Jenifer's Journey: A man, born without legs, wheels his way to a Paralympic medal
September 25, 2012 8:15 PM
Trevon Jenifer explains game strategy to his girlfriend of nearly four years, Laura Klass.
Trevon Jenifer's bronze medal, earned at the 2012 Paralympics in London.
Wheelchair basketball player Trevon Jenifer shoots around at Edinboro University on Friday.
Trevon Jenifer, a 24-year-old graduate of Edinboro University, switches the wheels from his everyday wheelchair to the one he uses for basketball. The game chairs are custom-built to regulation specifications for each player depending on their size and style of play.
Edinboro coach Jim Glatch, left, and Trevon Jenifer talk shop Friday. Mr. Glatch coached the U.S. wheelchair basketball team to its first medal in 12 years at the Paralympic Games this month.
Kaitlynn Riely / The Pittsburgh Press
A boy is born without legs, to a single, unemployed mother, in a poor, crime-ridden part of Maryland. Ask Trevon Jenifer if that boy, growing up, could imagine that one day he'd compete at the Paralympic Games.
That his team would win bronze. That he'd visit the White House and shake hands with the president and first lady. That he'd be awaiting an offer to play wheelchair basketball professionally in Europe.
Ask that question to Mr. Jenifer, a 24-year-old graduate of Edinboro University, and he'll tell you to slow down.
"You don't even have to go that far back," he said, as he sat in his coach's office in the basement of McComb Fieldhouse at Edinboro last week.
"If you go back to my freshman year, and you say you are going to be a two-time All-American, and you are also going to be able to play international ball, I'd be like, 'Yeah, right.'
"But as my career has gone on, my confidence has gone up, and I like where we are going."
In a few weeks, Mr. Jenifer, who earlier this month was part of the U.S. men's team that defeated Great Britain, 61-46, to win bronze in wheelchair basketball at the Paralympics in London, could be going back to Europe. He's waiting to hear about an offer to play wheelchair basketball for a professional team in Spain.
He's already a long way from where he started.
Mr. Jenifer, who stands 3 feet tall and weighs about 130 pounds, was born without legs, due to an extremely rare disorder called congenital amputation.
He explains it this way: "Let's say, for instance, you take a doll or a Barbie, right, and you know if you pull the legs apart and you have a Barbie doll with no legs, that's pretty much what mine is like," he said, describing the way his body ends.
"It's rounded all the way around, but that's pretty much what it looks like."
In "From the Ground Up," a book Mr. Jenifer published with a Washington Post reporter in 2006, Mr. Jenifer wrote that when he was born, his mother wondered if her son could survive without legs, and worried that he might spend the rest of his life bedridden.
She quickly saw her worries relieved. At age 4, Mr. Jenifer started competing in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair track. His siblings -- two older brothers, one older sister, a younger brother and two younger step-sisters -- forged and fueled his competitive nature, he said.
His drive, and his talent, made a lasting impression on Jim Glatch, coach of the men's and women's wheelchair basketball teams at Edinboro, who saw him play in a youth tournament.
"The young man always had a smile on his face, but he was always one of the hardest workers out there," Mr. Glatch recalled. "You don't forget that, and as a coach, you see talent right away."
As a teenager, though, Mr. Jenifer took a break from wheelchair basketball and track. When his family moved to Calvert County, Md., he attended Huntingtown High School and joined the wrestling team, competing against able-bodied guys and finishing third in his weight class at the Maryland state tournament his senior year.
He thought he could get a college scholarship for wrestling, but none was offered. Instead, he got a call from Mr. Glatch, the coach who'd had him in mind since he saw him play as a kid. Mr. Glatch, who is in his 18th year coaching wheelchair basketball at Edinboro, wanted to know if he'd like to play for the school. Edinboro is one of the seven schools in the country with a men's wheelchair basketball team.
Mr. Jenifer said yes. With the help of a handful of small scholarships, some Pell Grants and some anonymous benefactors from Maryland, he became a collegiate athlete at Edinboro, a small college near Erie, two hours north of Pittsburgh.
His first year, he and his coach agreed, he was horrible. Most of his shots were blocked. The ones that weren't blocked hit the backboard.
Mr. Glatch gives him this: "It's a lot rougher than it looks."
The game traces its roots in the United States to 1946, when paralyzed or otherwise injured veterans returning from World War II began forming leagues.
The basket Mr. Jenifer aims for is the same height as the ones LeBron James and Kobe Bryant use, and most of the rules are the same as well. The main difference is the rule for traveling: players are allowed to push their wheelchairs twice between dribbling or passing or before shooting.
On the basketball court at McComb Fieldhouse, Mr. Jenifer, who uses two straps to hold his body in the wheelchair, twirls and spins and pushes his wheelchair around the court, dribbling and shooting. He makes it look easy, but it's not, said his girlfriend of nearly four years, Laura Klass, 22, a fellow Edinboro graduate.
A former collegiate soccer player, she has tried playing wheelchair basketball to see what her boyfriend was experiencing, but after about 10 minutes, her arms were sore.
"Forget making a shot," she said. "You are used to using your legs, and you just can't do any of that."
To get to where Mr. Jenifer is -- a former collegiate athlete who made it to the international level -- took hard work, and it shows. He has calluses on his hands and memories of the many falls it has taken to learn the dynamics of the game.
He started his freshman year on the bench, but he worked up the depth chart, and by the end of the season, Mr. Jenifer was the sixth man and played in the national championship game.
His team lost that game, but Mr. Jenifer's career took off. He played five seasons in all at Edinboro, where he was captain for three years, All-America for two and then played in multiple international tournaments for U.S. men's teams.
The Americans played eight games at the Paralympic Games in London, and Mr. Jenifer started in all of them. In the bronze medal game, he had two assists, one block and one steal.
Mr. Glatch, who was head coach of the U.S. men's team, called Mr. Jenifer "one of the hardest workers that I've ever coached."
And not just on the court.
Mr. Jenifer, who usually gets around on a skateboard-like device that is fitted to his body, received a degree in criminal justice from Edinboro in May 2011, becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college.
While he waits to hear about opportunities to play in Europe, he's playing for an Erie men's wheelchair basketball club and working as a coordinator for an organization that provides services for people with disabilities so they can remain living independently.
He brought home a bronze medal from the Paralympics and told his girlfriend he'd take a break from the gym for a month, but he barely made it a week before he was back practicing.
His goal is to spend a few years in Spain and save up the money for a graduate degree in the homeland security field. He doesn't want to be behind a desk. He wants to be the guy working the investigation.
He has heard, his whole life, that people who come from where he grew up -- surrounded by crime and poverty -- wouldn't make it. That his disability -- his fate to be born without legs -- would create additional roadblocks.