Advice from a Kid With a Wooden Leg
April 02, 2012
Growing up, all I wanted to be was Rod Carew.
At night, when I shut my eyes to fall asleep, I could see him stepping into the batter’s box, cracking a single down the third base line or spearing a line drive.
Like a lot of other 8-year-old boys, every waking moment was about baseball. Like any self-respecting kid would, I nagged the hell out of my mom until she signed me up for Little League. And like every other kid on my team, I ran onto the field and played my heart out. The thing was, as much as I tried to be like everyone else, I knew deep down that I was different.
You see, I was born without a fibula in my right leg. It was just one of those genetic mistakes.
Now, 30 years later, I can lift up the hem of my pants and show people my prosthetic leg, and when I see their jaws drop, I’m totally fine with it. But when I was 8, I wanted to die when I heard names like “Gimp,” “Woody,” and “Cripple”—and that’s just what my sister called me!
I could have become introverted and stayed home playing with Star Wars toys all day. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are hours of fun to be had with Boba Fett and Princess Leia dolls.) But my parents always insisted that the best way to be like all the other kids was to go out and do all the things the other kids did.
Because I grew up in Minnesota, I also wanted to play hockey. And, no, skating with a wooden leg wasn’t exactly a cakewalk.
That’s right: back then, my leg was made of actual wood. Ol’ Peg Leg Stolhanske. When I would grow an inch taller, they would add an inch of wood to my ankle. I was just like a tree—you could measure my growth from the rings around my ankle. If I grew just a quarter of an inch, though, I’d get a waiter to shove a matchbook underneath it until I felt even.
Before I’d head down to the ice rink, my mom would always say, “So what if you get knocked down. Just get back up!” I got knocked down a lot but, thanks to my mom’s advice, I always got back up. Before long, it became a habit.
By the time I had taken to the field in Little League, I really felt like I could do anything the other kids could do, wooden leg and all.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I remember the pain of running on that old-fashioned leg was so intense that my eyes would sometimes fill with tears as I sprinted toward first base. Prosthetic technology has improved a lot, but back then, my skin would tear from pistoning as I ran, and when that happened, it would take days or even weeks to heal.
But I never saw Rod Carew miss a game because of an injury, so I’d put on some ointment, pop some Tylenol, and get back in the game.
Now, I know you’re all thinking, “That’s one badass dude.”
But, seriously, the point of telling that story isn’t so you’ll be impressed by how tough of an 8-year-old I was. The point is, I just never bought into the conventional wisdom that a kid with one leg shouldn’t be out there, taking hits and running the bases.
Delusional? Maybe. But it kept me going.
Being on that field was a struggle at times, but my mom constantly reminded me that I was just like everybody else. She said it enough times that, ultimately, I believed it.
And yet, all the self-confidence that my mom instilled in me at 8 years old disappeared in a flash one day in fifth grade. It was during recess, and we were out in the schoolyard playing … that infamous game, kickball.
I had a huge crush on this cute freckly redhead—you know the type. She was out there watching the game, and, naturally, I wanted to impress her.
The pitcher rolls the ball.
I rev up my little fifth-grade butt and just cream the ball. I mean, I kick it as hard as I can. I look up and see all the outfielders running back. Only, it’s not because I’ve kicked the ball so far.
It’s because my leg is flying end over end across the sky. It looks like someone has just thrown a boomerang into the air. A large, straight boomerang with a sock on one end.â€¨ You may have seen that coming, but I certainly didn’t—and neither did the cute little redhead. I look over at her, and she’s staring at me … and she starts screaming. It’s not as if it was heading for her or that she was in any danger of being impaled, but I guess when some boy’s body part unexpectedly flies through the air like a tree limb in a tornado, she’d be startled. As was I. And as if her banshee-worthy screams weren’t humiliating enough, this great wit of our class, Scott Engeldorf, runs out onto the field, picks up my leg, and starts swinging it, threatening the girls as he chases them with it.â€¨ Just like that, all that storybook confidence that my mom had worked so hard and so many years to build up in me was destroyed. It can happen that fast. You, too, can have your life fall apart during a kickball game—they are treacherous!
That afternoon, I basically went into hiding. Not like Howard-Hughes-grow-a-beard-and-urinate-into-milk-bottles hiding, but I did limit myself by never wearing shorts or going swimming. I dreaded the arrival of summer, because all my friends would go down to Lake Calhoun in their swimsuits and I thought I’d look like an idiot going there in pants.
