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Life, if anything, is unpredictable

Updated: May 4

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My bud, pro rider and trail builder extraordinaire, Hank Wilkins, recently hosted his Hanks Banks slalompalooza event that went down earlier in December in the foothills of Reno. The day of riding his freshly built slalom track was to honor his friend, Sean (#shredforsean), who'd recently passed; and, it coincided with the loss of someone very special in my life. I did not know Sean, yet I was compelled to join some friendly faces on that snowy hillside. Despite the slimy and chilly conditions, it was a full-on, ear-to-ear smile fest. Above are a few photos from the event, some of which I recently put on Instagram, along with an abbreviated and modified version of these first two paragraphs.

It's not really my style to share personal matters online (I save that shit for strangers on airport barstools). Besides, I doubt the thousands of Russian bots who follow me on social media care all too much what I have to say. Although, for years I’ve been kicking around the idea of having a blog on this site where I share backstories to meaningful photos and film projects in my career, which began in L.A. at 23 years old as a staff photographer and writer at a monthly, worldwide, mountain bike magazine. Two decades later, my Reno-based, mountain sports-oriented production company keeps the lights on.

It’s worth mentioning, this first blog post is a significant departure in subject matter from what I'd imagined the inaugural entry might entail. However, Hank’s well-intentioned day of riding serendipitously coincided with a series of uniquely challenging life events of my own (it's about to get real). And, ever since I was a kid, I’ve found writing about uncertain and challenging times to be the most therapeutic way for me to sort out what's going on between the ears. Moving on…

For a year, I carried that crumpled-up, dog-eared, perfect-bound

portal to a previously unknown dimension of 1980’s cool

around with me everywhere I went.

The majority of my life has been spent on two wheels. My mom told me that when I was just 2.5 years old I could ride a bike without training wheels (long before the days of walk-bikes). According to her, I’d be gone for hours just cruising around the neighborhood with all of the 8 to 10-year-old kids. I was definitely a “free-range” child, as my dad traveled for a living and my mom was busy with my little sister. The neighbors used to call my mom and say, “Connie, are you aware Ryan is riding his bike on our street [several blocks away from our house].” After hearing this story, I asked her, “So, you just let a little, 3-year-old kid ride his bike around all day in a suburban neighborhood of a large city?” She said, “Well, you seemed confident that you could do it, so I just let you play outside with the other kids.” I suppose there could be a sliver of truth in there; however, in reality, she was likely overwhelmed with taking care of both me and my newborn sister all while my dad was on the road.

Like nearly every little boy, I was fascinated with two-wheelers. When I was just five years old, I remember my mom buying me a BMX magazine in a drug store, undoubtedly to shut me up. For a year, I carried that crumpled-up, dog-eared, perfect-bound portal to a previously unknown dimension of 1980’s cool around with me everywhere I went. During that year, I relentlessly badgered my parents to let me try bike racing (as if I had any idea what that actually entailed). Despite being only five years old, evidently I’d presented a strong case in my favor. The very moment my mom finally gave in to my wish to race bikes is still crystal clear. She grabbed the magazine, sat me down at the kitchen table, and we turned to the very back pages to scour the 6-point font, black and white text of a state-by-state track directory (long before the Internet) until she found one that was in a neighboring town. A few weeks later, I entered my first BMX wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt, and my indoor soccer shoes—I won the race. Before I knew it, from the time I was barely 6 years old until I was 15, I had raced BMX all over the country.

For as far back as I can remember, I recall my father only being home on weekends. He’d return home from his business travels sometime on a Friday and then he'd leave again on Sunday night or early Monday morning before returning home again the following Friday—that was the cycle. To his credit, he practically spent his entire working life on the road traveling for the Swedish company, Husqvarna, yet the moment he’d get home we’d pack up my bikes and my family would drive hundreds of miles for me to race BMX wherever the biggest event within a day’s drive. There were countless times where I would have to leave a soccer game (or some other sport) at halftime, then change into my football uniform in our van on our way to that game, and then immediately after the football game we’d already have my bikes, tools, gear, and my little sister loaded up and we’d drive hundreds of miles to a race (or three) that weekend—a process we repeated from my elementary school years until I was in high school.

