Cedric Cudjoe Pushes Self After Childhood Accident

Editor at Large

COACH AND PLAYER: J.V. Haney, left, coached Cedric Cudjoe in Seminole in 1966, the first year of the Tournament of Champions. Cudjoe overcame the loss of a leg to become an excellent basketball player, and later in life he served as a successful educator.

TERREL LESTER for GTR Newspapers

As a participant in the inaugural schoolboy basketball Tournament of Champions, Cedric Cudjoe would have been justified if he had been a little bedazzled by the competition.

Yet, despite the presence of such hoops luminaries as Ray Russell, Charlie Wallace and Sparky Grober, All-Staters all, Cudjoe felt right at ease. No hint of intimidation.

Cudjoe was a 6-foot-1 reserve for Class A Seminole, at a time when Class 2A was the largest classification for Oklahoma high schools.

“I considered it a privilege just to be able to play in a tournament as big as that tournament was,” he said recently during an afternoon visit in his charming Oklahoma City home with his high school coach J.V. Haney.

“It was an outstanding event.

“It was outstanding in that you were surrounded by so many great, well-known basketball players,” he said.

Cedric Cudjoe might not have been one of those “great” or “well-known” basketball players, players whose names and exploits have become an indelible part of state hoops lore since that January weekend in Tulsa in 1966 when a tournament tradition was born.

But Cedric Cudjoe used his modest high school basketball career as the foundation for a life of inspiration, a life of edification, a life devoted to education.

Seminole won one game and finished in sixth place in the 1966 Tournament of Champions, played at Memorial High School. The 51st edition of the tournament will unfold Dec. 28-30 in the Mabee Center on the campus of Oral Roberts University.

Just as the tournament has grown and evolved into a holiday basketball bonanza over the half-century since its inception, so, too, has Cedric Cudjoe matured into a pillar of respect and accomplishment.

Cudjoe’s life journey, from teenage athlete to retired educator, was fueled by fearless resolve, singular courage, inexorable willpower.

He had to overcome extreme obstacles.

He had to prove himself. To himself. To others.

He had to demonstrate that one man’s disability was another man’s motivation.
Before he could play basketball, he had to teach himself to run.

At the age of 18 months, he lost half of his right foot following a freakish accident.
For more than six years, at a time when being an absolute, red-blooded, All-American boy with boundless energy was a natural evolution for most of his Seminole neighborhood pals, Cudjoe watched life unfold from afar.

He was told he would never play sports.

Fitted with what he called “a very antiquated contraption,” Cudjoe had difficulty doing what others took for granted.

“I couldn’t keep up with my sister walking to school,” he said.
“I just couldn’t do much.”

As a toddler, he left his home while his parents were inside with friends and crawled under a car parked in the driveway. When the guests were leaving, not knowing of Cedric’s whereabouts, the driver of the car backed over both legs of the youngster.

Just as the front tires were closing in on Cedric, an alert delivery man making his rounds began shouting and waving at the driver.

Within milliseconds, Cedric was saved from an even worse fate.

One leg, he said, healed effectively.

The other leg, his right, did not.

Doctors removed the front half of his foot.

He learned to walk wearing a garish brace that enveloped his right leg.

By the time he was 8, gangrene was beginning to spread up his leg. Amputation, at the knee, was the only solution.

Technology was changing throughout those years, Cudjoe said, and in the summer of 1956, he was fitted with the prosthetic leg that would enable him to once and for all kick down the barriers that had separated him from his dreams.

Tolerating and wearing the apparatus that he did until he was 8, Cudjoe said, “I don’t know if there were any others in existence other than the one that I had on.

“I kind of considered myself as a disabled handicapped person.”

But with the new prosthetic, he said, “I was 8 years old and I discovered that I could move around quite well.”

It was the beginning of the next chapter of Cedric Cudjoe’s life.

“I said I was going to make every effort to be able to do what everybody else was doing,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it, but I was going to give it my best shot.”

That declaration to succeed, that vision of purpose at such a young age, was the result of his wish to alleviate the pain, the guilt, his parents must have endured.

“I always felt that even up to the time that they both passed, that I could always see behind their eyes,” he said. “I knew how hurt they were over what had happened. I think they, like most other people in the neighborhood, always felt that Cedric was going to be the little crippled child in the neighborhood.

“I knew they didn’t want that to be. And I knew I needed to do something to get some of that weight off of them. I wanted my parents to not feel bad about what had happened.

“I just pushed myself. When I learned how to run, that was it.

“I found out that I had athletic skills. Just as good, better, than some. I enjoyed sports, and I was thinking that ‘this will do it,’” he said.

Slowly, but surely, adapting to his new prosthesis, 8-year-old Cedric went out for a Seminole elementary school baseball team. As a catcher.

“My team didn’t have a catcher,” he said. “I determined that I could get down there, squat down behind home plate, and play catcher. And when it came my turn to bat, (his team could) just skip over me.”

Cedric and his teammates took easily to the challenges.

“I got a lot of catching experience,” he said with a smile.

There was just one element missing from his game.

“I said, ‘you know, you’re walking, you’re squatting and catching the ball, now you need to run,’” he said.

Again, he pushed himself.

“Whenever I had complete privacy, that’s when I would go to the backyard and I would practice my running,” he said.

“I’d run from one end of the yard to the other.”

Slowly at first. Then a little faster. Always with dedication. With perseverance.
“I never fell,” he said. “Never did. Never did.”

