14-year-old Pursues Football With Two Prosthetic Legs
A few parents, a couple of coaches and a handful of football players sat on bleachers with a tin roof over them on Houston’s northwest side on a recent Wednesday afternoon. The Houston Chronicle reports giant tumblers full of ice water sat on the hot metal, along with gym towels and T-shirts. And on the ground next to the bleachers lay two bright red tennis shoes attached to prosthetic legs.
Not wanting them to get too hot, Mike Hodge picked up the prosthetics and moved them to the shade. After all, his son Calder would have to put them back on as soon as practice ended. On the field, Calder pranced between yard lines, standing tall on a pair of running blades. He scrambled around looking for a receiver and made throw after throw, stopping to lift his blue T-shirt to wipe the sweat dripping from his face in the steamy Houston heat.
Calder, a 14-year-old from Tomball, was born without tibia bones in his legs and without opposable thumbs. His parents, Mike and Kayla, made the supremely tough decision to amputate Calder’s legs when he was 2 years old so he’d never remember a life of having them.
None of that stopped Calder from developing a deep passion for football. And despite all the surgeries, the judgments, the looks from strangers and the constant wave of naysaying, he isn’t letting anyone tell him he can’t play.
“I feel most normal when I’m playing football,” Calder said. It’s been that way as long as he can remember. The youngest of four boys, Calder watched his older brothers play football growing up. When he was 5, he asked Kayla if he could play.
“I said no way,” she said. “I was too worried. How would that work? How would he get hit, then get back up with the prosthetics? He was playing baseball, and we were comfortable with that.” When he was 3, Calder had surgery on his hands and was in casts up to his elbows, yet he devised a way to hold a glove and play catch with his brothers. Defying the odds, he went on to play catcher for a Little League team. He liked baseball, and the fact he could play that sport was a triumph.
But football was calling him.
He had become a fan of then-University of Houston quarterback Case Keenum around kindergarten. Calder studied the way Keenum threw the ball, the way he moved in the pocket. It never occurred to Calder he couldn’t one day be like Keenum. “This is what I’ve always known,” Calder said. “I’ve never felt like there are things I can’t do.” That comes from the way his family treated him and his condition from the start.
Calder is a lot younger than brothers Blake, 29, Sheldon, 26, and Tyler, 24. When Calder was a baby, Mike and Kayla included them in the decision-making regarding him. “It was always a family discussion because it was going to be up to all of us to make sure Calder was OK,” Kayla said. “We talked openly about our plans and options and all agreed.”
The family could have decided to wait for amputation. Several years down the road, it could have been Calder’s decision on whether he would keep his legs. But they figured Calder would, like his brothers, want to run and play sports. By amputating early and getting him used to prosthetics, they felt he had a better chance of being able to do all the things he’d want to as a child.
Calder has no memory of life before the various surgeries on his legs and hands. He has asked numerous questions over the years, and his parents have been honest. “I know that was really hard for them to decide that for me,” he said. “I can’t even imagine. I’m glad they did though. I’m glad they didn’t wait. I might be in a wheelchair right now if they hadn’t, stuck inside playing video games. I wouldn’t want that.”
When Calder was home from the hospital after his amputation and cleared to move around and be active, Tyler looked at the toddler one day and said, “Now, get up.” “Tyler knew that Calder would be fine,” Kayla said. “And he wanted to treat him the same way he would have treated any little brother.” A few months after the surgery, Calder got his first prosthetics. He has never looked back.
“He was a normal kid,” Kayla said. “He played sports, played with his brothers. He did all the things we hoped he would when we made the decision to amputate early. That’s the life we wanted to give him.” Yet Kayla didn’t understand why a discontent Calder started begging to play football. She worked a compromise, allowing flag football instead of tackle. “He played at the YMCA, and it wasn’t great for him because they didn’t keep score,” she said.
Calder rolls his eyes at the memory of that league. He’s fiery, wanting to compete and wanting to win. Scoreless flag football wasn’t doing the trick. “He just kept coming back and wanting to play tackle,” Kayla said. “I finally gave in.” When Calder started playing tackle football in third grade, he was a defensive end. He couldn’t wait to get into the action and make contact. Then came the taunts.
Calder grew up with people staring and pointing, but this was different. Insults were thrown at him the minute he took the field. “I’ll just say kids can be really mean,” he said. “Really mean.” He turned all the negativity into fuel, constantly striving to prove he belonged. It didn’t take long for the kids in his league to accept him.
He has been playing ever since in various leagues, for his middle school team, and for an area 7-on-7 team. He switched to quarterback a few years after he started playing and soon will compete on his high school team at Legacy School of Sports Sciences. In his running blades, Calder has no knee function. His legs were amputated through the knee, so he’s never been able to bend at that joint.
To take snaps, he bends at the waist. Once he has the ball, the blades allow him to move quickly. Like a lot of quarterbacks, he hops around the pocket before setting up to throw. At one point a few years ago, one of his trainers at Blitz Football wore leg splints to see how it felt not being able to have full leg movement. That allowed him to coach Calder with a better understanding of what muscles were usable for the young athlete.
Opposing players have been very accepting of him. After a few plays, they realize he can handle himself. They don’t hold back.
Parents and coaches on other teams have shown concern for their players, asking if they could be hurt trying to tackle Calder while he wears the metal blades. Kayla assures them it’s no worse than colliding with a leg bone. Calder devotes all of his free time to his sport, perpetually watching YouTube videos, Instagram snippets and NFL Network reruns. He soaks in everything he can. “You need food, water, air to live,” Calder said. “And I need football.”
His summer has been full of extra training sessions and football camps all over the country. Calder recently attended the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, Louisiana, and met former Colts and Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the NFL’s all-time greats, while working out at the camp.
And July brought Calder an honorary ESPY award for being an inspiration to so many other players.
Calder has quite the social media following and is comfortable answering questions. He hopes he can help people understand that for him, being an amputee is normal. He’s not in pain, and he’s not in danger. “You can do anything you want to do,” Calder said. “For me, that just looks different than it does for other people.”
His hands are scarred from all the surgeries it took to essentially move his thumbs over to give them some opposability. His running blades have been altered dozens of times and now include cleats on the bottoms. He often jokes that he can be as tall as he wants by having his prosthetics lengthened. He also tells teammates his prosthetics offer an advantage in at least one sense.
“I’ll never have a knee or ankle injury,” he said with a smile. While he’s positive and open to discuss his reality with anyone, Calder draws lots of looks from people as he walks by. It doesn’t faze him. “I don’t worry about what people think,” he said. “I know what I can do. I know what I want to do.
“And for anyone who says I can’t, just watch.”