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Due to my father’s job, seemingly every 18 months to two years I was the new kid in school until my teenage years. Therefore, by the time I got to high school, hardly any of my friends had any idea of my BMX life (presumably they just figured I was grounded every weekend), other than the ones who came over to my house and saw rooms full of trophies as tall as they were. Although, by my sophomore year in high school I was completely burnt out on bike racing. Traveling hundreds of miles a weekend year-round for a decade was no longer enjoyable. My athletic focus switched to the stick and ball sports I’d also played growing up. My top priority became football.

Almost overnight, my childhood fascination with bike racing was over. I was still a kid, yet, when I looked at a bike it symbolized stress, pressure, and nonstop travel. Despite dozens of state championships and numerous National race wins, my most vivid memory from the "BMX era" of my life was the day I quit racing. These days, there are a half-dozen or so different Woodward bike, skate, and snow sports facilities across the country. However, when I was a kid, there was only one Woodward complex and it was in Woodward, Pennsylvania. As I remember, that facility was for gymnastics, BMX, and skateboarding, and was made famous by all of the BMX and skate magazines. At least once a year, Woodward would host a big-time National BMX race. When I was 15, my family drove 16 hours round-trip for me to race the Woodward National, an event I’d done well in previously. After the first morning practice session, I remember sitting down in a lawn chair next to my parents in the rainy, muddy conditions and not saying a word to anyone for a very long time. My dad asked me what was wrong. I just looked down at the ground and timidly said, "I don't want to race anymore."

My father has always been generous with his resources, and ardently spent his very limited amount of free time supporting my athletic interests. However, to describe his daily temperament as short-fused would be a bit generous. Over my entire life, the two most common emotions I recall seeing from him (toward me, anyway) were rage and anger. So, I was terrified to tell him I no longer wanted to race. Expecting him to lose his mind and berate me for a never-ending list of reasons (the least of which being he’d just spent his only two days off that week driving 16 hours round-trip from Indianapolis to Woodward, PA, only for me to say I wanted to go home just hours after we arrived at the track), he could see I was sad and exhausted. Shockingly, he only said, “Ok. We’re done.” He immediately loaded my bikes into the van, my family and I followed, and we forever drove away from that aspect of our lives. At that moment, I wasn’t really sure how to act or what to think. I started racing when I was so young that I really don’t recall a time when it wasn't a part of my life or identity. This was the first time in my young existence I felt the void of something that was once so important, ever present, and incredibly significant suddenly being gone.

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In my opinion, the rise of BMX street riding or dirt jumping was not only because it’s fun and unregimented, but also largely due to the fact any kid can do it in a vacant dirt lot or on a city street riding a hand-me-down BMX bike all while his parents likely had no idea what he was even up to. National-level, youth BMX racing, however, typically required an entire family to commit their weekends to their child’s racing pursuits—nearly every weekend, of every month, year after year. This long chapter in my family's life both began and had come to an end because of words that came out of my mouth. Instantly, I thought about what I would do with myself the next weekend just sitting at home with no race to attend. I was only 15 years old, but I’ll never forget the overwhelming feeling of laziness and shame that came over me as I thought about having most of my weekends free. My dad, mom, little sister and I then drove 8 hours home in silence, presumably processing what had just happened and what it meant for our family. I'll never know what my parents and sister were thinking during that long drive home, but I know I was too afraid to say a word. That decade of BMX racing was incredibly time consuming, expensive, stressful, and dangerous; yet, it was something we did together as a family nearly every weekend during my childhood. Although, I’m certain my little sister, Michelle, was psyched it had come to an end.

From that moment, I sincerely thought I’d never touch a bike again, and for three years I literally did not. My young, still-forming mind could not imagine any scenario why or how bikes could ever again be a part of my life.

My world soon began to revolve around football, which, from looking at all 150 pounds of me today, few people would guess. And no, I was not a kicker. From just a little boy until I was in college, I constantly studied playbooks for both offensive and defensive strategy. I used to go to the local library and check out books intended for adults who coached football, just so I could learn what every player on the field is supposed to be doing at all times. To this day, I will happily talk Xs and Os with any poor soul who will listen. From when I was 8 years old until I was 18, I played both quarterback and defensive back, and was also on every single special team. That means, from my childhood until my senior year of high school, I practically never left the field in a football game.

