The biggest hero at the Phoenix Open works in the parking lot, not on the golf course
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — I first met Jason Schechterle in the Desert Marlin at Scottsdale's Grayhawk Golf Club a few years back.
The Marlin, as regulars call it, is a riotously fun pro-am tournament featuring PGA Tour players who are Phoenix-area residents, industrial-strength wagering, adult beverages in mass quantities, professional needling, a closest-to-the-pin challenge (dubbed "The Dry Heave") contested while emcee Gary McCord heckles participants with a microphone (and frequent X-rated fusillades) and, oh yeah, 36 holes of golf.
Jason, 39, is a former Phoenix homicide detective, and the only known survivor of fourth-degree head-and-neck burns.
He's a medical marvel, really. Jason made his Marlin debut three years ago with pro partner Ted Purdy, a PGA Tour player. They played Phoenix-area junior golf together ages ago. Now, they're best friends.
Anyway, let's revisit Jason's first Marlin practice round. Purdy and Jason are playing with Tour vet Billy Mayfair and his amateur partner. It's the last hole and Team Mayfair is drilling Jason and Purdy six ways from Sunday. (See earlier reference, industrial-strength wagering.) Purdy and Jason decide to go all in. They double-down the bets.
Purdy snap-hooks his tee ball out of play.
Mayfair's partner puts his drive in jail.
Just like that, the money match comes down to a mismatch, Jason versus Mayfair.
Both players hit nice approach shots. Jason puts it 15 feet for birdie. Mayfair is looking at five feet. The tension is thick, while visions of an unpleasant ATM visit swirl in Jason's head.
Jason strokes the putt … and pours it in!
He and Purdy fist-pump and swap high-fives, although Jason calls his "high-threes" since he lost a few digits in The Accident.
Mayfair barely settles over his five-footer when a voice interrupts.
"You're not going to make this on me, are you, Billy?" Jason asks in a pleading tone. "C'mon, man — I caught on fire!"
Mayfair backs away from his ball and begins laughing uncontrollably, startled by Jason's unexpected elephant-in-the-room punch line. Purdy dabs at his eyes, he's giggling so hard. Finally, calm returns and Mayfair steps up to the short birdie putt.
Jason flashes a huge smile. He doesn't have to open his wallet after all and better still, he now owns bragging rights that he has taken down a famous PGA Tour player, one-on-one. It feels awfully good to Jason. Especially considering that he's not really supposed to be alive.
The adventures of Jason Schechterle, inspirational public speaker:
"Kids are brutally honest. I gave a talk at a school one time early on after my accident and asked if anyone had a question. A little boy raised his hand. He was probably first grade or kindergarten. He didn't have a question. All he said was, 'I think you're going to give me nightmares.'
"I realized immediately that I shouldn't have been there to speak. He was too young. After that, I focused on middle school and above, preferably high school and above. That boy made me think about who can handle my story and who can't."
Jason opens the door to the small guest-house behind his lovely, shaded home in north-central Phoenix, and we're immediately greeted by the Olympic Torch. Yes, that Olympic Torch.
The Olympic flame traveled through Phoenix en route to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Games. Jason was still in the early stages of recovery from The Accident 10 months earlier. The skin grafts that rescued some of his eyesight had only recently been removed; his extensive hand reconstruction had not yet begun.
Next to the Olympic Torch is a framed black-and-white photograph that shows a frail Jason passing the Olympic flame to then Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling. "You don't actually pass the torch," Jason explains, "you pass the flame." Good to know.
He isn't sure how or why he was selected to be one of some 11,000 torch-bearers – he thinks a local Coca-Cola rep suggested his name, since Coke was an Olympic sponsor. But Jason was probably a replacement. He got the call to carry the torch only three days before the relay through downtown Phoenix.
What's that? Donny and Marie can't make it? Quick, bring me Jason Schechterle!
"Something like that," Jason says with an easy laugh.
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.
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."
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.
Jason also has one framed SI cover of Tiger Woods winning the Masters.
Because it's Tiger?
No, because Jason was there.
