Years in a seat raise his sights

College lacrosse: It's unlikely Maryland goalie Tim McGinnis will ever take playing for granted.

March 13, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

On the edge of a grassy hill, a young boy sits patiently in his wheelchair.

His brother and sister, his best friends in the world, climb onto the seat with him. Everyone takes a deep breath, someone releases the brake and, in seconds, they're barreling down the hill.

Inevitably, the wheelchair crashes and the three siblings go flying, bodies bouncing off one another like bowling pins.

When the dust settles, you can hear the laughter throughout the neighborhood.

That's the way Tim McGinnis remembers his childhood. There was no sorrow, even though he had to endure countless operations on his hips and his legs. He didn't want anyone's pity, even when he was diagnosed, at age 5, with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, which made it painful - impossible, really - to walk.

He still had adventures, and laughter, and days when he, his older brother, Pat, and his older sister, Erin, couldn't resist the temptation - when there were no parents around - of the big hill just outside the McGinnis' front door in Ellicott City.

"We'd pile three of us in [in the wheelchair] and just see how far we could go without falling," McGinnis said. "The problem was, I was always sitting on top, so if anyone went flying, it was me. I think my older brothers and sisters loved the wheelchair as much as I did."

The hill is still there, but McGinnis left his wheelchair a long time ago. And though they have grown up, he and his siblings still have a shared love: lacrosse.

Erin McGinnis was an All-American on attack at North Carolina, Pat McGinnis was an All-American goalie at Maryland, and Tim McGinnis was a three-time Division III All-American at Gettysburg College before transferring to Maryland this year. He'll start his first home game today when the second-ranked Terrapins (2-0) take on Towson (1-1).

"The McGinnis family has had a long tradition of lacrosse at the University of Maryland," said Terps coach Dave Cottle. "Timmy knew the players from when his brother played, and he knew the people here. It was an easy adjustment for him to come here."

The journey has certainly been an interesting one for McGinnis, the youngest of five children. Born in September 1981, he first seemed to be a normal, healthy boy. He learned to walk, then run, and spent many days sprinting after his older siblings in the McGinnis' backyard. But when he reached the age of 5, something was clearly not right.

"I think one day we were messing around in the backyard and I probably went pretty hard running around and having fun," he said. "That night, I was really struggling to walk. I wasn't getting from my bedroom to the bathroom at all."

McGinnis' parents, Art and Carol, took him to a doctor, who sent the family to a specialist. Art McGinnis said he can still recall every detail of that appointment.

Rare condition

"I don't believe in that saying about death and taxes being the only certainties in life," Art said. "But I believe when [the] doctor tells you he has bad news, you can take it to the bank. The doctor looked at us that day and said, `You're not going to like what I have to say.' "

Tim McGinnis was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes, a rare disease more common in Irish children with multiple older siblings, a disease that cuts off the blood supply to the femur where it connects with the hip socket.

"Basically, your hip is supposed to be about the size of a golf ball at that age," said McGinnis, making a fist to demonstrate the bone's round shape. "Mine was just long and flat."

To fix the problem, McGinnis would need to undergo a series of operations in which surgeons cut his leg muscles, then put him in a lower-body cast. For his hips to regenerate, he needed to remain in a wheelchair, possibly for several years.

"I remember we walked out of the hospital, and Timmy finds a $20 bill on the ground," Art McGinnis said. "He looks at us and says, `Hey, it's my lucky day.' "

Tim McGinnis spent three years in the casts and in the wheelchair, unable to move much at all from the waist down. To make sure his hips were regenerating properly, the casts kept his legs spread apart in a V shape. It meant he couldn't fit in the stalls of the bathrooms at his school.

"Every time he had to use the bathroom, the school would call my wife and she'd drive to the school and take him," Art McGinnis said. "I know people made fun of him."

Tim McGinnis, however, would not let the wheelchair be a prison.

"We went to a lot of amusement parks because, you know, they let people in wheelchairs go to the front of the line," he said with a hearty laugh. "We were a pretty big family, so we didn't mind."

At St. John's Lane Elementary school, he'd go flying down the ramps in his wheelchair at top speed, and more than once, he nearly ran over one of his older teachers. He also spent countless afternoons on the sidelines at his siblings' lacrosse games. If he became bored, he'd entertain himself by practicing wheelies.

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