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The serendipitous benefit from my father's employer constantly moving our family around (which I certainly didn’t realize or appreciate at the time) was somehow, each school district we moved to happened to be a powerhouse from little league to high school football. Underneath my spiked mullet haircut (I’m a child of the 80’s, after all) my tiny mind was practically getting an unintentional pigskin Ph.D. from coaches who were high-level college players or even had NFL careers. For example, one pee-wee coach in Naperville, IL, (a western suburb of Chicago) was a former college football coach, and while I was on his teams his sons were players at the University of Nebraska. They’d regularly attend our practices and games as assistant coaches (I thought they were the coolest guys on Earth). Naperville’s youth travel football team I played for was under the same umbrella as the two Naperville high school teams, both of which (at the time) were football powerhouses and perennial Illinois state championship contenders.

By the time I was in junior high, for the second time my family had moved to South Bend, IN, the home of Notre Dame. While living there, my junior high team was designed to mold players to feed the mighty Penn Kingsmen high school football program that produced countless Indiana state championships and players who went on to star at nearby Notre Dame and in the NFL. Once I got to high school at Center Grove in Indianapolis, I was accustomed to having success in football everywhere I’d played. I was still just a kid, so I really had no idea how far ahead on the spectrum of "football IQ" I happened to be. My thorough understanding of the game was purely unintentional byproduct of routinely being uprooted from my friends as my family moved to new city after new city.

My sophomore year in high school, I was the only player in my grade who started on the varsity football team. With over 2,500 students, Center Grove was typically a powerhouse in sports and had a surplus of talent. (For context, in November of 2022, their football team won the state’s first-ever, third-consecutive Indiana football state championship, while also playing in the state’s largest conference (6A), and in the process also won their sixth state championship since 2008.)

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Halfway through that sophomore season on the varsity squad, I was starting to not feel so self-conscious about taking the starting job from a senior (and three-year varsity starter) and was becoming comfortable in my skin playing with the best guys on the team. However, before I was really able to process the on-field success of that season, in the blink of an eye everything was turned upside down. Along with typically playing both offense and defense, I also always returned kickoffs and punts. (I wasn't big, but I was fast, and I liked being fast.) During the fourth game of the season, while returning a punt I planted my left foot to change direction. That one, simple, full-speed step under the bright lights of a Friday night game violently snapped my left ACL and I buckled to the ground untouched by another player. I was 16 years old.

Despite being ineffably heartbroken, I was armed with youthful enthusiasm combined with an ingrained competitive desire to be the best, all conveniently bundled together inside an ever-present fear of failure. Therefore, I was determined, and confident, I would do whatever was required to come back from that knee reconstruction faster and stronger than I was prior to the injury. For all kinds of reasons, kids constantly quit high school sports, but that route never crossed my mind. I was committed to proving to myself I could still achieve my dream of playing college football. While recovering from that ACL surgery, one night in my bedroom I wrote a long letter to my coach telling him I wasn’t going to quit, rather do everything in my power to not only come back and play, but to return better than ever. Ultimately, I chickened out and decided not to give him the letter, so I crumpled it up and threw it in the trash can in my room. A few days later, my mom was vacuuming my room and saw a crumpled up piece of paper on the floor next to the trash can. It was the letter I’d written to my coach. The only reason I know that this happened is because I was in the basement and she came down in tears telling me how good she thought the letter was, and that I might want to pursue writing some day. I clearly had much different ambitions at the time. All I knew was that writing my thoughts down was a method for me to see everything that was on my mind in front of me in one setting, which helped digest what was actually going on in my head and how to plan for what to do next. Ever since that letter to my coach, I’ve been writing about all kinds of things that have happened in my life, and maybe .1% of those have ever been seen by another person, this blog included.

Recovering from that sophomore year ACL tear became my full-time job. Despite obviously being done for the season, my reconstructive surgery was on a Friday morning and I was on the sideline with crutches that night for our game to support my teammates. I then went to every single after-school practice and stood on the sidelines talking to my coaches and fellow players about technique and strategy until the season came to end. In my mind, I just couldn’t play then because of something out of my control. But, I was still on the team, and I would be back.

