Some students wiped away tears after watching a video of Johnny Agar, a young man with cerebral palsy, straining mightily to complete the last mile of a race with the aid of a walker.
It was the high point of a 2013 ESPN report on the 20-year-old from Rockford, whose love of sports and determination to succeed have inspired many since he rose from his wheelchair to finish the 3.1-mile Mitchell’s Run on his own two feet.
Agar offered his experience as a life lesson to a recent assembly at Northview High School geared to building students’ character strengths.
“You see how I have worked so hard to overcome my challenges,” Agar told students following the ESPN video. “But I want you to know that challenges just don’t apply to me. You may not have to overcome trying to walk, but we all have challenges. I’m here to tell you, you can overcome any of them.”
Senior Malik Clincy took the speech to heart, calling it “one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen.” The takeaway for him: “You can do anything.
“If he can finish a mile, it’s not hard to turn a paper in on time or do what you’re supposed to do,” Malik added.
Born Too Early, with Slim Chances
Agar’s presentation was part of a “life curriculum” aimed at supporting character traits such as persistence, optimism, resilience and grit, said high school Principal Mark Thomas.
“We value your minds,” Thomas told students. “But just as important or more important, we value your hearts. How you treat each other and go about your life in the world is going to be key to your success.”
Agar’s cousin Emily Doucette, a Northview student, introduced him. Agar was home-schooled by his parents, Jeff and Becki Agar, and is studying sports management at Aquinas College.
Jeff Agar was a minor-league pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in the 1980s. Johnny was born prematurely in 1994, with bleeding in his brain and his life in danger. Doctors said it was unlikely he would walk and that he might never speak.
The ESPN video shows him taking on his cerebral palsy with the grit of a pro athlete. He grew up rooting for the Tigers, watching his sister Annie play high school ball and hitting some balls when his dad played softball.
Strengthened by twice-weekly physical therapy, in 2009 he started accompanying his father on long-distance races, pushed along in a wheeled seat. They eventually competed in marathons and triathlons together.
“Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be out there on the field competing,” Johnny says in the video. “Running is my field. The road is my field.”
Video Inspires Thousands, including Verlander
His love of running culminated in August 2013, when he decided to try the last leg of Mitchell’s Run, a Rockford race to benefit research for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The video shows him pushing through the grueling mile in a walker, grimacing and puffing. “Holy cow,” he gasps at one point, before crossing the finish line to the cheers of a jubilant crowd.
“For me to walk a mile is like a marathon for most people,” he said later.
The video has been seen more than 40,000 times on YouTube. Johnny also has spoken in other schools and been featured on TV. His father finds it all amazing given how Johnny started life.
“I’ve had a few people ask if I was upset he couldn’t play baseball like I did,” Jeff Agar said. “To have thousands of people telling me my kid’s inspired them has surpassed anything I could expect.”
Reaching so many people through ESPN has been “one of the blessings of this whole thing, being able to hear the stories that people have told me because of it,” Johnny said before his talk at Northview. “I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.”
Among those he has touched is Justin Verlander, the ace Tigers pitcher whom Johnny idolizes. Verlander hosted him in a game at Comerica Park last summer, later Tweeting he was “a true inspiration.” Agar also met several Tigers in Spring Training in 2013.
In his talk, Agar pointed to athletes and pioneers like Thomas Edison to emphasize that everyone fails multiple times before succeeding. Brandishing a bat signed by Miguel Cabrera, he pointed out the Tigers slugger has struck out more than 1,300 times.
“The world will judge you not by the number of times you fall down, but the number of times you get back up,” he said. “So never, ever, ever give up.”
His message brought tears to Megan Hanis’ eyes. Said the senior afterward, “It just shows if he can be so strong, everybody can overcome what they’re struggling with right now.”