I can never repay him for everything he’s done for me in my life. Amputee soccer gave me a reason to keep on moving forward. I’ve accomplished way more without my leg than I ever did with my leg.”
The story has captivated the hundreds that pile into the Dallas Amputee Network’s support group each month, but in early February, it also dazzled Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.
Till, who works in a Waxahachie restaurant, recently delivered food to a table made up of Facebook’s marketing and communications staff. Upon hearing his story, they invited him and Donahue to their headquarters in Silicon Valley. And, there’s a good reason why.
Badge Of Honor
In 1981, Donahue was a typical senior in college. When not in the classroom, he was playing sports, watching sports, or making a few extra bucks by working in the restaurant industry.
During Christmas break, one particularly busy day led him to run out of gas following a hockey game. Seeing that he was running on fumes, he tried to make it to two gas stations, but both of them had just closed their pumps. That’s when he ran out of gas on the freeway. He put his thumb in the air and a couple of kids picked him up, brought him to the closest gas station, and returned him to his car.
“I started pouring gas in my car, and next thing I knew, I was on the ground. Someone had hit me and taken off,” Donahue said. “Both my legs were crushed. It was raining out, so I didn’t realize that I was bleeding so bad. I just knew I couldn’t move, so I laid there.”
A 27-year-old woman who was by herself stopped to check on Donahue. When she saw how badly he was injured, she stayed by his side for 30 minutes until someone stopped to call an ambulance.
Donahue was in intensive care for three weeks, and a dozen surgeries were performed to try and save his leg. Ultimately, doctors needed to amputate. The night before his amputation, one of the nurses invited her friend who had lost a leg to come talk with Donahue.
“It was the greatest thing anybody could have done for me because at that point, I had never met an amputee,” Donahue said. “To me, it was a death sentence. I thought my life was over. When he walked into my room that night, I was at the lowest point in my life. He came in, rolled up his pant leg, and told me he rode bulls in the rodeo on Friday nights. I realized then that I could probably still play sports. At the time, I was playing on seven softball teams in the summer.”
Donahue immediately embraced his amputation because of that visit. He began wearing short pants all the time so others could see his “badge of honor.” In fact, according to Donahue, the accident actually turned out to be one of the best things that’s ever happened to him.
“I was a senior in college. I had always been a follower all through my schooling years,” he admitted. “I wasn’t a leader or a person who made decisions. Here I was about to get out of college with a degree in business management. I don’t know that I would have been successful had I been the follower that I was. I don’t think I could have been a manager of people. When I lost my leg, it was the perfect storm. I had all these friends from high school, college, and work coming and telling me how great I was for what I was overcoming. The more you hear it, the more you start believing it. All of a sudden, I had self- confidence and I started becoming a leader.”
In The News
The accident also led to other opportunities. The day after the hit-and-run, the young woman who stayed with him on the side of the road dropped by to see if he had survived.
“Somebody wrote her name down, and that’s all we had,” Donahue said. “Twenty-three years later, I’m telling my story to James Ragland, who wrote a column in The Dallas Morning News. He asked, ‘Whatever happened to the girl who saved your life?’ I told him I had no idea. He asked if I wanted to find her, and I said, ‘Absolutely.'”
So, Ragland did extensive research, and after publishing an article about a man looking for a guardian angel named Sherrie Hawes, one mother who read the story called her daughter.
“The daughter was Sherrie,” Donahue said. “She told her mom, ‘Yeah, that’s me. I never told anybody about that night. She didn’t want the attention.”
The two eventually met, and Donahue finally got to say ‘thank you.’ The article also led to D.A.N. founders Ellen Fernandes and Sandy Siebert finding him.
“They came to where I worked and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you come to our support meetings.’ I said, ‘Thanks, but I’m doing fine. I’m running this business. I don’t really need a support group. They said, ‘No, we need someone like you to show newer amputees that it’s not the end of the world; that they can succeed in life and move on with their life.'”
Remembering what the bull-riding man did for him the night before his amputation, Donahue jumped at the chance to become a peer visitor.
“The thing I try to instill in new amputees is if you walk around and act like you’re a cripple, people are going to treat you like that,” he said. “If you go out there, and you own it, people are going to look up to you and feel like you’re stronger than they are. It’s all how you handle yourself.”
Donahue also tells people during his hospital visits that they can do anything as long the desire is there.
“You might not run as fast as you once did, you might not climb that tree as you once did, but you can still do it,” he said. “Limitations are endless for amputees, especially nowadays with technology.”
The Leg That Speaks
When Craig Till began taking his first steps in life, it was with a limp. His parents thought something was wrong with his hips, but it turned out to be congenital pseudarthrosis, a rare bone disease characterized by broken bones which do not heal properly.
Doctors put a steel rod in Till’s leg when he was three years old. It worked until he was nine when a longer rod needed to replace it. When he started rapidly growing at 12 years old, his right foot was a size 12 and his left was a size 7. His left leg was two-and-a-half inches shorter than his right. By the time he was 16, he had been through 28 surgeries and broken his leg nine times.
“I was ready to get my leg amputated and move on with the rest of my life,” Till said. “I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t do anything. My leg was basically telling me every day what I could and couldn’t do.”
He had his leg amputated in May of 1996. By March of 1997, he was out skiing thanks to swift growth in prosthesis technology.
However, in 2008, Till contracted MRSA, a deadly staph infection resistant to antibiotics. He thought they would have to amputate more of his leg.
“I’m a pretty happy go lucky guy,” Till said. “It takes a lot to get this old boy down, but that infection really put me on my back. That’s when I heard about the Dallas Amputee Network. I thought, I don’t need that, but my mom said, ‘Have you ever thought about not what you can get from it, but what you can give to everybody else?'”