Fast forward to my senior year of high school. We were 8-0 and ranked #2 in the state, and ironically only sitting behind the Penn Kingsmen of South Bend—the school I would’ve been attending if my dad hadn’t been transferred to Indianapolis a few years prior. In the very last practice before our first playoff game of the year, I ran to intercept a pass, planted my foot to jump, caught the ball in the air, and when I landed my right foot went directly into a hole on the practice field. My right knee buckled backward, then reversed back into place catapulting me into the air. Instantly, I knew the most horrible thing had happened—my other knee (my good knee) was now blown out. Devastation doesn’t begin to describe the emotion I was overcome with. However, unlike the torn ACL in my left leg at 16 years old, which I ultimately came back from faster and stronger, an MRI would show this latest injury tore nearly every one of my knee ligaments in half (ACL, MCL, & PCL) and also shredded the meniscus (our body’s natural cartilage cushioning between the femur and tib / fib). Once again, due to reasons out of my control, I was finished playing the sport I loved and gave everything toward. Two days later, our undefeated, highly ranked team lost in the first playoff game to an opponent with a losing record. After that second serious knee injury, it didn't take long before the local newspapers caught wind that I wouldn't be playing in our team's first playoff game, and was once again sidelined for the rest of the season. From that day forward, I never again received a football recruiting letter in the mail.

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center grove football ryan cleek blown out knee ACL injury
In high school, I never saw these newspaper stories. However, last year my mom made a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from my younger days. In typical mom style, she highlighted my name in each story.

My entire senior year of high school and the entire summer after, I turned myself inside out trying to recover from this second, brutal knee injury. So much damage had occurred, it took five different reconstruction attempts that year to even get me to a place where I could consider rehabilitating it, let alone to a point of eventually returning to football at a higher level (assuming some university would even still want me). Most players who had dreams similar to mine were getting bigger, stronger, and faster as they prepared to play at the next level, while I was once again starting from zero doing everything I could in hopes to just get back to being the player I was before. Due to all of the necessary surgeries from that one injury, I spent almost my entire senior year of high school on crutches. In a perfectly ironic summary of all I’ve described above, at my graduation I was recognized as the only student at my high school to win the national President’s Physical Fitness award, which I accepted by crutching my way onto the stage.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” - E.H. Chapin

Being only 5'9" and playing high-level college football (which I consider D1, D1 AA, and D2) isn't common, yet isn't unheard of. (I was also 25 pounds heavier back then and built for full-speed collisions.) However, being only that tall and also losing one’s "wheels" after repeated knee reconstructions—that’s a dream killer. A lot of heavy, real-life practicality sets in after such a devastating injury at only 18 years old. After the recruiting letters and phone calls stopped, I decided to go to the best academic institution I could get into that would also still accept me into their football program, and that was Butler University of the Division 1 AA category. (Today, D1 AA is known as the Football Championship Series (FCS) Division.) In college, I was moved to wide receiver and participated in all of the preseason practices, drills, and meetings. However, due to my inability to run at my prior ability, plus the constant, piercing, unrelenting pain inside my right knee, I had to pull the plug on my dream of playing college football during my freshman year. I called my college coach to tell him I could no longer take the pain that came with each stride, and how I simply couldn’t live with being only a fraction of the player I was just one year before. I cried my eyes out in my dorm room for what seemed like a week. I’d tried so, so hard, and time after time after time I came back from knee reconstructions, but due to things out of my control I simply could no longer run. And, when you're my size and no longer quick, you may want to move your eggs over to the frisbee golf basket.

The news of my decision to quit football had spread to my father’s longtime boss, Lennart. His son was several years older than me and had played high-level, Big Ten college football. I eventually did meet his son at a recruiting camp at that same university he attended the summer before my senior year of high school. Lennart kept a close eye on my high school career, and when I was a little kid in Chicago he attended some of my pee-wee games. He knew my heart was set on playing football in college, therefore understood how devastated I was by physically not being able to run. One day, a package arrived at my college dorm room from an unknown address. Inside, was a framed quote from a 19th century author, E.H. Chapin, which read, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” At the time, Lennart's kind gesture was appreciated, but wasn’t much of a consolation given how psychologically shattered I was. Although, over the years that quote has certainly grown to resonate with me. To this day, I keep his framed gift visible in my bedroom.

I wasn’t very good at sitting around doing nothing and just crying in my vodka. Trust me, I gave that avenue a respectable effort.

