CALLAO, PERU — It’s called the octagon. It’s where certainty becomes uncertain. It’s red vs. blue, it’s us vs. them. It’s the place where Para Taekwondo is played for all to see and behold. For one athlete, uncertainty came from outside the eight-sided field of play, uncertainty happened in a way that changed how one man lives his life every day.
It’s that uncertainty that U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Corbin Stacey felt on August 30, 2009. He was on what was supposed to be a routine training activity before being deployed overseas. He “bumped” his head and thought nothing of it. However fate had other plans. While showering a few days later, he fainted as a result from the head injury. He landed on his head and neck crushing three vertebrae and his spinal cord. It left him unable to walk or even stand up straight.
“I still have the right side deficit,” Stacey said, while ominously celebrating the anniversary of his injury born date, which was one day after this interview took place. He continued, “It took me ten years to get me to where I am at.”
It would take months of rehab to re-train his body to walk and feel again. Then, tragedy struck again in the form of two car accidents in the following months, forcing him back to rehab again and again. Stacey still cannot move his left arm and is now classified as a K44 athlete, which is defined as ”…athletes with unilateral arm amputation (or equivalent loss of function), or loss of toes which impact the ability to lift the heel properly“. Now, the man who was working as a Physical Trainer in the Army, was in need of help himself.
The man who’s known to his friends as “nails” because he’s that tough or “Steel” by his wife, Andrea Pollack Stacey, couldn’t do it alone.
“My wife is my biggest inspiration. She bought me a Superman T-shirt when I was in hospital and every car that we have owned has the Superman sticker on there,” he continued, “On my uniform I have a Superman patch on there. But she calls me the man of steel because I have steel all over my body.”
Stacey would eventually get back into walking shape, thanks to the people at the Wounded Warrior Project and the efforts of a member and motivational speaker, Shilo Harris.
“I went out there. There wasn’t no judgement, there just was offering help, whether it be academics or financial, be it career opportunities. Most of my guys in my circle, we either work as agents for the government, from their past military experience or they are analysts and I don’t think I would ever get an opportunity like that without the Wounded Warrior project.” confessed the Staff Sgt. He then went on to say teary-eyed, “I can’t ever repay them financially,” he continued, ”Now, I coach, now I am a special education teacher, and I am getting my degree from Youngstown State so I can be a real teacher and help kids who don’t have the opportunity to do what they were meant to do, grow and survive. That’s my way of giving back.”
While undertaking physical training, Stacey began participating in adaptive sports such as Taekwondo, which he picked up in 2011, getting in on the Para Athletics side of the sport from the ground floor. In fact, Staff Sgt. Stacey was on the committee to get Lima 2019 on the docket for Games, as well into the first Paralympics in 2020 in Tokyo, Japan. When asked about the importance of getting people who may have been hurt or critically injured to play sports as para athletes, Stacey said,
“Anything adaptive sports is better and this is speaking from my PT side, because it gives them a chance to get into the fight again.” He went on to say, “It gives them an opportunity to interact with a certain group of people who are no better or less than them. It’s like if you are playing basketball with your kids and they are running up and down the court while you have to push yourself versus playing ball with ten other guys in wheelchairs. It puts you in the right mind frame to be better.”
Then came the worst day of his life. It was worse than getting permanent damage to his left side of his body. He lost something greater by far, his right hand man, his son.
“In 2016, me and my wife were celebrating that we all got all three of our kids into college without paying a dime. They all got scholarships. My son was a D-1 football player. He was going to transfer to the University of Miami (FL), after his third year of junior college. Somehow he got in some trouble with his friends. Next thing you know, me and my wife are on a cruise, we get a phone call from the coach and I’m thinking, ‘he broke his arm, he broke his leg or something.’ The coach is crying, my wife, the look on her face, she’s crying…and he told me, ‘my son is dead. He took some sleeping pills when he broke up with his girlfriend’. And that’s the worst day of my life.”
Before his death, in a conversation to his now late son, Stacey swore to him that he would get to Lima 2019 and compete to see it through.
“That was the biggest thing I had to do today was to compete. I’ve checked all my goal boxes for this year, and come next year if I still have some opportunities to increase in rankings, then we’ll make that decision when I get home. But right now, I just want to honor my son’s death. Dad came through on his promise.”
In fact, Stacey wasn’t going to go to Lima 2019, but it was his wife who encouraged the Staff Sgt. to go. When he competed, he wasn’t allowed to wear his trademark 22 project uniform (also known as a “gi”). It represents the two of his best friends who committed suicide and the two family members who committed suicide as well.
“I’m not a tough guy, I’m just a guy who has the opportunity to help another person.” he said holding back tears.
Though he will never find closure from his losses of friends and his son, he has used this time to motivate him to be a better athlete and a better person in the Cleveland community.
“The only thing that gives me solace is that my son’s friends still come by and still call me “Dad”, like he’s somewhere in the basement or something. I tell them to get out.” He joked and chuckled, then continued, “My son’s older brother is going to Texas Tech and all of his friends come over too. And that’s my plan to give back to the community – when I graduate from Youngstown State, I plan on running for [Cleveland] City council. And try to help financial investments get back into the city of Cleveland.”
Stacey didn’t need to fight in Lima 2019 as a Taekwondo player in the octagon. He was here for support Team USA.
On August 31, 2019, Stacey had advanced to the bronze medal match. He would, following this interview, have to compete against a fellow United States teammate, Johnny Birch Jr., in the afternoon session.
Staff Sgt. Corbin Stacey did something selflessness in the spirit of sport. He stepped aside from the match, awarding the bronze to his deserving competitor and teammate. His motivation wasn’t that he is pushing fifty years of age, and wasn’t because he was hurt. Rather, he did it because he thought it would further Team USA’s chances and confidence going to Tokyo, where he may or may not compete. Said Stacey to this reporter about what he did,’
“Saved another life is all the prize I need”.
If You or Someone You Know Is in Crisis and Needs Immediate Help please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8026