Pine Man Battles Life's 'Challenges' One Day At A Time

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The next time you find yourself feeling miserable because someone's taken your parking space, or your favorite TV show's been pre-empted, or you get a honey-dijon salad dressing stain on your brand new designer jogging shoes, do yourself a big favor.


Stop for a moment and think about Larry Lombardi.


Lombardi may well be the happiest and most optimistic resident of Pine. If that alone doesn't impress you to the spiritual core, well, you haven't met the man.


You may have seen him, though. Almost every day Lombardi drives to Payson, pulls his wheelchair out of the back of his beaten-up pickup truck, and hand-propels himself through his regular nine-mile workout route -- from Green Valley Park to Houston Mesa Road and back down the Beeline Highway.


As you've surely surmised by now, Lombardi is a paraplegic. But that's not even the beginning of this 39-year-old's life saga. And happily, it is very far from the end.

Chapter one

When Lombardi was an 18-year-old Southern Californian, he lived for sports, with waterskiing and jetskiing high on his list of faves. While pursuing those activities, he dove headlong into deceptively shallow water, hit a sand bar -- and was pulled out with a broken neck, paralyzed from the neck down.


The doctors couldn't tell Lombardi whether or not the damage was permanent. Only time would tell, they said -- and it did. Within three months, Lombardi started walking again, and eventually recovered "nearly 100 percent."


"At first," Lombardi now recalls with certain understatement, "I was really scared. But then I just got really determined. I simply wasn't gonna let this thing beat me.


"At the hospital, right before I finally got up between the parallel bars and finally walked, the therapist told me not to even try, that I wasn't ready."


That therapist would not be the last person on earth to underestimate Larry Lombardi.

Chapter two

In 1985, still in Southern California, Lombardi was a 25-year-old husband in a "troubled," soon-to-end marriage when an altercation with some acquaintances ended with what the local police ruled to be an "accidental" gunshot that put a bullet in Lombardi's spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.


"My first thought was, hey, I've beat this before, I'm gonna beat it again," says Lombardi.

"I hung onto that attitude, along with a good dose of flat-out denial, for three years."


The first dent in his sunny outlook came abruptly, when he saw some boulders high above the ocean shore and thought, "Man, I'm gonna climb up there and check out the view!"


WHAM! The rude thud of reality informed him that, no, he would not be doing that at all. Ever.


"It took quite a long while," Lombardi admits, "but I finally did accept my situation. I knew it could have been a lot worse."


And his situation certainly didn't stop him from pursuing his athletic passions. Soon, he was playing wheelchair basketball and hockey, and even snow skiing with the use of specially-built hospital equipment.


"The hardest part, I found, was hanging out with disabled people -- because I still considered myself a jetskiier and football player and all-star athlete who could still do whatever I wanted.


"Denial dies hard."

Chapter three

By March 17th, 1997, Lombardi had just graduated from a Southern California community college with big plans to become a nutritionist. On that day, he participated in the L.A. Marathon -- where he clocked 26.2 wheelchair miles in three hours and eight minutes, coming in 79th out of 106 runners and wheelers. "I was in the peak condition of my life," he says.


Three days later, as he attempted to cross a street during one of his workouts, he saw a car heading toward the intersection. He made eye contact with the passenger, and assumed that the driver saw him as well.


She didn't.

"She nailed me. Sent me flying about eight or nine feet. When I was laying there in the street, I thought, 'I'll just lay here another minute and shake this off.'"


He didn't.

Lombardi suffered a number of injuries, but the most terrifying was symptomized by the loss of all upper-body sensation--again.


"I went straight back into denial," Lombardi says. "I started from scratch, just as I'd done before, with exercise and therapy ... but this time I got no results. I couldn't beat it."


However, modern medicine could. During a dramatic surgical procedure, doctors removed three laminates (thin tissues between the vertebrae) from Lombardi's spine, which allowed blood to flow back down his spinal column -- and, within three or four months, restored upper-body sensation.


A few more operations later, Lombardi was once again back into physical therapy, back into exercise, and eventually back on the road, rolling toward full upper-body recovery.

Chapter four

Lombardi's parents, Anthony and Roberta Lombardi, moved from Los Angeles to Pine in 1993, away from Lombardi and his two brothers and three sisters.


In the wake of Lombardi's most recent disaster, however, they believed Arizona's pine country would be an excellent place to forcefully relocate their Number Two son.


"It was kind of against my will," Lombardi says. "But I just fell in love with the place as soon as I laid eyes on it. The only thing wrong with Pine is that it's too short and hilly for my workouts. But it's a quick drive to Payson, which has the perfect combination of easy hills and flatland."


His workouts, by the way, aren't for some specific upcoming athletic event. "I just do it for myself," he says.


Alas, Lombardi's never-ending stream of "challenges," as he calls them, did not come to an end with his move to the Rim country.


Last July, Lombardi accidentally locked himself out of his house. While attempting to climb in a window, he somehow got "hung up" in his wheelchair, fell and broke his left leg in two places. Fortunately, the damage was repaired with metal rods and pins, and Lombardi's recovery period was the shortest he's ever experienced.


"I'm tellin' you, that's the last bad thing that's ever going to happen to me," Lombardi vows with steely confidence. "I'm minding my P's and Q's from here on out."


At this writing, it's been about two hours since the Roundup last spoke with Lombardi--and we're extremely happy to report that, so far today, he's fine.

Epilogue

When you meet rare, brave, Duracel battery-powered people like Larry Lombardi, two questions burn through your brain.


Question No. 1: "How on earth did his parents get through all this?"


"I really don't know," says Lombardi's father, Anthony. "It was very difficult. When he got shot ... well, we were devastated. Just devastated.


"I don't know if Larry told you this, but his motto is, 'No Pain, No Gain.' And I guess that's true. For me, the most gratifying moment happened about three and a half years ago, when Larry was fitted for leg braces. He walked the full length of the hospital--the first time he'd walked in 12 years. I cried like a baby."


The senior Lombardi proceeds to point out a few post-paralysis mishaps his son neglected to mention: a motorcycle wreck and a dune buggy wreck, both of which occurred with his son at the helm, riding solo.


"What can I say? My son has a desire, a drive, a stamina that is beyond belief. He just keeps going and going."


Question No. 2: "Where on earth does one human being get this much desire, stamina and drive? Was it magically instilled in him by his parents? Is it genetic? Something learned? A gift from the heavens? The result of a mysterious space ray beamed upon him from Planet X?"


Larry Lombardi has been waiting for this question. He pulls out a photograph and slaps it on the table.


"What got me through all this was him," he says.


The picture is one of those novelty, sepia-tone snapshots of a ridiculously cute little boy about 3 or 4 years old.


"That's my nephew, Kegan Doheney. He's 7 and a half now. But when he was 3, he came down with leukemia. He pulled through, then it came back, and he almost died again in '98. The chemo almost killed him. Finally they gave him a bone marrow transplant, and that's what saved him. He's completely out of the woods now," Lombardi says.


Larry points at the photo once again.

"I keep this picture on the visor in my truck. Whenever I'm feeling like life's dealing me a bad hand, or when I'm thinking I just can't handle yet another challenge, I just flip the visor down, look at Kegan, and remember everything he went through.


"Kegan is my inspiration. He's my hero."


It takes one to know one.

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