My entire life, I’d put so much of my self-worth into having success at sports that it took me a very long time to figure out who I had now become. In retrospect, I also feel that was rooted in often being the new kid in school, because being able to do well at sports was a sure-fire way to quickly make friends. When I left BMX, that was my decision because I was burnt out, it was no longer enjoyable, and I had other athletic interests to pursue. Having to leave football was a choice bad luck made for me, and I was heartbroken. But, I needed something to do with myself. I wasn’t very good at sitting around doing nothing and just crying in my vodka. Trust me, I gave that avenue a respectable effort.

Growing up, I liked playing hockey, but it was never a priority. Yet, even with really only one leg I could still kinda skate well enough to play on our college team, but in reality I was nowhere near the player on ice as I was on the field. By the time I was 23, the only thing I really had to show for those stick-and-ball sports were 3 ACL tears (by the time I was 30, I’d suffered an unheard of 5 ACL tears: 2-times on my left knee & 3-times on my right knee), plus at least a dozen (I eventually stopped counting...) other knee reconstructions due to other torn ligaments and additional complications from those injuries. (Oh, I guess my hockey club did win a national championship my senior year of college [a season I played without an ACL], and I have never once played since.) Ironically, in order to rehab my knees from all of those repeated reconstructive surgeries, the orthopedic surgeons recommended, of all things, cycling...

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I was 18 years old when I got my first mountain bike, a $700 Specialized Rockhopper hardtail. The day I bought it is still tack-sharp in my mind (which after all of the concussions I’ve had in my lifetime is pretty remarkable). The shop had Cannondale, Specialized, and Kona hardtails all around that entry level price tag. To make my buying decision, I rode each of them around in the shopping center parking lot, which intersected with two very busy city streets. While weaving in and out of cars, my sole buying criteria had nothing to do with how the bike fit me, its weight, suspension fork travel, or components. I purely chose the Rockhopper because I could bunnyhop it over the large concrete median in the center of the parking lot better than I could aboard the other two bikes. Sold!

It had been a few years since I hung up my last BMX race bikes: a white 20” CycleCraft with black and gold decals and a chrome CycleCraft 24” cruiser. Somewhat nostalgically, aboard the Rockhopper I took to bike riding again. It was kinda fun cruising around campus and awakening some skills I once had from their three-year hibernation. East of the Mississippi River, Butler University is a highly regarded academic institution; however, west of the Mississippi it’s known for playing big-time college basketball in the Big East conference. It’s lesser known for its one-time student, Kurt Vonnegut.

As my grandpa used to say, “Indiana is so flat you can watch your dog run away for a week.” He was correct. Although I could no longer run, or really even walk without a limp, I could still somewhat pedal a bike. So, in those days I used to go to bike shops in a nearby little town called Broad Ripple, which is where David Letterman grew up, to look for flyers on the bulletin board promoting upcoming mountain bike races. None of my college friends really had mountain bikes, and I had no idea where any real trails were. I absolutely had zero interest in racing mountain bikes, as I figured that competitive fire was long extinguished. However, I’d occasionally enter local XC races on my entry level hardtail to simply learn where the good trails were. At those events, I saw people wearing shiny, full-lycra kits and pointy, tap dance-like footwear clipped into wild-looking full-suspension machines with seatposts sticking a mile into the air. I remember thinking, “What kind of a lame sport have I gotten myself into? How the hell could these Tron-looking kooks ride a bike with ridiculous setups like that?” Because, in my mind, if there was one thing I knew it was how to handle a bike, regardless of the fact it had been a few years since I’d actually touched one. That’s how my life in mountain biking began, randomly entering grassroots XC events while wearing a ratty Phish concert t-shirt, camo cargo shorts, and the exact same black and white Old School Vans that I raced BMX in as a little kid, wore to my high school proms, and to this day remain a staple of my daily “uniform.” In those days, there was no way I could have ever guessed the last 22 years of my life (and counting) would revolve around mountain bikes in every capacity. Ironically, since 2000, I've raced downhill, slalom, and my share of enduro, too.