My friends would call me and say, “You’ve got to come down—you’re missing all the fun. There’s live music, everyone’s here, and all the girls are in bikinis!”
Now, I love bikinis. But I always stayed away.
Fast forward to my freshman year at Colgate. I couldn’t have been more excited to head off to college and have a fresh start. Nobody there knew who I was, and no one needed to know I had a fake leg.
And I can remember, as if it were yesterday, the exact moment that I fell in love with the place. For many students, it was the first time they drove through Hamilton and saw the beautiful campus, the changing colors of the leaves on Cardiac Hill, the pristine chapel. Not for me.
My love for Colgate started the first day of freshman year, when I discovered that Colgate had these things called co-ed dorms.
It was hot outside, and I was sweaty from moving in. So I go to take a shower, when out from the women’s bathroom walks this girl wearing only her towel.
Now, remember that I’m from Minnesota. Aside from our 5-day-long bikini season—which I had excluded myself from enjoying—the closest thing a girl ever came to being nearly naked in my presence was taking off one of her three wool sweaters. My 18-year-old brain just about exploded. I looked at the girl, looked out at the campus, and thought to myself, “I think I’m really going to like it here.”
I thought I could keep my leg a secret—that is, until I met Megan in Psych 101. (Notice how my life is defined by a series of girls.) Megan was way out of my league. But we started walking to class together, eating lunch together, studying, and before we knew it, we were dating.
Everyone knows the worst way to start a new relationship is by withholding important personal information, right? I wanted to be honest, but the memories of that disastrous kickball game still haunted me. I knew consciously that she was not the cute, freckly redhead who screamed in horror at me that day, but my subconscious couldn’t tell the difference, and I was terrified. So, I conveniently “forgot” to mention my leg to her.
Sometimes I would imagine different ways to tell her. Like, I’d take her out for dinner at The Horned Dorset and I’d ask, “What are you having? Leg of lamb? Speaking of legs, there’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
Problem was, she was a vegetarian.
Or, we’d be in Case Library and I’d say, “Look at this beautiful, ornate desk. Would you still like it if it was missing a leg?”
It wasn’t long before she forced the issue. She said, “We’ve been dating for two months and you haven’t tried to have sex with me. We’re in college. Are you gay?”
Now, at 18, trying to make any decision about your identity is difficult. I think if I had been gay, she probably would have taken it better. Because when I finally decided to show her my prosthesis, guess what happened? She didn’t hesitate. She broke up with me. Not because of my leg, but because I wasn’t straightforward with her. I decided then and there that if I wanted to have any kind of dating life, I would have to be open and honest right from the get-go.
A couple of months later, I met this cute upperclassman, Lyndsey, at the Jug. We were having a good conversation, laughing, and suddenly she put her hand on my knee. I knew exactly what was coming: “Are you wearing a brace or something?”â€¨ I was all set to tell her about the misfired genes. Then, I’m not sure if I chickened out or had a moment of inspiration, but instead of telling her the truth, I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “I lost my leg in a dangerous motorcycle stunt.”â€¨ The next thing I knew, we were making out in her room.
And I realized that this hunk of firewood was possibly the best wingman ever!
Then I met Poppy: “Greenpeace. I was swimming with the whales, and a Japanese fishing boat came out of nowhere and speared me.”
Then there was Maria: “I lost my leg running with the bulls.”
Jessica: “This paper cut? Special ops. Istanbul.”
The problem was, lying was like crack to me. I couldn’t stop. In fact, my lying went on until I learned one of the most important lessons of my life: women talk to each other.â€¨See, I was at The Back Bacon one night when I heard familiar voices. Turns out, two girls I had dated were behind me. They were laughing, having a good time. Then I heard, “Erik is so brave. Did you know he lost his leg as a rodeo clown saving a bull rider?” Then, “That’s funny, Erik told me a homeless guy pushed him in front of a subway car while he was trying to save a poor little orphan girl!”
After that, I could barely get a girl to speak to me. The entire time, I had been worried about being labeled the guy with a fake leg, only to become labeled the pathological liar with a fake leg. So much better!
My dating life was over, but it was spring, so I was fine. Spring meant baseball. Remember those summers I mentioned earlier, when all the other kids were hanging out in bathing suits at Lake Calhoun? And I was spending all my time in pants—well, those were baseball pants. I had put all of my pubescent energy into playing baseball. In time, it paid off. When I got to high school, I was good enough to play varsity, and by my senior year, I was voted captain of the team.
