Let Me Introduce You to Fred Gutierrez
Fred Gutierrez is a unique individual. He enjoys everyday and almost always has a smile on his face. That alone would be enough to make him unique, but that is only a small portion of what makes Fred inspirational.
Sixteen years ago he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, as he puts it, and had a truly life changing experience. He was shot in the head with a .38 caliber handgun. But instead of the bullet going all the way through his brain and killing him, the bullet somehow went out the top of his skull. Fred attributes this to the hand of God reaching down and deflecting the bullet out the top of his skull. Fred’s injuries were quite extensive and he has a hole in his brain about the size of a golf ball. He was in a coma for six days and when he woke up he told his mother everything would be ok. [You see Fred remembers going to Hell and sitting in front of God on the Judgment Seat. When he accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior he was sent back to take care of his family and start a unique ministry].
The golf ball size hole in the right side of his brain left him with Left Hemiparesis; meaning the left side of his body is almost completely paralyzed and has muscle atrophy. As he explains it, about 90 pounds of his 180 pound body is basically dead meat. Despite his paralysis, he amazingly can drag his left foot with considerable effort on every step.
Many people complain about the smallest of aches and pains and allow themselves to be incapacitated by what in reality are minor inconveniences. It takes Fred considerable effort to do everyday tasks and much longer too. Yet, Fred, despite all of his challenges almost always has a smile on his face. He enjoys every day and feels very blessed to be alive. Almost all of the people in our society today could learn a valuable lesson from Fred.
About a year ago, Fred was in a small group for his church (Summerbrook Community Church) he mentioned he was struggling to stay in shape, because exercise was so difficult due to his paralysis. He also mentioned that used to enjoy playing golf. He played left handed and was able to score in the low 80’s on a regular basis. For the group’s Christmas Exchange, Paul Ballow, an avid golfer and club builder, built Fred a unique set of custom golf clubs. These clubs were right handed and featured extremely light shafts and heavy club heads. Fred was overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift. But, at the same time, he admitted that he was a little scared to go out and play because he did not want to make a fool of himself in front of other golfers. He told me that I inspired him in the way that I have recovered from my injuries and asked me if I thought he could play despite his partial paralysis. I tried to encourage him to try if it was something he wanted to do. I told him I would help any way I could.
So armed with a new set of clubs, Fred began the process of relearning to play the game of golf. In and of itself, that can be a daunting task, but imagine having to retrain half of your body to swing in the opposite direction it used to swing while your left side is unable to move or shift weight. And if he swings too hard, he probably would fall down.
I had the opportunity to invite Fred to be my guest in the Summerville Country Club Member-Guest Tournament in August. I had not yet had the opportunity to play a round a golf with Fred, but thought it would be interesting to have two golfers that have overcome partial paralysis and serious brain injuries. We choose the name 2nd Chance by the Grace of God to represent our team. I remember thinking, some things are more important than winning a member-guest tournament.
We decided to play a practice round a few days before the tournament. Despite his partial paralysis and how difficult it is to force his left foot and left leg off the ground, Fred told me he preferred to walk using a pull cart. He prefers that to driving a golf cart, because getting in and out of the driver side of the golf cart bruises his left leg. So we headed to the first tee and started to walk the front side. There were groups teeing off right ahead and behind us. And both groups were using golf carts. I must say that I was a little concerned that we would not be able to keep pace with the foursomes around us. I was amazed that it did not take that much extra time for Fred to “shuffle” his way down the fairway. We played the front side in about 2 hours and fifteen minutes, but held our position relative to the group ahead and behind us. On the eighth and ninth greens I could see Fred was starting to get tired and his left foot was starting to scuff the green with every step. After completing the front side and walking a little over two miles, I suggested we get a golf cart for the back side so he would not get too tired. With the use of the cart on the back side, I noticed Fred was not struggling as much to lift his foot on the greens and he was hitting the ball a little better.
For the Member-Guest tournament we used a golf cart and I drove him near his ball because on the first day of the tournament we would be playing three nine-hole matches. Considering I was injured when I was ejected from a golf cart, I was not going to take any chances. In other words, I was a VERY safe driver. And with him as a passenger, he would not bruise his leg. During the tournament, the entire field played at a very good pace… about 2 hours per nine holes (which is almost unheard of in a tournament). Our group easily kept pace with the groups around us. It took Fred a little while longer to play his shots, but it never really was an issue.
During the Member-Guest tournament, we finished at the bottom of our six team flight, but the players in the event were in awe of Fred’s courage and determination. As I said earlier, some things are more important than winning a tournament. I also was pleasantly surprised that the other teams in our flight not only were in awe of how well Fred hit the ball, they also volunteered to help us when they could by fixing his ball marks and raking bunkers for him. And as we left each green I made sure to fix any scuff marks if he dragged his foot. We also tried to make sure that he had help traversing some of the wet slopes around the greens on the way back to the golf cart (as falling would be really bad). The groups in our flight even suggested that Fred should be able to play the senior tees in future tournaments as an appropriate accommodation for his handicap (he played from the normal men’s tees during the tournament).
