Cook: The hero in orange

Cook: The hero in orange

July 24th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

One of the last times I saw Peter Hampton alive was during baseball season this spring. He was wearing that pair of bright UT-orange sweatpants. I spotted them from the dugout.

They were so bright, you could've spotted them from a dugout in Arkansas.

That afternoon, my son was playing baseball. Peter came to watch.

My dad drove to get him. Helped him out his front door and into the car. Helped him buckle up and roll down his window. Drove to the ball fields -- twenty bucks says they talked politics the whole way -- and then unbuckle, swing his legs out of the car and, arm in arm, walk the slow steps to the picnic table just beyond the left field fence.

You see, cerebral palsy can be a real bear.

He'd had it since birth. One hand was crooked back, at the wrist, his fingers extended not out but inward, toward his elbow. He limped; one leg worked well but not the other. He spoke thickly, like his consonants were heavy.

Long ago, I had stopped thinking about Peter's body and how it moved, or didn't. If you first met him, sure. His body may have been all you noticed.

But to know Peter was to know Peter transcended his body, that the heart, mind and soul inside it were anything but palsied.

"Did you hear the one about the liberal and conservative ..." he'd begin.

Peter died Sunday.

He was 46. His funeral is today.

My family knew him for more than half his life.

That afternoon, I wish I had stopped the baseball game. Called time, run out onto the field, made a fool of myself yelling to everybody, especially those little kids:

You all want to know what it really takes to win? What a true hero, a real champion looks like?

It's not somebody with a million-dollar contract, with tattoos and trophy cases.

Look up there. In the orange pants. Memorize his statistics. Go get his autograph.

"He was our hero," said Darrell Wyke, head trainer at Signal Mountain Athletic Club. "We called him Pistol Pete."

Darrell was Peter's physical trainer. At the funeral, he's delivering the eulogy.

"I was astounded the love he had for his family and his positive attitude on life," Darrell said. "Never, never once did I ever hear him complain. Not one time."

Oh no, I heard him complain. More than once. But only for two reasons.

Liberal politicians. (Peter was a conservative's conservative, who never suffered liberals lightly.)

And when UT lost. (Once again, the orange pants.)

Every New Year's, from the time I was a pimply pre-teen until just a few months ago, he would come over to my folks' place to watch football from noon till night. Before 21st century picture-in-picture televisions, we'd stack up TVs like blocks to watch all the games we could at once.

He'd call the florist, who would deliver to my mom a bouquet like a rainforest. Two winters ago, he gave my kids a John Wayne CD. Before that, he gave me a book from some conservative economist. (Wishfully. He did so wishfully.)

We'd eat black-eyed peas and cheese grits, drink Coke like we'd been shipwrecked. Between games, we'd play old Jerry Clower records.

Peter's laugh was the loudest.

"Did you hear the one ..." he'd begin.

We first crossed paths at Red Bank High, where Peter was a student, and my dad a teacher and coach. After high school, Peter graduated Magna Cum Laude from UT-Chattanooga with a degree in economics and a 4.0 GPA.

Took him 13 years.

In the spring of 2000, Red Bank High inducted him into its Hall of Fame. The entire gymnasium gave him a standing ovation.

Peter wept.

"Don't ever let anyone tell you that you cannot do something," he told the crowd that day.

Over the years, his story and ours merged in that priceless way, so that this afternoon, as we carry his body to the grave, we will cry like we lost one of our own.

"I love you," he told my mom, the last time they spoke.

It's a big world out there, and chances are, you didn't know Peter.

But you may know someone like him: big-hearted, heroic, bolder than 1,000 pairs of orange pants.

Please, while you still can, cherish it.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.