Andre Travis has had an impossible dream: to be an athlete, running down the basketball court or tackling a football opponent.
Impossible because for all of his 32 years, “Dre” has been unable to walk, let alone run. He can’t even feed himself because his arms are so contorted and stiffened by severe cerebral palsy.
Enter his new friend Zeke Petrie, who is pairing with Andre to help him realize his athletic dream.
In what might be a first for the Akron Marathon, Zeke, 40, will push Andre in a special racing wheelchair with hopes they both will finish the entire 26.2-mile course Saturday.
Andre calls himself “Zeke’s motivator.” In his strained speech, he talks about how he’ll finally be part of something athletic and hear folks clapping and cheering. He wants to cross the finish line.
“It’s like I don’t want to be known as the one who gave up,” Andre said. “I grew up with all these challenges, but I learned to block them out.”
Marathon President Anne Bitong said the team of Andre and Zeke will serve as a test case of sorts on the rolling, challenging course, as the marathon, now in its 11th year, has no division for such “push-chair” teams.
Father and son Dick and Rick Hoyt are the most famous, competing in 31 Boston Marathons and hundreds of other races. Like Andre, Rick Hoyt has had cerebral palsy since birth.
Zeke, who lives in Barberton, will be testing himself.
He is fit, but has never run a marathon. For his first time out, he’ll be running while pushing 100 or so pounds — the combined weight of Andre and the four-wheeled chair.
At times, Zeke will even be a human brake, holding Andre’s racing chair back so it doesn’t careen out of control while descending hills.
“I wouldn’t do this race with just anyone,” Zeke said. “I’m inspired by Andre. This is a humbling experience.
“I’m like, ‘Wow ... he has this positive outlook. He smiles all the time. He’s nice to everybody.’ ”
Zeke met Andre in August 2012. That was when, after returning from living in Haiti, he picked up a job driving Andre and other people with disabilities to and from a “day program” operated by an agency called Total To Care in Barberton.
An adventurous sort, Zeke spent years on and off working in Haiti as a “fixer,” transporting journalists, translating for them (he taught himself Creole), taking them to the impoverished country’s slums, as well as working for various missionary groups and nongovernmental organizations. He sports many tattoos, including images representing the slave rebellion that led to Haiti’s liberation from French colonial rule.
Zeke left Haiti for good in July 2012 after he and another American spent two months in prison, making national news. They were incarcerated after getting caught up in a pro-army demonstration in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Last fall, Zeke also began working as a health aide for Andre, hanging out with him for six to eight hours every other weekend.
Nobody was thinking marathon when the two went on their first run together last October.
Zeke, who had started running to get in shape, thought Andre might enjoy doing something active outside. Zeke said his health was a mess after the stint in the crowded Haitian prison cell, where maggots were in the food and the prisoners used a bag to go to the bathroom.
Zeke, who has diabetes, said his feet had swelled up “like an elephant” from beriberi, caused by a deficiency in vitamin B1.
That first run was short — 3 miles on an outdoor track in Norton. Andre was slouched down, as he typically is, in his clunky wheelchair.
Zeke looked down and could see him beaming.
Being pushed, faster and faster, Andre said, “is like you’re out of your body right now. And it’s like you are up in the air. Going for that slam dunk or that touchdown.”
Andre talks a lot about sports, frequently mentioning his cousin, Romeo Travis. A former University of Akron basketball standout, Travis was a teammate of LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron and now plays professionally overseas.
Zeke said that minutes after that first run, he couldn’t help but think of the Hoyts and said to Andre, “Dude, we should do a marathon together — do what Rick and Dick Hoyt did.”
Andre, Zeke said, “was hyped right away.”
The deal was sealed a couple weeks later, on their second time out, when Andre told Zeke: “When we do this it makes me feel close to God.”
Zeke said he heard that and told Andre, “There’s no going back now.”
Within a short time, they had worked up to a 12-mile run.