After the tournament, I started playing with Fred about once a week. We have now played about 25 rounds of golf together and I would estimate that he hits about two-thirds of his shots pretty solid. He averages almost 200 yards off the tee with his driver and hit hits the ball surprisingly straight. When I first started playing with Fred back in August, he was averaging about 105 (if you count every shot and penalty stroke). So by definition, he was an average golfer. Playing on a weekly basis, he has steadily improved to where he is now consistently shooting in the low 90’s.
Playing on a weekly basis, has also given Fred the opportunity to improve his stamina. When we first started playing in August, walking nine holes (or about two miles) was his limit. During the next six weeks, his stamina improved to where he could walk 18 holes (4 miles) and then 22 holes (5.5 miles). I was in awe of watching Fred walk farther each round as he builds up his stamina. And our pace of play is a very respectable 3.5 hours a round.
In October, Fred convinced his doctors at the VA to give him Botox injections for his left arm and leg to help with the tightness of his muscles. His doctor asked him why he wanted the injections in his legs. Fred told him that he wanted to be able to WALK 10 MILES while playing 36 holes of golf by the END of the YEAR and be able to shoot in the low 80’s. At that point, the doctor’s jaw dropped in amazement.
The Botox injections have helped him considerably. After the first night, he told me he slept better than he had for 16 years. When he plays golf, he has much less pain and is far less fatigued. The mobility in his left leg has increased tremendously which can be seen in his stride which is nearly a yard long now versus the shuffle he had in August. He also started hitting the ball a little farther because he was able to shift his weight a little better. That week, Fred walked 27 holes (about 7.5 miles). With every round he is walking farther, at a faster pace and he continues to improve.
Fred’s goal is to continue to improve and reduce his scores down into the upper 70’s. He would like to compete in some tournaments in the National One Armed Golfers Association. Putting is one of the strengths of his game. He started by using a belly putter anchored to his chest. He had pretty good control with that, but struggled with his distance control due to issues with depth perception. He was inspired by the movie “Seven Days in Utopia” so I suggested that he putt side saddle with a regular length putter and feel like he was tossing the ball to the hole. Being able to look straight down the line of the putt has helped him considerably. He spends a considerable amount of time practicing his pitching and chipping as well.
Golf courses tend to be a place where players swear when they get angry at themselves for hitting a poor shot. Fred does not like when he hears bad language being used on the course (especially taking the Lord’s name in vain). It was quite refreshing to hear his swing thought before every swing …”For the Glory of God”.
On the day he got his Botox injections we played golf and he told me what he told the doctor about wanting to WALK 36 holes (10 miles) while shooting in the 80’s by the end of the year. I remember immediately thinking that would be an incredible fundraiser…we could call it the For the Glory of God Golf Marathon. The money raised could be donated to organizations that do work with patients with some form of paralysis.
I feel very fortunate to have been able to share this journey with Fred. I have had the privilege of being his mentor, manager, caddy and now even his publicist. I hope he inspires others as much as he has inspired me.
Fred shows a great deal of courage and is truly inspirational. Not only is he incredibly inspirational to patients suffering from paralysis and other handicaps, but also their families, as well as the doctors and physical therapists that work with these patients. What Fred has been able to do on the golf course is truly remarkable and it should inspire other golfers with disabilities, as well as, those that work with them. Fred’s testimony is also very powerful and Christians worldwide would be inspired by his journey. With every step he takes and every swing he makes, he is thankful. He shows that with determination, the human spirit can do incredible things. And in that way, Fred should inspire us all.
Spend an afternoon with Fred on the golf course and you will have gained a good friend. And I promise your mood will improve. By the way, Fred is always looking for someone to play golf with. Yes, he will need a little bit of extra help, but if you are willing to be patient and help him when necessary, I promise you will be inspired by this golfer who is anything but average. He is one of the most inspirational golfers I have ever met and someone you probably will never forget.
By Rich O’Brien
About the author:
Rich O’Brien is a survivor of a catastrophic accident four years ago. In the accident, he was a passenger in a golf cart and was ejected as it went downhill and turned sharply to the left. His head and neck slammed into concrete when he was thrown to the right. During the accident Rich sustained four skull fractures, a broken neck in two places (c1 +c2), serious blood clots throughout his brain (subdural, subarachnoid, and epidural hematomas) and serious damage to his right shoulder. His odds of surviving were minimal at best with the likelihood of extensive brain damage and paralysis. The full list of Rich’s injuries includes 50 things in which he has had to recover from. He estimates that he has done over 12,000 hours of rehab during his recovery. He has also walked over 5,000 miles since he took his first steps out of his “death bed” and had to learn how to walk and talk again. Rich was a former golf professional and college golf coach, during his recovery golf has been a big part of his rehabilitation. Despite his injuries, he has regained a 2 handicap with the goal of becoming a scratch again in the near future.