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Just as a paperclip can only be bent in the wrong direction so many times before it no longer functions as a paperclip, turns out my right knee is the same way. For decades, I tried my hardest to hide the fact my right leg just did not work. Look, I’m not 6’3” and 220 lbs. No one would ever describe me as “physically gifted.” However, through incessant hard work and a desire to learn everything I could about the sports I was playing, I became accustomed to achieving a high level of success in pretty much any activity I chose. Then, suddenly being 19 years old and simply not being able to walk without a limp, let alone ever run again with any purpose, was a tough pill to swallow; especially, for someone as hard on myself about everything as I am. Ultimately, I turned my attention to intellectual pursuits, such as photography and writing, while trying to remain as active as I could despite the aforementioned limitations. However, for many years, I was incredibly resentful toward football and pretty much any other activity I used to like but no longer could do, like skiing, surfing, and jazzercise. (Ok, not jazzercise—just lightening this heavy shit up a bit. I can still do jazzercise just fine.)

To this day, x-rays of my knees look like x-rays of a homemade wooden chair. Finger-size, coarsely threaded screws and largest barbed staples you've ever seen criss-cross their way through my femur and tib/ fib to hold them together. Due to multiple ACL, MCL, PCL, LCL & meniscus repairs, and then seemingly never-ending, soul-crushing complications from those injuries requiring surgery, I practically spent my entire athletic prime (16-34) on crutches due to no fault of my own. Every single one of my knee injuries from playing football happened while planting to change direction when running with the ball or diving to make an interception. Never once was I injured from contact (well, other than getting my bell rung a few times...). I don’t think I could ever accurately articulate that terrible sensation of my knee joint suddenly becoming dislocated under the weight of my body while running at full speed, ligaments and cartilage tearing in the process, and one time even awkwardly catapulting me up into the air. And then, milliseconds later, the instant recognition that the next year of my life, or very often longer, was over. From my very first ACL tear at 16 years old to my last tear at 30 years old (which occurred when I twisted it while jumping off of my bike to avoid a collision with another rider stopped on a steep racecourse), the knee-buckling sensation I just described unintentionally developed a sliding scale, which ranged from devastating heartbreak in my teens and early 20s to complete disbelief by age 30.

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Above left: Half of the hardware has been removed from my knees. This much metal still holds them both still together. The white bits are bone. Above right: The aftermath from my 2021 stem cell injections in my right knee. Video below: The nurse took video of my 2021 stem cell procedure, a Hail Mary attempt at reducing my right knee pain. A large needled was hammered into my pelvis in 6 places to remove bone marrow, which was then spun in centrifuge and ultimately re-injected into my knees.

It's not lost on me how there are people in the circle I run in who've endured tragic, truly life-altering injuries, and they'd give anything to have my physical dilemmas instead of their own. Perspective has so much to do with one’s outlook on life. Yet, ironically, perspective can only be gained over time. Throughout my entire 20s, I relentlessly beat myself up because I couldn't physically perform on a bike to the level I knew I once could and unfairly expected of myself. Turns out not being able to pedal with one of my two legs made mountain bike riding a challenging career choice... Then, one day, when I was probably close to 30 yrs old and in my 8th year of being a staff writer and photographer at Mountain Bike Action magazine (back when people read print magazines), I realized no one cared but me if I’m fast or slow on a bike, if I get first place or last place in a race, or if I even race at all; and, after all I'd endured to just be happy I could still ride for fun. From that point forward, I tried to ride with a smile instead of my prior routine of incessant self-judgment followed by intentional self-destruction. That's when everything started to change for the better.

As a kid, my childhood BMX hero was "EC" Eric Carter. He’s 7 years older than me, so when I was a boy he was a teenager and a young pro who was always in the magazines. Some of the BMX pros in those days looked like roided-out, middle-aged men with full beards or completely bald heads, yet EC was close enough in age to me he was relatable. He would go on to be a legendary mountain bike racer, as well.

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It’s unreal how the world works. Through my life in mountain biking, EC and I have become very good friends. In fact, for decades few weeks have ever gone by where we don’t communicate in some manner. Actually, he starred in the first feature-length documentary film I made with the help of my friends Brian Read, Derek Hoffman, and Veronica Blum, called Downhill Speed, which came out in 2005. Back then, there was no iTunes or YouTube, and I could only afford to make 2000 DVDs. I think I still have a box of 20 or so somewhere in a closet. Maybe one day I’ll put the entire film on YouTube so it can live on for free in its standard-definition glory.

