When Marty Sheets was born in March 1953, his parents, Iris and Dave, didn’t realize their new son would someday become famous.
Iris and Dave didn’t have a chance to dream about their son being famous because soon after Marty was born they were told their newborn had Down Syndrome and wouldn’t face much of a future.
Fast forward to September 2012 —- Marty Sheets becomes one of only 10 individuals inducted into the Class of 2012 of the Guilford County Sports Hall of Fame, which includes such outstanding athletes as former NFL professional football players Dino Hackett and Torry Holt, and pro basketball player Wayne Robinson.
What a difference 59 years makes…
In 1953, a suggestion made to the Sheets family for “dealing” with Marty was to put him in an institution. In other words, the family was given an option to not burden themselves with a child that would require too much care and nurturing.
Iris and Dave Sheets made their decision and Marty grew up in a loving family. His parents and two sisters were among his biggest supporters, as was a whole host of other family members, neighbors and friends. For the most part, they were a typical family. Their time was filled with the same activities that any other family experiences — work, church, school.
Then in 1968, Marty began his climb to fame.
He attended the first international Special Olympics Games, organized by a woman from a famous and respected family. But this woman was not known other than for her Kennedy family name.
In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, improvements proposed to change the poor conditions of those with intellectual disabilities began to receive significant notice. One of the leaders in the effort was this woman —- Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a younger sister of President John F. Kennedy.
Mrs. Shriver was relentless in her drive to change the world. She simply wanted to improve the negative conditions that she knew defined the lives of so many. Her motivation was her sister, who had an intellectual disability like thousands of other children and adults throughout the United States — and the world — who were in need of better health care, living conditions, and education.
Among the strategies Mrs. Shriver used was sports.
She proved from hosting sports camps at her own home that children and adults with intellectual disabilities could learn sports, and they definitely had the drive and abilities to compete like anyone else.
After those first Games in 1968, held in Chicago for 1,000 Special Olympics athletes from the United States and Canada, thousands of people returned home determined to make Special Olympics a part of their communities for even more who could benefit from the joy of sports.
An incredible number of Games have been held at the local, state, national and international levels since 1968.
And Marty Sheets has been right there all along, participating in numerous sports, amassing more than 250 medals and awards for his accomplishments as an athlete. As Dave Sheets puts it, “Marty is recognized for his abilities rather than his disability.”
The past couple of years have not been so kind to Marty. Dementias has ended his sports career and changed his life forever.
But many wonderful memories remain for him–from marching into the international Games in 1987 with Special Olympics Team North Carolina and musical super star John Denver, to sitting with President Bill Clinton and the First Lady at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1995 Special Olympics World Games at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Conn.
He is forever immortalized with the Special Olympics movement and his association with Mrs. Shriver, whom he actually met at those first Games in 1968 — but that is another story for another time. Marty is one of five individuals with an intellectual disability featured in a portrait with Mrs. Shriver which is kept at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The portrait was intended to honor only Mrs. Shriver but she would have nothing to do with such recognition, insisting others be with her in the portrait…others she felt represented success over the struggles that so many suffered for no reason other than having an intellectual disability.
Marty is one of those five in the portrait. He is one of the first six North Carolinians who attended the first international Games in 1968. He is one of the 10 of the Class of 2012 in the Guilford County Sports Hall of Fame.
Fame given life through tangible awards and recognition is something we can all relate to and admire. But what should give us real pause are the personal struggles, the courageous determination and the resulting victories that have defined Marty’s life one day at a time, making him the role model that he is, and embodying the sentiment behind the awards bestowed to honor him.