The number one thing on his bucket list was going to the Masters, so he and some buddies scored tickets (I shouldn't ask how, he says) and went.
Shouldn't number one on your list be playing Augusta National, I ask. He laughs loudly. "Yeah," he says, "but that's never going to happen."
Also in that frame is a two-page photo spread from the front of the magazine of Tiger making the winning putt at the 18th green. When he saw that SI photo, Jason raced to grab a magnifying glass to give it a closer look because he was stationed at that green. Yes, he found himself in the photo. Cross off another bucket-list item. Jason has already appeared in Sports Illustrated.
Everything in this room has special meaning for Jason. If you can see past the Roll Tide stuff, including the 'Bama logo Jason has tattooed on the back of his calf, it's very cool. But it's not all fun and games. There's a gag sign: "If you're smoking, you'd better be on fire!" And there are the not-so funny souvenirs, the sobering relics of The Accident.
The story of The Accident would be more heroic if Jason had been badly hurt pulling an old lady out of a burning building. But that's not what happened. Maybe the real story is better because it's a reminder that police officers and firefighters are in harm's way every minute they're on duty. That's why they're heroes.
Jason's squad car was stopped at an intersection for a red light on the night of March 26, 2001. A runaway taxicab going 70-80 mph slammed into the back of Jason's car, turning it into a fireball. The cabbie suffered some kind of seizure and was involuntarily pressing the accelerator. The passenger trapped in the back seat – imagine that terror – escaped with broken ribs. The driver, who also survived, had suffered several previous seizures and wasn't supposed to be behind the wheel again. He drew a 12-year prison sentence.
Firefighters arrived at the scene quickly and were shocked to learn that someone – Jason – was trapped behind the wheel of the flaming wreck in the street. Hoses poured water in, a fellow officer on the scene found a big knife and cut through the seat belt so Jason could be pulled out. That knife is here, under glass in the man cave, along with a photo of the officers who extracted Jason from the car.
Jason points out another photo, where he's posing with the scrap pile that was once his squad car. The wreckage was kept for several years for legal reasons, and when he learned it was going to be destroyed, he went to the garage for a photo op. Jason doesn't remember any of The Accident, mercifully. The flames burned his face off and ravaged his hands. He suffered third- or fourth-degree burns over 43 percent of his body. He survived, he keeps moving forward, he's unsinkable.
There's something else. The uniform shirt he wore in the crash. When he officially retired from the police force in 2006, he was on stage at his retirement and presented with a surprise gift from his best friend and police partner, Bryan Chapman.
"Bryan went down to the evidence room at the station and said, 'I need Jason's uniform,' and they still had it," Jason says. "This thing was rolled up in a paint can. Bryan didn't even have it cleaned. My badge was there, too, still covered in soot. I had no idea they survived."
Chapman had the items mounted on the state flag of Arizona and presented it to Jason at his retirement reception. There weren't many dry eyes in the room.
"I was very emotional," Jason says. "There's all kinds of crap on the shirt, but it looks better than I do. I think it's beautiful."
A year-and-a-half after The Accident, Pauline Arrillaga of the Associated Press wrote a three-part series detailing Jason's incredible ordeal and slow recovery. It's nightmarish and grim at times, a story not for the faint-hearted. But it's also a tale of remarkable determination.
Maybe there are only two things you really need to know. One is Jason's young son, Zane. Several months after Jason returned home to convalesce, 3-year-old Zane knew one thing about the man with the strange face sitting in their living room chair – that was not his daddy.
The other involves the two police officers who pulled Jason from his burning car. As they loaded him onto a gurney, a chunk of burned flesh fell from Jason's arm, leaving a white patch underneath. One officer said later what they were both thinking: "I'm not sure we did this guy a favor."
The adventures of Jason Schechterle, inspirational public speaker:
"My wife and I had our third child 18 months after my accident. Everybody asks me, How did that happen? 'Well, not everything got burned.'"
