The biggest hero at the Phoenix Open works in the parking lot, not on the golf course

Jason Schechterle
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images
Jason Schechterle carried the Olympic torch through Phoenix before the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake.

The invitation is a great honor. Jason can't say no. After months in the hospital, he's very weak. He's carrying a mere 125 pounds on his once athletic 6-foot 3-inch frame. Mentally and physically, he's at rock bottom. Look closely at the photo, Jason tells me, see that dot on my neck? That's for his tracheal tube hookup. He's also wearing special gloves on his hands, which are mangled and so painful that he's not sure he can hang on to the torch.

"It was so scary," Jason remembers. "I was bad. I could barely see. When Danny Ainge passed the flame and lit my torch, I had all these crazy thoughts, 'I'm the only person on the planet holding this right now. Don't drop it! Don't trip and fall!' Crazy thoughts."

Only four months have passed since 9/11 and all police officers, especially those injured in the line of duty like Jason, are public heroes. Friends, family, fellow officers and even strangers shout encouragement as Jason jogs slowly past, carefully lifting his legs high. Don't fall, don't trip! It is only 400 yards along Central Avenue, but they are the longest, most important 400 yards of his life.

Jason reaches the finish and passes the flame to Schilling's torch. A huge wave of relief washes over him. Then Schilling grabs him -- wait, what? -- and commands, "C'mon, you're going with me!"

Before he can protest, they're already walking. Schilling holds the torch with one arm and Jason with his other. Ainge appears as if out of nowhere and grabs Jason on the other side. He hears people cheering - "Go, Jason! C'mon, Jason!" - but eerily, he can't see them. He's almost dazed from the effort and the magnitude of the moment.

This is Jason's first public appearance since The Accident. He's understandably self-conscious about his looks, and even afraid of how people will react. But the outpouring of support from the crowd, a rush of unexpected love, amazes him.

There is a ceremony at Patriots Park after the torch passes through Phoenix. It's a buzzing cauldron of people and Jason has been asked to speak. His vision is limited, especially at night, and he feels suddenly alone and overwhelmed on the stage. He is not ready for this. Jason panics and shrieks for his wife. "Suzie, where are you?"

The crowd goes silent. His wife answers from behind the stage, "I'm here!" Sobbing, Jason says, "You're my rock, I love you!" He's crying now, he can't say another word. He is helped off the platform and into his wife's arms.

He remembers everything about that evening - the sounds, the smells, the night air. Even the date. Especially the date.

"I was nowhere on January 13th of '02," he says, gazing at his torch. "Nowhere. I woke up the next morning after that night and it was like, 'Wow.'"

He rests his hand on the cool metal surface of the torch, trying to think of the right words to describe how the walk affected him, but nothing comes. There is a pause.

"Nobody else looks at their torch the way I do," he says, gathering himself. "A lot of celebrities probably go, 'Yeah, I carried the torch, that was one of my other 50 honors.' This means so much more for me. It was my first defining moment."

This is why his Olympic Torch greets those entering this room. He was reintroduced to hope that night. Carrying a symbolic torch, the definition of irony for a burn victim, opened a doorway back to his life. With a little help from his friends, Jason proudly walked through it.

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The adventures of Jason Schechterle, inspirational public speaker:

"When my speeches are over, a few people want to come up and shake my hand and share an anecdote from their own lives. There were a bunch of people waiting for me after I spoke at a firefighter's convention in Arizona, and about 15 people back in the line is a New York City firefighter. I know because he's in his dress uniform and he stands out. If you've ever seen a New York City firefighter in uniform, man, they look good. Firefighters are close to my heart, obviously, and I was thinking, 'Wow, this guy came all the way out here from New York.'

"When he got to me, he had tears coming down his face. He said, 'Jason, I was there on 9/11. I'm going through a divorce right now, but you changed my life today.' I was so choked up, all I could say was, 'Thank you,' and I barely got that out. Then he walked out of the room.

"It was so profound. It was a moment of complete clarity for me. That's when I decided I wanted to be a public speaker the rest of my life. That night, I talked about the power of the human spirit, and how there's nothing you can't overcome with a positive attitude. The sun rises, life goes on and you can either be part of it or not. It's that simple.

"I wish I could have that moment back so I could get past my emotion and talk to him. He truly inspired me. And I didn't even get his name."

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Before The Accident, friends used to tell Jason that when he had his glasses off, he resembled Ralph Macchio of "The Karate Kid" movie fame. He did. We're still touring his guest-house - really, it's a man cave - and there's an old black-and-white photo of him. This is man-cave heaven. There is a big-screen TV and walls covered with sports gear, like a World Series Red Sox jersey signed by Schilling, and also quite a few framed Sports Illustrated covers - sorry about the plug.

"They're only $7, man - they're great," Jason says.

He's an Alabama guy and comes here to watch college football, often with one of his kids, although his oldest, daughter Kiley, is a freshman at Texas Christian University now. Every SI cover with Alabama football is on display, even ones with Bear Bryant and his houndstooth hat. Do not invite Jason to play golf on a Saturday during college football season. He's got a previous commitment.

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