So, I thought I would be the Raiders’ next freshman phenom.
I arrived at the tryouts a little overconfident. Guess what? I wasn’t big enough or—surprise, surprise—fast enough, to make the team. Looking back, I probably should have prepared myself for the chance that my baseball career would end sometime before my plaque was unveiled in Cooperstown. When the time finally came to hang up my spikes, I was devastated.
My dream crashed against reality. And I remember thinking that my leg, which I had tried so hard to overcome, had finally gotten the best of me.
This was another moment when I could have stayed inside and played with my Star Wars toys—but that would have been really pathetic now that I was almost 20 years old. This time, my mom wasn’t there to tell me to “get back up,” but I’m glad she had told me that years ago, because I didn’t feel sorry for myself for long.
Just a few weeks later, I was schlepping around campus when I passed by Brehmer Theater. The doors were open, and there she was on stage. Her name was—well, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the way she carried herself on the stage. I took a seat in the back row and just watched her.
So long, Rod Carew—hello, Paul Newman.
At this point, I need to step back for a second. It would be a little too convenient if I said that, just as the door closed on baseball, the door to acting swung open. Maybe one day when I’m old and my memory is fading, that’s how I’ll tell it to my grandchildren.
Here’s what really happened: I auditioned for every University Theater production—for two years straight—and never got a single part. It got to the point where my friends stopped bothering to ask how my auditions went.
Then something serendipitous happened.
In one of my acting classes, I was required to build theater sets on Saturday mornings. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s where all the misfit actors who never got cast were sent.) Early one morning, I ended up working next to this tall, skinny, Indian kid. As we’re hammering away at some set, he mentions he’s from Chicago. I tell him I’m from Minneapolis.
Quickly, our conversation deteriorates into a contest of one–upmanship:
Indian kid: “Minneapolis? Isn’t that where the Viqueens play?”
Me: “Pfft! Jim McMahon rides a moped.”
Indian kid: “At least the Bears won a Super Bowl. More than I can say about you pansies.”
That was it!
I pick up my hammer. “Hey, Chicago, if you’re so tough, can you do this?” WHAM! I smack myself in the ankle.
Without missing a beat, Chicago says, “Oh, you wanna play that game? Let’s go.”
He grabs his hammer, exhales, and WHAM! He smacks himself in the ankle.
TIMBER! He goes down like a felled Christmas tree. Through clenched teeth, grunts,
“That’s not so tough. What else you got?”
“How about this?” I say, and I run up to a cement wall and kick it as hard as I can.â€¨Chicago yells, “Screw you, Minnesota!”
He runs and kicks it as hard as he can. Again, he falls to the ground, grabs his toes, and rocks back and forth like a giant baby. Pretending not to be in pain: “That did not hurt.”
Now I’m thinking that this game of “Quien es mas macho” is finito, but it’s not. I must find something so horrific that he has to bow out. I look around, and there she is … a pneumatic staple gun. I pick it up. Give Chicago a smile. He laughs. “Haha! You don’t have the guts!”
I wink and say, “Are you this tough, Chicago?” And BAM! I fire the staple into my shin.â€¨The color leaves his face. He’s pacing. Sweating. He pulls at my pants, making sure the staple actually punctured my leg.â€¨ Now, I have to give the guy credit. He’s either much tougher than I am, or just plum crazy. He picks up the staple gun, searches for a meaty part of his leg, and settles the gun on the back of his thigh. He is just about to pull the trigger…â€¨ “Wait! I have to tell you something…”
I point to my leg. â€¨ “This puppy’s made of wood.”
Silence fills the room. I’m thinking, he’s going to kill me. But, instead, he bursts out laughing. He sticks out his hand, “That was hysterical. I’m Jay .”
We became instant friends.
I’m sure Jay remembered the staple-gun incident the following year, when he asked me to audition for Charred Goosebeak, the sketch comedy group he had started on campus.
So, I showed up at the audition, and this time, things were different. Instead of hearing some stuffy theater professor shout,
“Thank you. Next!” I got cast!
Good-bye, Paul Newman—hello, Bill Murray!
For a year and a half, we wrote and performed live sketch-comedy shows. We parodied movies, current events, and even real people from campus. No one was safe. Not professors, not fraternities, and not even the Catholic priest, Father Tom—we transformed him into a campus crime fighter.
