Michael Phelps’s Best Friend: Scotty Passink
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October 10, 2008
This story does not involve any football players. Just two guys.
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One of them is Michael Phelps. You’ve probably heard of him. He has 14 gold medals.
The other is Scotty Passink. You probably haven’t heard of him. He has cerebral palsy.
But these two have been close friends since Phelps moved to Ann Arbor four years ago.
When Scotty Passink was born, the doctors said he would never walk or talk. They told his parents to look for a place to put him.
But Scotty’s father, Pete, had captained the Michigan golf team. His mother worked as Bo Schembechler’s secretary. They are not soft. They were not going to give up.
Scotty’s surgeries started when he was two, and didn’t stop until his senior year in high school – 15 operations in all. The doctors broke his legs and reset them – twice -- just so he could walk. He doesn’t walk very fast -- – he goes through a pair of shoes every two or three months -- and he has a hell of a time climbing stairs. But he gets there.
When Scotty was six they put him in a special classroom. One day he came home and asked his mom, “Why doesn’t anybody talk?” His mom said, “This isn’t right,” and put him in a class with the other kids. He got teased and he got shoved, but he says, “It only made me tougher.”
When his grades faltered a few years later, Bo Schembechler hauled him into his office. “Sit down!” he said, then scared him straight. It worked. Despite all the sick days, Scotty earned his diploma on time – plus a signed photo from Schembechler that said: “To Scotty, The toughest guy I know.”
Scotty went to Washtenaw Community College, then transferred to Michigan, where he worked as a student manager for the football team. Now he works at the UM ticket office, where I recently heard Lloyd Carr offer him a cigar. “No thanks,” Scotty said. “Those things make me walk funny.”
His closest friends include Pat Owen, who was born with a club foot but became the captain of the Michigan wrestling team – and some guy named Michael Phelps.
“I don’t think Michael knows what I have, really,” Scotty says. “And I don’t think he cares about it. But, when I fall down, he’s right there to pick me up. Every time.”
When Phelps returned to Ann Arbor to be honored at the Michigan-Wisconsin football game, he called Scotty from the airport. “Meet me at the Brown Jug in thirty minutes.” That night, the all-time Olympic champion told Passink how much Scotty inspired him.
The next day Owen, Passink and Phelps watched the game on the Michigan sidelines. When the fans started counting down the seconds, a police officer warned the trio that Phelps would get mobbed, and Scotty could get trampled. Phelps turned to Scotty and said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got you.”
When the gun sounded, Owen and Phelps picked up their buddy, and carried him off the field. If you were lucky enough to witness that moment, you would have seen three guys running across the field and up the tunnel: a wrestler with a club foot, Scotty Passink, and the best athlete in the world.
And the toughest guy was in the middle.
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