Print Edition: November 27, 2013
On May 2, 1939 famous New York Yankees hall of famer Lou Gehrig played his final game in white and blue. Due to his declining health and deteriorating ability to play the game he loved, he was forced to step down from his position on the team. A little over a month later Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). ALS later became the disease that ended his life, two short years after being diagnosed, on June 2, 1941. The class and composure Gehrig showed during this tough time in his life would be the inspiration for many athletes in the future.
When he was 11 years old, UFV striker James Najman was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract of the digestive system. This disease can affect the body’s immune system and is defined by severe intestinal tract distress, abdominal pain, and other possibly life-threatening symptoms.
While James discovered the steps necessary to live with Crohn’s, he also became an accomplished public speaker, winning first place in a competition at his school involving students as high as the grade seven level. At the time, Najman was only in grade five.
While his soccer interests quickly pre-empted his public speaking one, he was about to be provided a more powerful platform with which to reach people. While still a youth soccer player he was approached by the Canadian advocacy organization Gut Inspired. Gut Inspired works to raise awareness and offer support to individuals living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It was through Najman’s work with the group that he once again discovered his love for public speaking and inspiring people.
“My goal in public speaking is to inspire others. I want everyone, especially people that have a condition that they have to live with, [to know] that no matter what you do just don’t give up … Being able to put smiles on people’s faces is a big thing for me. Even if I can change the life of one person and get them to never give up and live up to their dreams like I do, I would feel amazing because of it.”
In this outlook, Najman draws comparison to Lou Gehrig and other famous athletes who have overcome significant medical setbacks. Both used their conditions as a means of inspiring others and encouraging them to realize the impact that one person can have. Gehrig famously said in his final game at the historic Yankee Stadium “today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Najman would, no doubt, echo that sentiment.
As Najman’s work continues with Gut Inspired, people are beginning to take notice, including a company in Chicago, Illinois. Abbvie Lab is a global pharmaceutical company with its headquarters in Chicago. When Abbvie first caught wind of Najman’s story they decided to fly him down to speak to their staff from the perspective of a patient. In Najman’s words he was there in order to “talk to representatives … and just tell them my story. I wanted to show them what battles I have gone through to become who I am today. They also asked questions about what they could do better as a company in helping new diagnosed Crohn’s patients and also to create better medications.”
While Najman was in Chicago he spoke to over 500 employees about his life and did his best to inspire the company that had been a part of providing the medication necessary for him to cope.
But even those who inspire seek inspiration.
“People that I find inspiring are the people that really helped me through my journey,” Najman said. “My family was the biggest inspiration for me because they were there every step of the way. Of course, they really worried with everything that was going on but they stayed strong. I saw that, and it made me get through my battle of Crohn’s disease. Another role model of mine is one of my old coaches … Once I was in the hospital for a month and he actually visited me every single day in the morning. He would grab a coffee and I would get a juice before he had to go to work. We just talked. That is just one of the things that he did for me and every little bit helped me through my journey.”
While the athletes and the diseases are vastly different, both Najman and Gehrig hold the lessons learned while struggling with adversity, giving them an opportunity and perspective that can be used to inspire others. The lesson is that determination, perseverance, and belief are the basic essentials to success, however we measure and define it. Najman, as a freshman, has at least four years to contribute to the UFV soccer team and use his experience to inspire others. We have certainly not heard the last of him.