“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough!”
– Mae West
Far above the mechanical get-fit jungle of pedals and pulleys, where the early morning wired-up blonde hard bodies and grannies hoping to stay fit or get fit, Michael Keenan is jogging somewhere past his 25th lap and he’s hardly breathing hard.
Keenan will push himself to 35 laps on the overhead oval track at the health center before coming downstairs to hop aboard a Stairmaster and put in another half hour or so. Then it’s on to the next exercise machine.
Pat Keenan exercises at a far less driven pace than her 32-year-old son, Michael, as she waits for him to descend the stairs to join her in the workout area on the first floor.
“I’ve tried to keep up with him,” Keenan says. “But, Michael is just a tiger. He goes and goes and never stops. He was a chubby 230 pounds when he first started this exercise regimen here. Now he’s down to a solid 170 pounds and he’s as strong as they come. Once Michael sets his mind to something and locks on to it, there’s no turning him back.”
Before day is done, Keenan will have bowled, had lunch with friends, boned up on the latest Saints free agent signings and draft picks, checked the box scores to see how his beloved Philadelphia Phillies are doing in the pennant race and once again bemoaned the departure of the now-gone New Orleans VooDoo Arena Football League team, looked over this social calendar for the weekend (which includes a dance on Saturday), then finally slowed down to thumb through the wrestling magazines to check up on his favorite grappler, Stone Cold Steve Austin.
But Keenan can’t linger too long in one spot concerned about how Stone Cold will do against his upcoming match with The Undertaker. He has to get over to Zephyr’s Stadium where he’s been a greeter at the main gate for the past 10 years.
In some corners, they call this perpetual whirlwind, “Movin’ Mike.” And the fact that he has Down syndrome doesn’t matter one bit. Not to Mike Keenan; not to his mom; not to anybody around him.
“Just don’t get in his way,” Pat Keenan says. “He might run you down.”
Long before the first pitch is thrown on Airline Drive, Keenan is wearing his Zephyrs’ T-shirt and baseball cap and is handing out the night’s giveaways to Z’s fans, most of who know him by first name.
Keenan hands out a sun visor from a box of thousands, all emblazoned with the Zephyrs’ logo, and says, simply, “Enjoy the game.”
“Thanks Mike,” comes the quick reply. It is scene that is repeated over and over as the crowds file into the gate and up the ramp toward the seats. They all know Keenan. They all expect him to be at that gate.
“Mike is more than just a person at the gate,” says Jessica DeOro, the Z’s Director of Promotions and Keenan’s boss. “He’s a part of the Zephyrs’ family. He’s a fixture. It’s a rare, rare day if he misses. But if he does, you have all kinds of people asking for him; ‘Is Michael OK?’ ‘Where’s Mike?’”
DeOro admits it wasn’t always that way. In the early days there wasn’t a tailgating party in the parking lot that Michael Keenan didn’t like. Back then it wasn’t unusual for Keenan to accept an invitation for a hot dog and a soft drink at the back of some family’s SUV. “But he’s settled down now. He takes this job very seriously. Nothing gets him away from that gate these days. When he puts on that Zephyrs shirt and cap, he’s all business. We’re proud to have him out there representing this organization.”
In the context of a life, it was only the blink of an eye ago that a person with Down syndrome was viewed less favorably.
“Absolute nonsense,” says an Irish Channel woman who became known as Sister M. Lillian McCormick S.S.N.D., the force behind St. Michael’s Special School, the landmark program that opened doors of accomplishment for Down Syndrome men and women all over the world. “I always called my students ‘blue roses’ because if there were such a thing as a blue rose, they’d be very special – something unheard of in the world; real works of art. You show me a person with Down syndrome and I’ll show you a person with a heart as big as Montana. Those big hearts are just waiting to be tapped. The Down syndrome people work and smile and once they start believing in themselves they never give up. They never quit. It seems to be God’s way of compensating. The drive is incredible.”
“That’s Michael,” says Pat Keenan, who adds she has found great inspiration from her son since her husband died suddenly two years ago. “Michael was definitely a daddy’s boy. They had their father-son rituals and Michael still misses them… and his dad. Like on Sunday afternoon when the Saints were playing on television, Michael and his dad would go to Ground Pati, grab a burger and watch the game. That was a big thing for Michael. He treasured those moments. Still does. All of a sudden after his dad died it was just the two of us. For the longest time, Michael would say, ‘I sure miss my dad.’ I know how painful it was for him. They were so close. But Michael’s a real trooper. He’s done just fine.”
Keenan is tugging at the neck of his “Go Rebels” sweater. “Not exactly Ole Miss,” his mother says. “Riverdale High School,” Keenan chimes in. He lets on how he was invited to join the ROTC at Riverdale and loved every minute of being in that uniform.
“He learned more about geography and some other subjects in ROTC than he did in the classroom,” his mother says. “He was spit and polish. He loved that uniform and everything it stood for. His dad and I were so proud of him. They had a large ‘special’ student body there and Michael just learned so much. And just as important, he was as accepted as just another part of the student body.”
And, of course, Keenan remembers his stint as a manager of the school football team.
“Yeah,” he says. “I got a little too close to the sideline and all of a sudden a guy from the other team comes up and tackles me. I’m probably the only manger ever to be tackled by the other team at a football game!”
Without taking a breath and holding up his hand as if to say, “Mom, I want to tell this story!” Keenan goes into detail about being selected as a special person in the state to visit Italy. Again, mid-breath, he cuts into an explanation of his bowling prowess.
An odd awkward silence suddenly fills the room, although Keenan is chuckling almost inaudibly at his past exploits.
“I’ll be honest about something,” Pat Keenan says, breaking the silence. “I was 39 when I found out I was pregnant with Michael and I became very unhappy. Not because I knew he was a Down syndrome baby. I didn’t. There were no amniocentesis tests back then. I had already had two daughters and I just did not want another child. But then I accepted it. Michael was born and over these years that we have had him I’ve come to realize what a true blessing he is. Some people look at him and think of what he can’t do. I look at him and I just see what he’s already done, for others and for me. I honestly don’t know what I would do without him.”
Keenan grins and points to a clock. There is a personal care attendant made possible through a Medicare waiver coming over to take him to meet a group of his peers for lunch and then it’s off to bowling. Sometime this evening, he and his pals may go to a movie. Tomorrow he wants to bone up on some math (“He may be getting a little rusty there,” his mother says. “It’s something he has to work on.”). Then he may sit down and write a letter to that special young lady who winked at him at bowling last week.
“He never stops,” Mrs. Keenan says, shaking her head and laughing. “He’s going to get every drop out of life and leave nothing behind. You can be sure of that!”