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Over the years, EC and I have ridden mountain bikes together countless times. It was at least 14 years ago now, we were riding in the rugged and scenic terrain of Kernville, CA, and after one of the famously long descents he complimented me on my riding. Of course, I instantly defaulted to my learned, cynical reply, "Thanks man, my leg is killing me—just doing what I can, ya know." He doesn't remember his reply, but I will never forget it. He said, "Well, damn, if you can do all of that with one leg you should be proud, not disappointed." EC’s been a world champion in both BMX and mountain bike racing; so, that's like Spielberg telling you he liked a movie you made. His simple, authentic remark inspired me to care about riding again, rather than continuing to half-heartedly participate in the only activity I could still somewhat do and simply viewed as just a part of my job. I was so used to having the sport I cared about taken from me, a decade or more had to go by before I could allow myself to be vulnerable enough to truly care about athletic endeavors, especially knowing that going in I was already significantly physically compromised. Eric's compliment hit me at the right time, and really meant a lot more than he'll ever understand.

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From the moment I had to quit playing football in college, I chose to almost never talk about that time in my life. For many years, I stopped watching the game and I didn’t mention that I knew anything at all about that sport to anyone. In my eyes, I failed and never reached my goals, albeit to things out of my control, but the reason didn’t matter as the result was the same. The constant heartache from so many repeated injuries jaded me to football and practically everything else I liked, yet could no longer really participate in. Other than my parents, sister, and probably some ex-girlfriends, very few people know the backstory to my knee injuries. For decades, I kept all of those spirit-crushing details buried inside. Painful memories are just that, and writing every word of this blog has not been easy, either. Some of my very best friends from my college years through today didn’t know about that part of my life until well into my 30’s, and even now know only slivers of what I've mentioned above. I’m sure in passing conversations I’ve mentioned I had knee issues or past surgeries, or they’d inevitably see me on crutches every 18 months after something surgically repaired when I was 16, 18, 19, 22, 25, 27, or 30 years old would break free, and I’d once again have to go under the knife. I was so damn tired of regularly having to say, “Well, I’d love to go ____ (fill in the blank activity) with you guys, but I can’t, because my right leg doesn't work.”

Despite all of the disappointment and physical and psychological pain, enough time has passed that I can appreciate certain aspects of that trying era of my life. It took me a very long time to realize this, but in retrospect, if I never had the knee injuries I suffered in high school and college I would’ve kept playing football as my priority and likely chosen a college based on which football program would have me, rather than going to a well-regarded academic institution with a football program that also inexplicably welcome a 5’9” white boy who’d already had two completely rebuilt knees by the time he graduated from high school. If I hadn’t vaporized my right knee ligaments and cartilage when I was 18 years old, I would’ve never switched my focus to the creative pursuits that are my livelihood today; would have never been recommended to return to cycling for rehab by my surgeons; would have likely never gotten that first mountain bike; would have likely not gotten a degree in journalism; almost certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity of a lifetime to work for the world’s largest mountain bike magazine immediately out of college; therefore, I would have likely never lived in Los Angeles from ages 22 to 35, which is the longest I've ever lived in one city; and I definitely wouldn't be writing this first blog post for my mountain sports-oriented production company’s website. I truly have no idea where I might have ended up and what I would be doing if I had two functioning legs in my college days; but, I sincerely believe there is now way it could possibly have led to where I happily am today.

A few times a year, I make a point to read the, “The Obstacle is the Way,” by Ryan Holiday, which is based on the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius’ principle: "The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." Which, in my interpretation, means you must turn the negatives in your life into positives. Whatever the next hurdle is, it can present a great opportunity in another avenue. Over the years, my friend and legendary mountain biker, Cam Zink, and I have confided in each other over our repeated knee reconstructions. And, I intentionally began the opening scene of the feature-length documentary film I made about his life, called Reach For The Sky (2016), with that Marcus Aurelius quote. Of course, that mindset is certainly easier said than done, especially when the emotion of disappointment can indefinitely monopolize one’s thoughts. By no means was I stoic in my youthful reactions to those aforementioned disappointments, however sooner or later, one has to start living through the windshield instead of the rear-view mirror. And, like I mentioned, I feel that type of perspective can only be delivered through time. All of that said, the truth is, it’s still an incredibly odd feeling when injuries that happened when I was basically as a kid still today drastically affect me everyday of my life.

