Football coach without hands inspires Turlock Prayer Breakfast audience

ragostini@modbee.comMay 9, 2013 

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    alternate textRon Agostini
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TURLOCK -- Mark Speckman’s cell phone is attached to a loop of Velcro encircling his right arm. When he’s ready to text or call up something, he activates it easily with his stumps for hands.

It was a trial-and-error process, he says, to find just the right phone. Sort of like how he gravitated to his latest position as running backs coach for the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

“A little out of my comfort zone,” he admitted.

I found his words unusual in that, after my first chat with him, I found him to be most comfortable in his own skin. Here’s a man, 57, born without hands, who’s willed himself to become one of the most remarkable coaches — one of the most remarkable people — the valley ever has seen. The operative word, of course, is “How?”

How did he become an honorable-mention NAIA All-American linebacker at Azusa Pacific?

How did he turn football programs into winners at Livingston and Merced high schools?

Goodness, how did he learn how to brush his teeth?

“I figured it out,” Speckman said Thursday morning, “and so can you.”

Speckman mesmerized more than 400 people who listened to his life saga at the 20th Turlock Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. When he closed, he received a standing ovation not for just his grace, folksy good humor and message.

The crowd at the Larsa Banquet Hall honored a man who, truly, figured it out. After what he’s conquered, the cell phone was no match.

He leaves next Thursday for Montreal, where he’s accepted a job under old friend and Alouettes head coach Dan Hawkins. Speckman and wife Sue, who’ve raised three children, also have moved back to Merced, where family, friends and fans haven’t forgotten him.

Between 1988 and 1993, Speckman’s Merced Bears reached six Sac-Joaquin Section championship games. They won it all in 1989 and ’90, the latter a 14-0 masterpiece of a team that was named the mythical Division I state champion by CalHiSports.com and also was ranked No. 5 in the nation by USA Today.

Better still, the Bears did it in style. Speckman deployed the field-spreading “fly offense,” the deceptive and explosive attack that features skill players running full speed. He’s credited for expanding four basic plays into a football carnival.

Speckman lists other coaches as the fly’s pioneers and says his role was systemizing the offense. But think about it: Today’s trendy “wildcat” or “read-option” plays are the logical outgrowth of the fly.

“I’ve always had the capacity to think out of the box,” he said. “My experiences led me to taking different approaches to things. Finding new ways to do things was natural to me.”

Hence his book, “Figure It Out: How I Learned to Live in a Digital World without Digits.” The prayer breakfast audience heard the condensed version.

“You’re the vase, and the water inside is your potential,” Speckman said as he poured slowly. “Many people pour out a little and stop. They just stop. The successful people pour it all out without thought about what’s possible and what’s not. They pour it out until there’s none left. … The worst affliction you can have is to have no vision.”

Rest assured, Speckman had a vision that compensated for zero hands, nine toes and crossed eyes. His parents, determined to treat him like any kid during his childhood in Belmont, pushed him forward. He learned the trombone and ditched the hooks — substitutes for hands — at 14.

There’s never been a medical reason why his arms end at his wrists, what he once dismissed as a “1 in 10,000 thing.” Yet there is no bitterness, no woe-is-me. Why? Because he leaves no time for pity.

He drives, plays racquetball, writes, gives motivational speeches and, yes, inspires football players to give more than they think they have. He’s coached everywhere from Willamette, Ore., to his alma mater at Menlo College. Who wouldn’t drain the last drop of energy on a football field for him?

“People are instinctively good. People react to me with kindness and the desire to help,” he said. “Part of God’s plan is to ask for help. He gave us the ability to figure it out. From the worst tragedies come God’s best work.”

Go ahead. Text him. He’ll answer.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow Ron via Twitter @modbeesports.

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