Jeff DeLeon: The Spirit of the Games

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete: Jeff DeLeon
Hometown: Turner, Oregon
Current location: Salem, Oregon
Age: 37
Military Branch/Years of Service: Navy/2 years
Years at NVWG: 8
2017 Events: softball, basketball, slalom, archery, table tennis

It is no surprise Jeff DeLeon received the Spirit of the Games Award at last year’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Talk to him for just a few minutes and you can hear the passion he has for PVA, the Games and the athletes who participate.

“NVWG is a life-changing event. It opened up a bigger connection for me with other people in wheelchairs. I look forward to getting together with old friends and meeting new people. The Games showcase our independence and ability to do the things people think can’t be done by someone in a wheelchair. The more people see us doing it, the more normal it becomes. That’s how I’ve lived my life since the injury, pushing those limits.”

Sports have always been a big part of Jeff’s life. Growing up in Turner, Oregon, a small, no-stoplight-town outside Salem, he excelled as a pitcher and first baseman. The military also played a large role—his uncles were Marines, his grandfather was a Marine, Jeff wanted to be one too. His mother convinced him to look into all the branches of service. Six months after graduating high school, Jeff joined the Navy as an aviation electrician. He served for two years before a car accident early one morning left him a T-6 paraplegic.

“Me and some buddies went off the road returning to base. We crashed and the vehicle rolled a few times. I knew I had broke my back. I had a collapsed lung and felt like I couldn’t breathe and like I was dying slowly. A guy comes over and tells me an ambulance is coming and I’m trying to say some words to him but he can’t hear me. I’m finally able to push out the words “kill me” which was crazy, you know, but I literally felt like I was dying, and it was very slow and painful. A couple minutes went by before the ambulance got there. It felt like forever.”

The ambulance transported him to Fresno Medical Center. Conscious throughout, Jeff kept apologizing to the EMTs and the hospital workers for causing them extra work. After surgery, his social worker got him transported to the VA in Seattle for rehab.

Jeff’s resilient spirit never let him give up, even when he was in a TLSO brace from his neck to his pelvis. He worked hard at his physical therapy and pushed himself to get better. After returning to Oregon, Jeff joined in pick-up basketball games at the local gym, going up against standing players.

“At first people go easy on you because you’re the poor guy in the wheelchair. Then you start hitting some threes and stealing the ball and talking trash. Just to get them a little upset so they’ll play hard, because the harder they play the better I’m gonna get.”

Jeff’s recreational therapist at the time, NVWG Director Dave Tostenrude, introduced him to adaptive sports and convinced him to sign up for the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic. Jeff did the two-day, 204-mile course on his handcycle, amazing the other cyclists. But it would be another seven years before Jeff’s first time participating at NVWG.

After participating in eight Games, Jeff doesn’t deny his competitive spirit. However, don’t be surprised to find him encouraging other athletes to do their best or sharing his secrets for success.

“I want to push you to beat my best time, but I’m also the guy that’ll share my tips and tricks. If you beat me I’ll pat you on the back and give you a hug and congratulate you. The Games do get competitive but they were founded on rehabilitation and that’s what they’re still used for, rehabilitation through sport and being around other veterans.”

That sportsmanship and mentoring won Jeff the Spirit of the Games Award after only seven years. Unlike the awards for speed or strength, the Spirit goes to the athlete who most embodies what the Games are all about, not just for the week of events but throughout the year.

“Receiving the Spirit of the Games Award was one of the highlights of my life, to be honored in that way, at those games, where so many people have been mentors. I was stunned. That was one of the rare times that I’ve ever been speechless. If I had taken a moment to think, I would’ve thanked all the people who helped me get through rehab, PVA, the VA, my doctors, my social worker. They were a huge part in getting me to where I am.”

In 2015 Jeff started a foundation in Mexico—fundación con orgullo de León—or The Pride of the Lion, a non-profit that provides necessary resources and assistance to people from low-income regions, specifically persons with disabilities, in order to achieve social integration.

The name, by the way, is a play on words. Jeff’s last name, DeLeon, means the lion, and a pack of lions is called a pride.