The ritual begins anew each night. Jason removes his hard contact lenses, no small feat with his reconstructed hands. He's got a special mini-plunger for that task. Then he winds Saran Wrap around his head a couple of times before he goes to sleep. That's to keep the moisture in because Jason has no eyelids. Those were burned off.
In the morning, he removes the wrap and when the air hits his eyes, it stings like a swarm of bees. Jason rushes to apply saline solution and eye wash, but it takes him about an hour to prep his eyes to put the hard lenses back in.
He'll take it, though. After The Accident, doctors sewed skin grafts over his eyes because his corneas were burned. When he was told early in his recovery that he might need corneal transplants, he took that as good news.
"You can see again with corneal transplants," Jason says. "When you're blind, anything they say that's remotely positive, you hang onto. To have your eyesight and then go to complete, total darkness, that was the worst. They never told me, 'You'll be blind forever,' but it was so difficult to lay in your bed with your thoughts and not be able to see."
Almost a year after The Accident, the grafts were removed. It is another day Jason will not forget. A recovery room nurse wakes him by saying, "Jason, it's over, you're done."
"I remember waking up and whoa! There it is," he says. "I can see a woman wearing blue scrubs. I can't make out her face. I can see the wall and the bed I'm in. It's like being underwater and looking at the other end of the pool. But to see lights and colors again was such a blessing. That was a good day. It was a big momentum shift. I thought, I can see again – things are going to get better now."
Jason has had 52 surgeries by his count, a lot of them on his hands, which were in bad shape.
"I could handle the other ones, but I hated the hand surgeries," he says. "They put pins in, and those pins go way in. You know how they take them out? There's a little ball on the end of the pin. They screw the ball off, then take a pair of pliers and start pulling. Slowly. I ask the doctor, 'You're going to numb me up, right?' He said, 'These are in the bone, we can't numb that.' Oh my gosh, by the time the first one was done, I was ready to punch somebody. Man, it hurt. I had some choice words. Then I look down and remember, there are four more pins to go – on that hand."
Several operations later – OK, many operations later – doctors fuse the knuckles on his right hand so his fingers and palm are slightly crooked. It's obvious the first time you shake Jason's hand.
"Jason had this burning desire to play golf and shoot a gun again," Purdy tells me later. "So the doctors built his hands so he'd be able to do that."
I ask Purdy if maybe he should rephrase the part about Jason's "burning desire" and he chuckles. "Yeah, that just comes out," Purdy said. "Jason would be the first one laughing at that, too. But seriously, golf is one reason he is where he is. He loves it."
Jason's handicap usually floats between zero and one at his home course, Moon Valley Country Club. Considering what he's got to work with – three fingers and a makeshift thumb on each hand, plus limited vision that doesn't allow him to follow the flight of a golf ball – he's one of the best golfers who'll ever take money off you. Especially at Moon Valley, where he feels comfortable and knows the course.
Bubba Watson is among the ranks of Jason's victims. He visited Moon Valley for a round and a wager was negotiated. He gave Jason nine strokes and they'd match cards after they finished since they weren't playing in the same foursome. They did have an exchange as they passed between the 12th green and 13th tee. Jason calls out to ask Bubba how he's doing. Six under, Bubba answers, how about you. Four under, Jason says. "I'm not worried," Bubba replies, "you'll start leaking oil on the way in!"
The punch line? "He was right," Jason says with a laugh. "I did."
Jason shot 70, an excellent score for him. Bubba came in with 63. So Bubba whipped out a $20 bill, autographed it and handed it over. Jason still has the bill and the scorecards. Bubba won the Masters a month later.
Wednesday in the Phoenix Open pressroom, I ask Bubba if he remembers Jason and the $20. Of course. I tell him Jason still has that autographed bill, and that's when Bubba asks how much I think it is worth now that Watson's won the Masters, I answer, "20 bucks."
Bubba grins and nods his head. "Yup," he says, "I'd say that's about right."
One time Jason, Purdy and Charles Barkley ended up on the same Phoenix-to-Los Angeles flight in first class. "The flight attendant kept bringing Jason free drinks," Purdy recalls. "Not Charles. It was funny."
