by MATT MOLINAR//Associate Editor
Life has brought one South Plains College alum many difficult challenges. But that hasn’t stopped him from bringing out the best in everything he does.
James Golden, who previously held a national ranking in racquetball, was born without his left femur, causing his foot to grow at knee-length. This meant that he would later have trouble walking, prompting doctors to give him a brace, which he wore until age 14. At age 2, doctors said that Golden would always be on crutches and would never be able to get rid of them or have the ability to walk.
“They told me that I would always be on crutches,” Golden said. “I couldn’t walk without crutches until I was 3 years old. One day, when I was walking in the cotton field, I fell and scraped my chin. I got very frustrated and ran home and forgot my crutches in the field, and I never used crutches again after that.”
When he was very young, Golden spent his time playing in the cotton field until about 8 years old, when he says he was old enough to hold a hoe and a farmer named Jack Cox offered him his first job. He hoed cotton until he was 14 years old. After this, he began working for the city on the garbage trucks and later at the service station.
The crutches he owned were paid for by the Masonic Lodge in Anton, where he was raised by his grandmother, who he has always drawn life teachings from.
At 14 years old, Golden received his first prosthesis from Lubbock Artificial Limb. This first prosthesis weighed 14 pounds and was crafted from wood and acrylic. Having an extra 14 pounds strapped to your leg feels like “a boat anchor,” according to Golden.
“My grandmother went with me to get my first prosthesis,” Golden said. “They gave it to me when they realized I would never let them cut off my foot for cosmetic reasons. They had to think outside of the box when they made it.”
The prosthetic Golden wears now he received at age 27. It only weighs 6 pounds, a much easier weight to carry. The new prosthesis is made from carbon graphite and titanium, and it is a flex foot that stores energy like a bow. Once the energy is released, the user is pushed in the opposite direction. This new technology took getting used to for Golden.
“The one I have now is a sports prosthesis from Sabolich prosthetics in Oklahoma City,” explains Golden. “They put me in a hotel and did fittings and performance testing. When you put your weight on it, it bows and pushes you forward or backward. The first week I had it, while playing tennis, I put my weight on to it and it took me to the other side, and I completely missed the ball. It’s just that sensitive.”
Growing up significantly different, Golden says some of the kids in school would bully him. He says many of the kids of color would defend him, as he was a minority, just as they were.
“The other white kids weren’t interested in me because I was a minority,” said Golden. “In elementary school, some parents wouldn’t let their kids play with me because I had a short leg and they thought that their kids were going to catch something.”
Although there was a lack of support in some areas, Golden says he grew up with a lot of support from his grandmother and his community filled with people who believed in him and helped him achieve the goals he had set for himself.
“Although I grew up in poverty, I had more love and support than you could buy with any money,” Golden said. “I still have the same one-dollar bill I got from my first paycheck when I was 8 years old. I had people looking out for me that I didn’t even know were there. I had lots of mentors from Sunday School that would offer me jobs and give me opportunities to develop many talents. My grandmother said, ‘You’re different, so be different in good ways. She taught me at 5 years old to never smoke or drink, and I have never tried either.”
In junior high, Golden began playing tennis with one of his friends. He continued playing tennis through high school.
“My senior year, I won district but I got beat in the quarterfinals at regionals in doubles,” said Golden. “But that’s just high school stuff.”
Golden says he was not able to play other sports because the coaches always thought that he would get hurt.
“Times have changed, and there a much more opportunities for people with disabilities to play sports,” Golden said.
After graduating from high school in 1978, Golden began playing racquetball with his best friend, Les Biffle. Biffle gave Golden his first racquetball lesson. They had their first match together, with Golden winning against his friend. A later encounter would show Golden that racquetball would play a major role in his life.
“When I was 20 years old, I met a gentleman named Fred Underwood while I was playing racquetball,” said Golden. “He insisted that he give me lessons and take me to racquetball tournaments.”
Underwood was able to get Golden sponsored by Ektelon Raquetball Company only six months after he began playing the sport.
“I was sponsored by them for nine years,” Golden said. “I played 210 tournaments and had a 73 percent winning percentage. I still have a list of everyone that beat me, and if I ever find the time, I will avenge them.”
Golden was ranked number five in the nation in 1985 against able-bodied people, as the Paralympics were not introduced until 1988.
“I traveled all over the United States competing in tournaments and working with another mentor, Calvin Brunken, who was one of my major sponsors,” said Golden. “He always expected me to bring a trophy home. It didn’t matter if I went to Florida, or New York, he just wanted me to bring a trophy home.”
After playing racquetball for five years, Golden began coaching at the Texas Tech Raquetball Club for seven years. He later met his new racquetball partner, Giovanni Mendez, from Levelland, who was ranked as one of the top junior players in the nation.
“Giovanni was only 14,” said Golden. “I was 24, and together we were able to beat men who were twice my age. He was my backup, and he always had my back.”
Golden says his racquetball game was 98 percent mental. His coach, Underwood, taught him how to break down the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents. This allowed him to play toward his opponent’s weaknesses once he had analyzed what they were.
“In racquetball, I was known for being able to take someone’s brain out of their head, play around with it, and then give it back to them,” Golden explained. “He taught me about controlling tempo and playing towards my opponent’s weakness.”
In 1987, Golden qualified for 10 events in the Paralympics. But due to funding issues, the team got cut and he did not get to go to Seoul, Korea to participate in the first Paralympics.
“I was very disappointed,” Golden recalls. “So the next year, I won 20 out of 21 A-division tournaments and was 105-1 the next year.”
Golden got his career started at SPC, where he was enrolled in the LVN program in 1990 and finished at the top of his class in one year. In January of 1991, he started taking pre-requisite classes and went on to his final year of nursing school at SPC. He is now a certified nurse practitioner with an RN, BSN, and a master’s degree in nursing.
Being a patient himself, Golden wanted to give people a better medical experience than the one he had growing up.
“Prior to SPC, I was a nurse’s aide for 10 years,” Golden said. “Fourteen years later, I went to LCU to get my bachelor’s degree in nursing and nurse practitioner at TTU, where I graduated with honors.”
Golden says his experience with SPC was a great one. He says the instructors were very caring, and classes were small enough that there was always time to ask questions.
“Marla Cottonior was over the Allied Health Department,” Golden said. “She was on top of each student, making sure that they would each succeed. They all taught with tough love. I got a great start at SPC that I probably couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”
Golden still plays racquetball. He has worked in Nephrology for 19 years as a nurse and in cardiac care as a nurse practitioner for eight years. He says the doctors he gets to work with teach him something every day.
“I’ve missed less than five days of work in the last 16 years,” Golden said. “I try to work every day, because my grandmother told me that the day you don’t work is the day you don’t get paid. You need to stay productive, even if that means volunteer work.”
The advice Golden offers to students is to keep yourself motivated. He says that people will be successful based on their type of motivation. He also says to embrace your differences and know that you don’t have to change yourself to please others. If you please God, you will please enough people who matter.
“You start every class with an A,” Golden says, “and it is your responsibility to keep it. It’s so easy, a one-legged man can do it.”
[Photo by RILEY GOLDEN/PLAINSMAN PRESS]