I loved being on stage. That’s when I realized that making people laugh was much more fun than being laughed at.
In college, my dream of playing baseball ended, I didn’t get cast in any University Theater production, and I was labeled a lying lunatic. But I also discovered what I truly loved and what I was good at—comedy and acting.
Maybe my foolish perseverance and sheer delusion that a kid with a fake leg could be an actor was paying off. I certainly took a lot of swings and misses to get where I was, but I wasn’t done whiffing yet.
When I graduated from Colgate, I looked forward to starting the next phase of my life, but I had many fears as well. First of all, I knew the time was coming when I’d have to explain to my very traditional dad that I was about to try my luck as a comedian.
There I was, sitting among my classmates at commencement, waiting to accept my diploma, thinking about how most of them were fulfilling their parents’ dreams by heading off to law school or med school—something noble, or at least profitable!
Through the sea of proud parents, I could only make out the top of my dad’s head. I was envisioning how he would react when I tried to convince him that his $100,000 investment in my education was going to pay off big time now that I had decided to become an actor. A comedic actor.
My dad has always been supportive, and I wish I could tell you that he took the news well—that he patted me on the shoulder and said, “Son,” in that dad voice, “follow your dreams.” But, the truth is, he was not happy with my decision, and things got pretty rough between us for a while. And it didn’t help when I announced that I was moving to New York City.
The other Broken Lizard guys and I had decided that if we really wanted to pursue our comedy and acting careers, we had to do it full steam ahead. I packed up all my possessions in two duffel bags, and with $200 in my wallet, I said good-bye to family and friends and set off for the big city.
Now, there’s this romantic notion of an aspiring actor waiting tables, scraping money together until that “big break” happens. Let me tell you, there was nothing romantic about it.
We worked minimum-wage jobs, doing whatever we could just to cover the rent. All so we could do comedy on the weekends, for no pay.
You know the expression, “It takes 10 years to be an overnight success?” Well, that was us.
After several years of slugging it out in the city, we happened to book a show outside of New York. So we piled into Jay’s beat-up old Saab and hit the road. You remember Jay—the staple-gun guy?
We were cruising along when our “big break” came to us in a most unexpected way—we were pulled over for speeding.â€¨Jay was driving, so he got stuck with the ticket. Naturally, we made fun of him for turning into a wimp when the officer came to the window.
Then we wondered if these officers, who seem so tough all the time, have a sense of humor, because we thought it must be so boring waiting around in a cruiser all day just to pull people over. How did they pass the time? What if they invented games to play on speeders to entertain themselves?
Well, that’s how the seed for our movie Super Troopers was planted.
We started writing, and rewriting, until we had a script. We shopped Super Troopers around to all the major studios, and they loved it—until we told them that we wanted to star in it.
One studio executive said, “If you get Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to star in it, you’ve got a deal.” They didn’t care that we wanted to be like Kids in the Hall or Monty Python.
Super Troopers was our baby! We wanted to be stars! And we believed we could pull it off!
We didn’t give up. For the next year, we went back to our menial jobs and reworked the script, rewriting nearly 20 drafts.
Finally our friend Rob Barocci ’90 called to let us know he had met a retired investment banker, Peter Lengyel, who was interested in getting into the film business and was looking for scripts.
But, we wondered, what were the chances that a retired banker in his 60s would appreciate a script about a bunch of cops who pull pranks on the people they pull over? What are the odds of him laughing at all?
That’s why we were blown away when he told us he loved it and was willing to invest $1.5 million to make the movie independently.â€¨ Now, $1.5 million sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but it all went into getting the movie up on the screen. Not a penny went into our already threadbare and empty pockets.
Between acting school, rent, travel, and the time I took off from work to film Super Troopers, I had accrued some serious debt. The only way I could pay my rent was to take out cash advances from my credit cards until I had maxed them all out.
I stopped answering the phone because I knew it would be a lawyer, debt collector, or the IRS. It got to the point where I couldn’t cover all my bills, and I became practically homeless. All of my possessions were packed in the back of my old beat-up Volvo.
For a while, I crashed on a friend’s couch in his small bungalow. He and his wife were incredibly generous, because there definitely was not enough room for me, but they welcomed me into their home anyway.
