At the top of Ben Jackson’s Facebook page there is a two-line statement of purpose:
Glib inspirational sayings are a dime a dozen on Facebook, but this one carries a lot more weight, especially when you consider the source.
Ben Jackson was born with both debilitating cerebral palsy and an inner fire to accomplish challenging goals. For this reason, he is this month’s “I Define Me” award winner.
Swagger and a Sense of Humor
The first thing that strikes you about Jackson is his confidence. He carries himself with effortless panache, dresses with subtle but pronounced style, and isn’t afraid to flaunt a sense of humor with his swagger. He’s frequently seen wearing a tank that reads “Cerebral palsy has never looked so good.”
In an age defined by Internet slugs, it is telling to see the way Jackson is described in the stories that surface about him. “Inspirational speaker Ben Jackson,” “power lifter Ben Jackson” are common; “disabled athlete” or “cerebral palsy sufferer” are not.
But this confidence didn’t come cheap.
As a child, Jackson suffered from just about every setback cerebral palsy could throw at him. His legs and feet were subject to spasms. His gait was awkward and his speech was halted. Doctors predicted that he would spend his life in a wheelchair. One went so far as to suggest that his mother “let him die” and avoid the burden of raising a child with cerebral palsy.
Starting school in a small town in Pennsylvania added a social element to Jackson’s physical challenges. In a class of 300 kids, he was the only one with a physical disability. Outwardly, he was known as a shy kid; on the inside, he longed to express the inner fire that drove him.
“I wanted to work at something, to perfect it,” he recalls. One night, after a visit to his occupational therapist where she taught him to tie his shoes, Jackson stayed up half the night practicing what he’d learned, pushing himself until he could successfully tie the shoes.
As he got older, he found a new challenge: playing sports. Watching sports on television motivated him to try his own strength and coordination. Jackson remembers putting hours into pedaling a bike and even more into maneuvering a basketball. The adults in his life remember that they’d never seen a child with more determination or a greater work ethic.
Closer to Success
By the time he reached middle school, Jackson had settled on a new goal: wrestling. His school was recruiting new members for the wrestling team, and to Jackson, it looked like a sport that required as much mental strength as physical strength—something Jackson had in abundance.
The first challenge, he says, was to his self-confidence. From the very first day of open practice, he was confronted once again with being “the only one” in a new environment. He’d never tried the sport before and had no idea what to expect. But through sheer determination, he passed the tryout and was welcomed into the team.
Some might see his first season as a failure—he lost every match he competed in. It was disheartening for him, and it never looked so easy to just give up. But Jackson’s inner drive wouldn’t let him. Where others saw losses and failure, he saw progress and growth.
The following season, he tried out again. He practiced six days a week. He stayed up late to study videos of wrestling matches. He worked out constantly, training in cardio and weight lifting, practicing his moves and holds until they became second nature. And whenever he thought about giving up, his competitive nature kicked in hard.
“I knew that if I quit, my opponent was just getting started.”
That year, in ninth grade, Jackson won his first wrestling match. An old, grainy photo shows the referee lifting Jackson’s arm as the winner, while his defeated opponent looks on with an expression of both surprise and respect.
For the duration of high school, Jackson continued to excel in the sport. He packed on nearly 30 pounds of muscle. He developed a signature move that let him upend his opponent by the legs. He competed in about 12 matches a year for his school, with many other tournaments in the post-season. By the time he graduated from high school, he had a 7-10 record, a MVP award, and a new award named after him. The Ben Jackson Courage Award is now given annually at his high school’s end-of-year wrestling banquet.
Most importantly, Jackson found that the mental strength he developed through his wrestling success allowed him to come out of his shell. He made friends, strengthened the bond with his teammates, and began to discover the voice that would lead him into his next phase of life.
“When I was younger, I would shy away from answering questions or speaking in class because of the way people would perceive me. Then, when I got older, I realized that if you have something intelligent to say, people will wait for you to speak.”
Strengthening His Voice
These days, Jackson is a communications major at Northampton Community College. He has transitioned from wrestling to weightlifting. (He’s currently benching 200, but he insists that the goal isn’t a number—it’s to “smash every record.”) He’s training for the 2016 Paralympics, but setting his sights on long-term goals like traveling the world, working as an ambassador for sports inclusion, and developing a voice that can help others.
His hard work is paying off. Jackson was recently featured in a Gatorade commercial/mini-doc that highlighted his unquenchable determination. He was invited to meet and speak to NFL team the Baltimore Ravens.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking, but then you realize they’re just people like you and me,” Jackson said. “They might be a little faster, a little stronger, but they’re just people.”
This comment showed unmistakably where his confidence comes from: an underlying understanding that all people, regardless of size, strength or physical ability, are essentially the same. We have goals that motivate us, obstacles that challenge us, and, if we’re lucky, people like Jackson that inspire us to let nothing stand in our way.
Even Ravens coach Harbaugh was inspired by Jackson’s example.
“What he does every day to accomplish the things he’s doing has inspired our football team. We had a real special guest here.”
And he returns frequently to his high school to mentor young wrestlers. Jackson has realized that, even with his impressive athletic record, his voice may be his strongest asset of all.
“What keeps me going is the fact that I truly believe that I am capable of changing lives. I just want to be one of those people who is always remembered for leaving the world a better place … and impacting as many lives as possible, not only through my actions, but also through my words.”
He adds, “In high school, everyone cheered when I got my diploma. I figured if I can change a community, how about the world?”