As I type, the once dominant, all-conquering Michael Schumacher lay on a French hospital bed in an induced coma – words that some 36 hours after his life-threatening skiing accident still seem difficult to believe.
At first the details of the off-piste incident were sketchy at best; first just a bump on the head, now, for Schumacher, an injury more life-threatening than any sustained at the wheel of a racing car.
At this time of hope and prayers for the life an inspirational sporting megastar, the story that follows is perhaps more relevant than ever before. For all the success and controversy, Michael Schumacher has always been a decent human being – no other sport star donated nearly as much as Schumacher to the Boxing Day Tsunami victims in 2004, for example.
The term ‘legend’ is used far too frequently and I feel it’s beginning to lose its worth as a result – perhaps befitting an age when winning a bicycle race or tennis match will earn you a knighthood – but with 7 World Championships and 91 Grand Prix victories, how can Michael Schumacher be described as anything less.
Statistics alone don’t prove greatness but when the figures include those 7 World Championships and 91 race victories, it is hard to ignore them. However, for some, Michael will be remembered as the ‘Red Baron’, the villain who swerved into Damon Hill at Adelaide 1994, purposefully crashed into Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez ’97 and parked his Ferrari at Monaco 2006 in an unsporting gesture to his competitors. But whilst reading the following tale – one that goes against the grain for any blogger, words written not by myself but the great journalist and author Gerald Donaldson – think not of the Red Baron, but of Michael, the fundamentally decent human being fighting for his life on that French hospital bed…
Michael is a nine-year-old Canadian boy with a lively mind in a
body severely crippled body by an incurable muscular disease. He
can’t walk and is confined to a wheelchair, nor can he speak
properly, though his loving family understands him. Yet Michael’s
handicap is no barrier when it comes to accommodating his main
passion in life: F1 racing in general and one driver in
At home in Toronto Michael spends most of his time in a bedroom
that is a shrine to his favourite driver. The wall facing the bed
is dominated by a hand-painted mural of a life-size car driven by
Michael’s hero, whose image is also depicted all around the room
in photos, posters, banners and other regalia. His parents and
younger brother decorated the room for him, but his father, a
construction worker, said Michael was the foreman on the job. On
Grand Prix Sundays, long before the race begins on television,
the family dresses Michael in a sweater and cap in the colours of
the driver who means the world to him.
Michael’s mother, who works as a secretary, arranges family life
around her son’s special needs and also tries to brighten his
life with special occasions. On one occasion, after saving up for
some time, the family was able to afford a journey to the
Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, where the goal was for Michael
to meet his hero. Each day, in the morning and evening, they
stood patiently outside the entrance to the paddock, with Michael
fairly bouncing in his wheelchair, thrilled at the prospect of a
meeting that unfortunately did not take place. Though other
drivers came and went, the one they were waiting for never
appeared and the family went home disappointed.
But his mother, determined to make Michael’s dream come true,
persevered. She found out his hero used another entrance to the
paddock in Montreal. She was also told that famous F1 drivers are
besieged with so many requests and their time is so limited that
no matter how worthwhile the cause might be, their ability to
make individual dreams come true is very limited. Nevertheless,
Michael’s mother remained convinced that her son was a special
case, and that his hero would recognize this when he saw him. And
so the family returned to Montreal again, and early on the
morning of opening day they were waiting outside the paddock. But
so was a jostling, boisterous crowd of celebrity seekers and
autograph hunters, few of whom paid any attention to the small
family group – the anxious mother and father and two young boys,
one of them sitting twisted and contorted in a wheelchair.
Suddenly, the crowd became noisier and someone shouted that a
famous driver was arriving on the back of a scooter. The driver
jumped off and ran for the paddock turnstiles, followed by his
flustered personal assistant who said he was late for a meeting
with his engineers and had no time to stop. But he did stop, this
famous driver, and he pushed his way through the now silent crowd
of on-lookers and went directly to the family with the little boy
in the wheelchair.
Michael’s parents stood speechless and immobilized, unable to
come to grips with the fact that this famous driver had actually
singled them out for his individual attention. The driver quickly
took charge of the situation. He shook hands with both parents,
asked them for a pen to sign his name on their boys’ caps and
told them to take photos. Then he got down on one knee and put
his arm around little Michael in the wheelchair. He hugged him
closer and whispered in his ear: “Hi, your Mom and Dad tell me we
have the same name. Mine is Michael Schumacher and I am very
happy to meet you.”
A man of Michael Schumacher’s decency and undoubted legend deserves to die an old man, having regaled tales of his successes to his Grandchildren and bore witness to the generations of racing stars he has inspired. The man who once mastered a Formula One car – mastered Formula One – cannot be felled by a mere ski. I, along with the rest of the world, wish him the speediest of recoveries.