One evening, he asked if I could find somewhere else to sleep for the night. It was their one-year anniversary and they wanted some alone time. I felt terrible for being such an imposition, so of course I told him I’d find somewhere else to sleep.â€¨Even though it was getting late, I went out to my old car and started calling friends. What choice did I have?
Every number I dialed went straight to voicemail. I started panicking, when out of the blue, I got a call from one of my closest friends from high school, Robert. He was in town on business and wanted to meet up for a beer. We met at Chez Jay, an old bar famous for being the haunt where Marlon Brando used to hang out.
Robert and I were sitting at this legendary bar filled with the ghosts of Hollywood past. And he was telling me about how great his career is, that he was happily married, how they had just bought a new home, and they were looking forward to starting a family. Our lives could not have been more different! I was jobless, penniless, homeless, and alone.
I was happy for my friend—I really was, but more than anything, at that moment, I realized that as low as I had gotten, I was still not willing to give up on my dream of making movies.
Franklin Roosevelt said, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.” And that’s what I did, hovering just above rock bottom.
It’s a good thing that I did, because the next day I got “the call”—Super Troopers had made it into the Sundance Film Festival! I got into my Volvo, spent every last dime I had on gas money, and drove to Park City, Utah.
The night our movie was set to premiere, I paced outside the theater. This was the culmination of 10 years of hard work, the embodiment of a lifetime of hopes and dreams.
I was too scared to go in.
I was scared no one would show up. I was scared no one would laugh. I was scared they’d all walk out.
Finally, I forced myself to walk in. I stood at the back of the darkened theater—regular-sized me watching larger-than-life me on the screen. The movie started. People were laughing.
I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I’m man enough. I started to cry. I cried because I imagined the laughter in the theater that night must have had the same effect on me that the cheers from the crowd had on Rod Carew many years before as he rounded the bases, scoring a winning run.
I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs through the years. There were many times when the world kept telling me “no,” but I refused to accept “no” as an answer.
I think about bleeding through those gym socks on the Little League field, or all those times I got turned down at auditions in college.â€¨ I think about door after door of major studios slamming in our faces when we tried to sell our script. â€¨And I think about packing all my things into that broken-down old car without a place to sleep or a dollar in my pocket.
Yet, despite all those setbacks, I had forged ahead.
There is one rule that I’ve always tried to apply to my life. You’ve all heard the expression, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” The point of that saying is that you should be happy with the side you’re on.
How do you know unless you jump over the fence and check it out for yourself? You may get to the other side and find that you’re standing in muck and dirt and dust and don’t like it there at all. Or, maybe it is greener, but it’s that cheap Astroturf that is really shiny and plastic and uncomfortable and all you want to do is to go back to your side.
So my rule is this: always jump the fence. At least you’ll know you went to see what it looked like.
I never got to play for the Minnesota Twins, and if you were expecting my final message to be, “You can do anything you set your mind to,” I’m sorry to disappoint you. You can’t—and anyone who tells you differently is a bigger liar than I was during my freshman year at Colgate. If it were true, I’d be wrapping up a hall of fame career right about now. â€¨ But because I found something else that I loved—making movies—and stuck with it, this past August, I got as close to my childhood dream as I’ll ever get. It turns out that the Minnesota Twins’ first baseman, Justin Morneau, is a fan of Super Troopers. He asked me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Twins game.
As I left the ballpark, smiling from ear to ear, I spotted the bronze statue of none other than number 29, Mr. Rod Carew. â€¨I wondered, what if Rod Carew had never bothered to take any chances in his life? What if he believed that just because he was a poor kid born on a train in Panama he couldn’t play professional baseball? Something tells me he looked at the grass on the other side of the fence and jumped right over.
Or, what if I, a kid with a wooden leg, had believed that it was impossible for me to become the captain of my high school baseball team or star in a major motion picture?
I think the best advice I can share is this: Be a little delusional. Pursue your dreams stubbornly. Allow yourself to get knocked down—then dust yourself off and get back up again, and again, and again. In my experience, it’s in the moments when you’re most willing to fail that success has a way of finding you.
And, although you may not have prosthetic body parts, everyone has a “wooden leg” of some kind. I’m living proof that once you realize that your “wooden leg,” whatever it may be, is really just in your head, that’s when you can stay true to yourself, pursue your dreams with foolish perseverance, and truly achieve success in life—whatever that may mean to you.
One last thought. If you actually do have a wooden leg … don’t play kickball.