Articles Student Projects

Voices of the Voiceless: Pro athletes ‘adopt’ man with disability

By Julia Sisler

On any given summer day, you will find 22-year-old David Leitch on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice field, receiving passes from quarterbacks, joking with coaches or giving interviews to local media. His name is not on the roster but he has a unique place in the heart of the Canadian Football League team.

Leitch was born with spina bifida. It means his spinal cord did not form properly before he was born, and he will always use a wheelchair.

A string of surgeries began at birth, but his battles were more than physical. He doesn’t know who his father is, his mother wrote him off as “useless” because of his disorder, and he suffered extreme physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his grandmother, who was given custody of him.

“I was made to feel like it was my fault for being in a chair,” Leitch says.

He recalls school as a happy place compared to his home life. He remembers only one negative school experience, where he was told by a stranger: “People like you shouldn’t go to school.”

It was during one afternoon of boredom and curiosity in 2009 that his life opened up in a wonderful way.  He visited an open Bombers practice. After meeting a Bomber coach, Richard Harris, Leitch knew the stadium would provide him safe sanctuary.

Leitch’s relationship with the Bombers community grew with his frequent visits to the field. He rode the bus from his home in North Kildonan to the stadium for every practice and game. It was a place where he found love, acceptance, and growth.

With the Bombers on his side, Leitch finds he cares less about society’s perception of him.

“People are pretty good to me. You get the odd guy who might have something negative to say, but generally people are nice.”

He notes relationships with three men in particular: Bombers chaplain Lorne Korol, former quarterback Alex Brink, and wide receiver Aaron Hargreaves, who now plays for the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

Hargreaves describes how Leitch served as a constant sideline reminder of what life is really about.

“During my time in Winnipeg, having David show up to practice day in and day out, shows true character and dedication on his part.”

“Although I no longer play in Winnipeg, David still serves as a source of inspiration for me. His constant determination and hard work in life serves as a great example of how to be not only a better football player, but a better person.”

The impact that Leitch has on the Blue Bombers became evident in spring of 2012. He was diagnosed with pneumonia during training camp and doctors said it might be fatal. During this critical time, the Bombers stepped up for Leitch.

Bombers staff members, coaches, and players were at his bedside repeatedly during his three-week hospital stay. Some shed tears at the thought of losing one of their own.

To the relief of his Bombers friends, Leitch pulled through and made a full recovery.

Leitch’s attitude toward life has changed, thanks to the guys in blue and gold. He credits the Bombers with giving him something to live for—for giving him a place and a purpose.

Although you will never find the name “David Leitch” on any program, he has an important position with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Julia Sisler is a student at Canadian Mennonite University. She wrote this article as part of her work in the course Journalism—Principles and Practices. “Voices of the Voiceless” is a class project that aims to chronicle the humanity of often-ignored people on the margins of our community.