In November of 1974, the fifth-ranked Notre Dame football team traveled to the Los Angeles Coliseum to play longtime rival and number six-ranked Southern California. Notre Dame jumped out to a 24-0 lead before USC running back Anthony Davis scored a touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half to make the score 24-6. Davis opened the second half by returning the kick-off 102 yards for a touchdown and opened the floodgates to one of the most famous comebacks in college football history. USC would score 55 consecutive points and Davis ended the day with four touchdowns. Final score USC 55. Notre Dame 24.
In the Notre Dame locker room after the game, reporters asked coach Ara Parseghian about Davis and how he shredded the nation's best defense after being down 24-0 to the Fighting Irish. To which Parseghian replied "Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents that which normal circumstances may remain dormant."
When I think of people in horse racing that have achieved greatness in the face of adversity, first on my list is recent Hall of Fame inductee Randy Romero.
As a boy from Erath, Louisiana, Romero began riding Quarter Horses and thoroughbred at bush tracks around Southern Louisiana at age 8. He loved race riding and he was good so his professional riding career began as soon as he was eligible to be licensed at Evangeline Downs in 1975. He soon dominated the smaller tracks in the area such as Delta Downs in Vinton and Jefferson Downs in Kenner.
The 1978 movie Caseys Shadow was based his family's true story about a Quarter Horse running in the All-American Futurity and he had simultaneously began succeeding at larger tracks such as Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
Tragedy first struck "The Rajun Cajun" in 1983 with a freak accident in the sauna of the Oaklawn Park jockeys' quarters. While trying to lose weight before the races, a light bulb exploded in the "hot box" and ignited the alcohol covering Romero's body, burning him over 65% of his body.
But just fifteen weeks later, he was back riding and was soon racking up riding titles and stakes wins while riding for some of the most powerful stables on the East Coast. In perhaps his most memorable (if not his greatest) ride, he rallied Personal Ensign past Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors and an apparent insurmountable lead to win the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. 1) at Churchill Downs. The victory also had historical significance as Personal Ensign was able to retire as one of the greatest race mares of all-time with a perfect 13 for 13 record.
Two years later Romero was again in a Breeders' Cup Distaff stretch battle. This time he was aboard Go For Wand at Belmont Park and they were stride-for-stride down the stretch with the great mare Bayakoa. IIn one of the darkest moments in thoroughbred racing history, Go For Wand suddenly broke a front leg, slamming to ground with Romero. (photo right) Despite breaking his shoulder and several ribs in the spill, Romero rode the next race after Go For Wand was euthanized on the track.
Three months later he returned to racing and in his second day back riding, he went down at Gulfstream Park and broke his elbow. The injury would eventually end his career as doctors were never able to set the elbow correctly. After several surgeries and years of trying to comeback, Romero retired for good in 1999.
But the race track was not yet finished battering Randy Romero and his body. The years of controlling his weight through bulimia or "flipping" as it commonly know in racing, had taken it's toll and in 2002 his kidneys failed. He later was told that he had Hepatitis C and would need a kidney and liver transplant. He never got the transplants but his liver has stabilized and he undergoes dialysis three times a week to treat his kidneys.
After a career of nearly 25,000 mounts, more than 4,000 wins, riding titles at ten different tracks and three Breeders' Cup wins, his credentials stand alone as a Hall of Famer. And he rose to that level of the sport through devastating burns, weight battles, broken arms, legs, ribs, shoulders, collarbones, who know what other bones, legiments, sprains and more than 20 surgeries.
That takes him to hero status in my book.