You know what's the ultimate mindfuck? Being in my 40s, and each morning the moment my right foot hits the ground out of bed the knee joint loosely shifts, grinds, and wobbles side-to-side; and then with each footsteps throughout the day it feels like jagged, broken glass and thumbtacks are sprinkled inside my knee due to things that happened to me in high school. That not only makes for a delightful daily demeanor, it's an ever-present reminder of an injury I can't shake. After decades of trying to be as resilient by enduring the constant pain and aggravating limitations, I recently had that problem-child right knee completely cut out.

Very few people know that just a few weeks ago (in early November of 2022) I had a total knee replacement in my right leg. According to some doctors, I'm roughly 20 years young for such a procedure. Yet, I'm not slowing down in any capacity, in fact, quite the opposite. I haven’t had two functioning legs since I was 18 years old, and I’ve completely forgotten what that even feels like to be able to do whatever activity I choose, let alone at nearly my full potential. The total knee replacement was the right move at the right time, and the only surgery I've ever looked forward to. Previously, every time I went under the knife it repeatedly pulled the rug out from under me, repeatedly robbed me of everything I'd worked for, and repeatedly left me to once again start over from ground zero.

Getting my leg cut in half for a knee replacement has been a pretty dreadful experience; and to be honest, the recovery has been way more brutal than any other surgery I’ve endured. Yet, I’m taking rehab seriously, keeping my head down and focusing on just getting better. Once again, recovery has become my full-time job. The hope of having two working legs is what keeps me going through each sleepless night where I writhe in pain from the gruesome procedure.

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Only close friends and family knew of my knee replacement, and even less people know that just a few days after my total knee replacement my mom passed away, which made my leg issues seem incredibly trivial. The month of November unleashed an incredibly challenging series of recent events, to put it mildly.

On February 24, 1950, my mom, Connie Morrison, was born three months premature in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was so tiny when she was born, nurses in the hospital brought Barbie doll clothes for her to wear, yet even those were still too big. She was so ill, the hospital didn't bother to send her birth announcement to the local newspaper, because they didn't think she was going to survive. Despite all of those incredibly difficult health matters, she went on to earn a master's degree in education, was a decorated high school and college athlete, and was a loving and supportive mother to my sister and I. At her athletic prime, she was maybe 5-feet tall and almost 100 lbs (even those stats are a bit generous), yet she was a champion diver, gymnast, and swimmer; and also inexplicably played on her high school varsity basketball and volleyball teams. She was the tiniest, yet toughest, person I'd ever known. I certainly got my height from my mom.

In 2014, just a few weeks after retiring from being an elementary teacher, out of nowhere she was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer and was given six months to live. She then lived another eight years. On both ends of her life, she truly fought just to be alive, which shows her remarkable spirit. For all that I've gone through in my life, she was way more resilient and tough than I could ever imagine being, as her battles were truly a matter of life and death. I will never be able to describe what it was like year after year watching her die in slow motion. It’s still difficult to believe the only person on the planet who was always happy to see me or talk to me on the phone is gone forever. That realization is undoubtedly the most painful thing I’ve experienced. As I write these words in December, in about two hours it will be my birthday. And, for the first time in my life I won’t be with or talking on the phone to the person who brought me into this world and selflessly supported all of the things I’ve written about above. My mom was an incredible person.

My mom, sister & I early in the BMX days

For the last month, I've been largely confined to my home, really only leaving to rehab my knee at the gym, to run to the pharmacy for more painkillers, and sadly to fly across the country for my mom’s funeral. And, once again in my life, I find myself in my home amidst the all-too-familiar scenario of trying to work my way back from another major surgical knee procedure.

The doctor who performed my total knee replacement wouldn't be too pumped on my shuffling through a snow-covered, slimy, muddy hillside on crutches carrying a camera bag weighing over 1/4 of my bodyweight to shoot photos of my friends riding bikes in the snow. Yet, he also doesn’t know, let alone understand, most of what I described above. Physical pain feels so superficial when simultaneously dealing with the loss of someone important in your life. I know my sister and my dad will eventually be ok. And, ultimately, I will be ok, too.

BTS photo by Vincent Zacha-Herthel

As it turns out, watching some friends having the best time riding their bikes, while honoring a friend they'd recently lost, was the exact place I needed to be on that snow day in December. Because, life, if anything, is unpredictable.

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