Still, there were periods of trepidation, fear.

Cudjoe recalled a basketball camp during his elementary school days. The Seminole High School coach, Cletus Green, who would go on to a college career that included a stop as women’s coach at Oral Roberts University, was in charge of the camp.

Cudjoe admitted to being hesitant to joining the camp.

“If Coach Green finds out that that kid over there just has one leg, he might send me back to the house,” Cudjoe said.

“But he never said a word about it during the entire camp. He treated me just like he treated everybody else.”

Green told young Cedric: “I don’t expect anything more, I don’t expect anything less. Just give it your best shot.”

“That was a lot of encouragement to me,” Cedric said. “It was like I had two so-called normal legs like everybody else.

“I think had he sent me home, I don’t know what that would have done to me.

“It told me, ‘Cudjoe, if you do your best, and you’re good enough, I don’t think anybody’s going to pay attention to (having one prosthesis).’

“That was a great deal of encouragement. In elementary school, I played on all the baseball and basketball teams. Everything just continued to get better,” he said.

“When I look back at it, it was a blessing that I was in a small town; I was in a small, black elementary school. Segregation was still in place.”

In that school, incorporating grades five through seven, Cudjoe estimated that the boys numbered about a dozen.

“I discovered that I was a better athlete than half of them,” he said. “(Competing) allowed me to have the opportunity while I was trying to enhance these skills (and playing on a prosthetic leg).

“Had I been in a large school, if integration had already taken place, with a lot more competition, I’ve always wondered how I would have fared, if I could have pushed myself to the point of doing what I wanted to do anyway.”

The prosthesis was not so strong as Cudjoe’s will.

He broke it in many places many times. Made of wood and metal, the limb was attached to a foot with an iron bolt.

He recalled breaking the limb one night during a junior high baseball game. The Oklahoma City-based courier service Mistletoe Express picked up the damaged limb the next day and scheduled a return delivery.

“I remember sitting on the front porch with my full baseball uniform on, looking down the street and hoping that the Mistletoe Express was turning the corner,” he said.

“And, believe it or not, that Mistletoe Express turned the corner. I grabbed that leg just in time for (Coach) Charlie Jones to pick us up and take us to the ball game.”

Cudjoe longed to play football. Doctors, however, ruled that out, fearing that the prosthetic leg would prove more harm to Seminole opponents than to Cedric.

“That hurt me so bad because when I was a senior, we had a wide receiver and I could out-run him, and I could catch better than he could,” Cudjoe said. “I know that I could have been first-string wide receiver, and it bothered me.”

Haney was hired at Seminole before the start of Cudjoe’s senior year.

Like Green before him, Haney asked only that Cudjoe give his best.

Cudjoe did.

In wind sprints, Haney said that Cudjoe never finished last.

In distance runs of up to two miles, Haney said that Cudjoe never finished last.
“I was just motivated,” Cudjoe said.

“He never wanted, and he wouldn’t accept, any type of break,” Haney said. “If he thought we were favoring him in any way, he demanded the same treatment as his teammates.”

Cudjoe’s strong suit has been, and remains, his positive attitude.

“While I was in high school, had I had two so-called normal legs, I probably could have been All-State in just about any sport that I wanted to play,” he said.

Haney said, “If you didn’t know that he had an artificial leg, you would not be able to tell by the way he played.”

Through the vision of an adult, the experience of a 42-year career educator, Cudjoe believes life unfolds in certain ways, for certain reasons.

“I reached a point where I felt that had I had two normal legs and been as great as I think I could have been, that I probably would have wound up playing some form of pro ball, made a lot of money and probably would have been one of the biggest fools around,” he said.

“I have always felt that the Lord said, ‘Cedric, I’m going to slow you down.’

“I have also felt that just looking around at a lot of different people, that folks get married and they marry the wrong person and have a very miserable life.

“I have always been very thankful that the Lord gave me who He gave me (his wife, Thomesene, and two children). I’ve been married for 45 years and I am 100 percent happy with those 45 years.

“That’s two things that the Lord did for me. I’m thankful that He didn’t allow me know what it was like to have two so-called normal legs,” Cudjoe said.

“I don’t linger on that. I know what He gave me and I did what I could with what He gave me. I’m happy.”

Now 67, Cudjoe spent all of his adult life in Oklahoma City, as teacher, counselor and consultant. He was inducted into the Seminole High School Hall of Fame in 2006.

His career path was all but predetermined. His parents were educators. His uncles, including celebrated Oklahoma City high school basketball coach Lawrence Cudjoe, and a succession of cousins have been career educators.

Education, Cedric Cudjoe said, was “a family requirement.”

So, too, was determination and love.

“I never thought about (wearing a prosthesis) as overcoming,” he said. “I didn’t consider myself to be handicapped.

“I never gave any consideration to overcoming anything.

“It was just wanting to do what everybody else was doing. That pushed me.

“That, along with trying to do something to let my parents know what happened happened. And that’s over with, and we can’t go back and reverse it. But I want you all to know that it didn’t slow me down.

“My Mama used to come to the Friday night games in Seminole and set up in the stands and cry,” Cudjoe said.

“I knew that she had felt bad all that time about what happened.

“I was glad that I could do some things to let her see that her son was just fine.”

Cudjoe’s high school coach says the teenager proved his point.

“Cedric’s positive attitude and approach to life is beyond imagination,” Haney said. “I understand why he became such a success in education. And, a success in life.”

Updated 11-24-2015

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