So, Till began attending meetings, which was the catalyst for his athletic career. One of the doctor’s who supports D.A.N. started the Haiti Natiional Amputee Soccer Team. He convinced Till to travel with him and work for his non-profit. Till was so inspired by the opportunity that he went back to school to earn a degree in marketing. Following that experience, he traveled to San Antonio to do some PR work for the U.S. Team.
“I saw a pair of forearm crutches and I started running around and playing with them,” he said. “At the time, I was 238 pounds. I played the whole day with them and my hands were bleeding and everything. I put my leg back on, and the coach came over and said, ‘Hey, it seems like you’ve been playing for a long time.’ I told him riding a bike for you is like walking on crutches for me. I’ve been on and off crutches for 15 years, so it’s easy for me to run on them.”
While growing up, all of Till’s friends played soccer, so he would go to the field and watch them on Fridays and Saturdays. He knew the rules and the strategies involved. Amputee soccer, however, is a little different. It’s 7-on-7, there’s no offsides, every player rotates into each position, except goalies, who are arm amputees. They play with crutches to level the playing field. After all, countries like Haiti don’t have the resources for prosthetic legs.
“It’s basically like if hockey and lacrosse were to meet soccer,” Till explained.
Over the years, Till turned into a lean mean soccer machine and joined U.S. National Team in 2014. Thanks to funds from D.A.N. via Legapalooza, Till has been able to travel all over the country playing the sport he loves. He went to Mexico to represent the U.S. in the World Cup, where the team went in unranked and came out 12th in the world. Last summer, he went to Costa Rica for Copa America, the team’s first international tournament in 30 years, where they took home third place.
Aside from laying it all out there on the pitch, Till, like Donahue, is a huge advocate for D.A.N and all they incorporate into their program such as bringing in pain management specialists, doctors, and other amputees to educate and empathize.
“It’s more of a family rather than a support group,” Till said. “Not everyone can understand what it’s like to lose a limb. My mom and dad have seen me battle through everything, but they still don’t know what it’s like to wake up in the morning and put on their leg, and go on about their day. The people in D.A.N know exactly what it’s like.”
‘Ever Drink Out Of That Thing?’
Legapalooza has raised over $135,000 for D.A.N. in seven years. It’s the support group’s largest fundraiser of the year. And, the story behind the event is rich, too.
Shortly after Donahue’s accident, he became a regular at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. During the first year he received his prosthetic leg, a Scottish sailor inquired why he was limping. Donahue rolled up his pant leg, and the sailor asked, ”You ever drink out of that thing, Mate?”
For the rest of the day, Donahue’s leg made its rounds. It was filled with Tequila, Scotch, beer, and whatever else the bartender decided to pour into it.
Over the years, the leg served as a communal cup for birthdays and other special occasions. Whenever Donahue changed legs, he held all day parties and made t-shirts and hats to christen the moment.
A couple of years after joining D.A.N, Donahue was at brunch with some friends reminiscing about his legendary parties.
“They asked me when I was having another party, but I wasn’t getting a new leg anytime soon,” Donahue said. “Someone at the table suggested tying it in with a charity event where people would drink out of my leg and we’d give money to charity. A couple mimosas later, Legapalooza was born.”
The first year, Donahue rented a stage for Milo’s, had t-shirts and hats made up, and passed his leg enough to raise $3,000. By the second year, the event reeled in $8,000. In 2016, Legapalooza brought in over $35,000. The parking lot was closed off to allow enough space for bands and the live auction. Other than St. Patrick’s Day, it’s become the bar’s biggest event of the year.
“It’s become my life passion. We’re very blessed in this life with what we’ve been given and being able to help other people is very rewarding,” Donahue said. “It kind of fills a gap in my life. I’ve had a good life, I’ve had fun, I’ve done my bucket list, but this is the stuff that kind of completes you.”
And others have taken notice.
The Silicon Rally
Till wasn’t supposed to go into work that day, but when one server called in sick, he stepped up. The Facebook team, including Zuckerberg, was in town for a court case, and they stopped in for lunch at the restaurant.
When Till’s table asked about his story, he gave them the full rundown of how he lost his leg, and how D.A.N., Legapalooza, and amputee soccer helped him recover. Inspired by the story, one member of the marketing team gave him a business card and encouraged him to make out to California someday for a tour of the headquarters.
Till reached out a few days later, and Facebook told him because they’re working to boost the impact of community groups, they wanted to chat with Donahue to learn more.
“They asked how we use Facebook to promote Legapalooza,” Donahue said. “I told them it was my number one marketing source. By the end of the conversation, they said, ‘We’d like to fly you and Craig out to California in three days.”
Donahue and Till didn’t have any expectations going out there. Facebook told them they might film them and do some media, but that’s all the two men knew.
“I didn’t realize I’d be sitting in a room with 19 people, and talking with Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg,” Donahue said. “I’m kind of glad I didn’t know because I didn’t have time to think about it or get nervous.”
Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, was a moderator in the session Donahue and Till told their stories in. At the time, they didn’t know that she had lost her husband, Dave Goldberg, in May of 2015. He collapsed and died in a hotel gym at the age of 47 due to heart-related issues.
She recently wrote a book about overcoming adversity called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.
“She pulled Craig and I aside after the session and said, ‘Your story really touched me, and you both said how fortunate you were to lose your leg and how you turned it into a positive, and that’s exactly what I just wrote about it my book. I’m really inspired by you guys and I want to get involved with you.'”
Donahue said he doesn’t know exactly where this will lead, but after the visit, her team reached to them about this year’s Legapalooza, scheduled to be held on June 4.
“I’m excited about the possibilities and where this could go,” Donahue said. “Just the attention has already opened up so many doors.”
And that’s worth raising a glass, or a leg, to.