Getting the OK
This spring, Zeke reached out to marathon officials. Emails went back and forth, and in July, he and Andre got the go-ahead.
Bitong, the marathon’s president, said officials primarily were concerned about the safety of Andre, Zeke and any other runners nearby. They also wanted to make sure Andre would be in a racing chair, that Zeke and Andre were training and that the two understood that the course has many inclines and descents.
“Maybe they thought we weren’t really sure what we were getting into,” Zeke said.
In the end, Bitong said, the decision was about “the passion [of Zeke and Andre] ... about inclusion. Being able to provide that race experience for Andre was something we felt was the right thing to do.”
Zeke began his search for a racing chair — they can cost several hundred dollars or more — late last year.
He contacted Andre’s case worker, Jennings Cross, to see if he could help through his role as a service and support coordinator at the Summit County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
As fate would have it, Cross remembered seeing an inspirational billboard featuring Dick and Rick Hoyt and contacted the Team Hoyt organization in Massachusetts. That group directed him to myTeam Triumph, a Columbus-area nonprofit that finds volunteer “angels” to push “captains” — children and young adults with disabilities — in running events.
When the Columbus team’s founder, Georgeann Haviland, of Worthington, heard from Zeke about the marathon quest, she excitedly offered to loan one of her group’s chairs.
Haviland traveled from Worthington twice with the chair so Andre and Zeke could use it for long training runs on a hilly course near Zeke’s home in Barberton.
“Zeke will be the only person in Ohio associated with us who has run an entire marathon,” Haviland said.
Before they’d found the chair, Andre got himself checked by his doctor. His counselor, Christine Ferguson at Blick Clinic in Akron, suggested he do so.
“We’ve worked closely for three years,” Ferguson said. “I’m just always amazed, but never surprised about what he’ll bring into the office, telling me what he’s going to do next. He really does not set limits. He really is just a beautiful person to be around.”
Andre’s doctor, William Reed, said he had some concerns about Andre’s thin bones and only gave his nod after Andre had a bone density test.
“He obviously looks like he could be a crystal that could break at the slightest touch,” Reed said. “I was a little concerned, but it sounded like it would be one of the highlights of his life.”
Getting to know Andre has certainly been a high point in Zeke’s life. He says it has helped make him more grateful and less angry.
Zeke “can be cocky,” Andre said.
“I can be borderline arrogant,” Zeke replied, laughing.
“They say opposites attract,” Zeke said. “Sometimes I’m not that nice of a guy. He’s the opposite. He’s a really positive guy.”
Zeke said a lot of his anger probably stems from his experiences in Haiti. He spent time in the prison, lived in violent ghettos of Port-au-Prince and saw the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake.
When the earthquake struck, he was living in Barberton with his now ex-wife and their sons. He returned to the country shortly after the natural disaster.
Andre, ever positive, said the race is about more than him and Zeke. It’s about a lot of people coming together to support them, including Lisa Somers and Shaunteé Johnson at Total To Care, where he spends time each week composing rap lyrics and poetry that aides write down.
He also mentions aides Tanika Adams and LaDora Tyler, who work at his Akron group home, as well as Wanda Haines, the administrator at the group home agency Community Habilitation Services.
Haines has known Andre since 2000, when he moved to a group home after aging out of the foster care system.
“What I love about Andre is he looks at his disability in a positive way, saying, ‘How can I enlighten the world with my life?’ So that people can be thankful,” for what they have, Haines said.
“Even though he has been dealt a certain deck of cards, he deals with it positively.”
All the training for the marathon, Andre said, shows others that “just because you’re in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you have limitations in life.”
Zeke said he and Andre earlier this month logged 16 miles on a hilly course, and they’re ready for race day.
“It’s not so much about the time,” Zeke said. “For us it’s about finishing ... but because we’re so competitive, we want to do a really good time. We’re getting greedy.”
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or email@example.com.