As they walked through the LAX terminal, Purdy says Jason was stopped and asked for more autographs than Sir Charles. Some of them, of course, mistook Jason for J.R. Martinez, the Iraq war veteran who won Dancing With the Stars. Still, it all began to eat at Barkley, a famously frustrated golfer, until finally he had to speak up.
"Jason, you piss me off," Barkley tells him, only half-joking. "Your hands look like that and you're a scratch golfer. I hate you."
The adventures of Jason Schechterle, inspirational public speaker:
"I had so many surgeries. I had one on my thumb on Sept. 10 of 2001, a 14-hour surgery. When I woke up, my wife told me that my grandmother had died. I was so weak, and still blind. I thought, 'What a terrible day this has been.' I was really feeling sorry for myself.
"The next morning, my dad came to my hospital room early, which was a little unusual. He's a hard-core New Jersey guy. He was very emotional. He told me terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center. He turned on the news so I could listen to it. I was kind of fuzzy on the details because of all the medicine I was taking, plus I couldn't see. I just remember when the towers collapsed, and they talked about how many firefighters were in there. So many guys died in an instant. I couldn't believe it. I don't think NBC went to a commercial for four days. At least, that's how it seemed to me. I just listened.
"It put things into perspective for me. My grandmother passed away. The next morning, we witness the biggest tragedy America has ever known. It made me realize, 'You're not alone in tragedy. Compared to those people, you're doing OK.'"
It was October 2011 when Jason got a phone call from Mike McQuade, the Big Chief of the Thunderbirds, a volunteer organization that stages the Phoenix Open and supports many other worthy causes with the $80 million it has raised for Arizona charities. He said he wanted to hire Jason for a speaking engagement.
"I thought, 'This is great, I know Mike's dad, I'm getting hired for a gig,'" Jason remembers. "After five minutes, Mike says, 'Jason, I'm just messing with you. I'm here with 54 other guys on a speakerphone. I'm calling to tell you that you're a Thunderbird now. You're one of us.'
"I was speechless. It was one of the biggest honors of my life."
Jason was the assistant in charge of parking last year for the Phoenix Open. This week, he was the tournament's parking czar. The Thunderbird affiliation is a full-circle deal for Jason, who sneaked out of class on occasion when he was a kid to watch the pros at the old Phoenix Open at Phoenix Country Club.
"Somehow, I never got caught," Jason says. He remembers watching Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Lee Trevino and Trevino's big caddie, Herman Mitchell. Those were the days.
His own dreams of playing professional golf ended in community college, which he left to join the Air Force in military security. He did a tour in South Korea ("I wanted to see some of the world."); a stint guarding B-1 bombers in Grand Forks, N.D. ("Nice people, but I've never seen anything worse than winter there. It hurts to inhale in 40-below wind chill. Plus I slipped on ice and fell on my M16 and broke my collarbone."); served on a base in Pensacola, Fla., near a golf course where his uncle worked ("That was paradise."); and then spent five months in a tent at Guantanamo Bay guarding Cubans and Haitians in a camp ("It was like Groundhog Day. Feed 'em breakfast — fight. Feed 'em lunch — fight. They were good people, just frustrated by the conditions.").
He left the military for the Phoenix police, and you know the rest. Golf has always been there for him. Two years ago, he caddied for Purdy at the Byron Nelson Championship. Jason is proud that in his only Tour caddie appearance, Purdy ended a string of 11 missed cuts.
Now Jason speaks at public functions, does some occasional private investigation work and has his own charitable foundation, "Beyond the Flames," which is pretty much a one-man operation.
"Everyone has hardships or adversity," Jason says. "I like that my burns can represent other people's adversity. Public speaking is my calling, for sure. I've had a lot of tremendous opportunities because of the accident. Sometimes, I wonder where I'd be today.
"My life is so good now, I wouldn't go back and change a thing."
Wrap your head around that sentence … if you can. Jason is truly unsinkable.
The officers who pulled Jason out of that burning car had it wrong. They didn't do Jason a favor by saving him that night. That favor belongs to us.