Sunday afternoon at Bald Eagle Area, the school’s 56th recipients of the James Snyder Award will be announced at the Senior Awards ceremony.
Curtis Markle remembers the June night in 1998 when he walked across the stage of the auditorium to accept his Snyder Award plaque. He was 18 and walking toward a future glimmering with promise, bursting with potential.
An outstanding wrestler on BEA’s powerful teams of 1997 and 1998, Markle was headed for a year at Blair Academy, a national prep school powerhouse. And after that, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
“I felt pretty honored,” Markle said recently, looking back at that June evening. “It humbled me to be in that class of people, all of the great leaders that came before me. I was grateful to be included in that group.”
He had built a career in which he won District 6 and Northwest Regional championships, qualified for the PIAA tournament twice and placed second at the prestigious Iron Man Tournament. It was only natural that he followed the path trod by two generations of his family. Grandfather Sam Markle was on the 1953 Penn State team that won an NCAA title. Uncle Ron Pifer won two PIAA titles at Bellefonte and was an NCAA runner-up at Penn State. And his father, Ron , wrestled at Bellefonte.
They were big footprints to follow. He did his best.
“He was a pleasure to be around, a pleasure to coach,” said former BEA coach Dick Rhoades. “He worked extremely hard. He was just a tremendous kid. He didn’t have the most ability, but he got the most out of the ability he had.”
He also competed in soccer and track, won the Big John Riley Scholarship for excellence in community and school activities and numerous other senior awards.. He was the prototypical Snyder Award winner that goes to the athlete who is not only an accomplished athlete but also a good student and good citizen.
That didn’t surprise Lloyd Rhoades, who was Markle’s first coach in wrestling.
“He wasn’t wrestling when he was in sixth grade but some of his friends were so he decided to give it a shot,” Lloyd Rhoades recalled. “You could see right away that he was extremely athletic. He had trouble getting off the bottom so we just decided he’d take the guy down and let him up. Getting off the bottom took some time but he learned well enough to win 95 matches at the varsity level (against 24 losses).
“And I remember that infectious smile, that wonderful smile.”
In the distant future he would be challenged in ways he couldn’t imagine to keep that smile.
After Blair Academy he reported to West Point where he finished his Plebe (freshman) year, then made a life-changing decision. He dropped out.
“I thought I was ready for it but I wasn’t,” he said of West Point. “I worried about leaving and disappointing everyone for a long time but I finally made the decision. Looking back I would not change things in my life but I wonder sometimes how different my life would be if I had stayed and served that five-year commitment.”
The odds are good that it would not have included him being sentenced to life in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down.
It was a summer night in 2004 and Markle and some friends were partying outside of Port Matilda when he decided it would be a good idea to climb a tree.
“At that point I was young and stupid,” he said. “We were partying and you don’t make the best decisions when you’re in that state of mind. I think the branch broke. I was swinging back and forth on it and it broke. I was messing around, being dumb, basically.”
He was an estimated 20 feet up the tree when the branch snapped, his back snapped, so did the future he envisioned.
“I remember falling, hitting the ground,” he said. “I instantly knew I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move anything. I knew I couldn’t walk. I remember friends surrounding me, people crying. I kept going in and out on consciousness, then I remember taking off in a (Life Flight) helicopter.
“When I got to the hospital (in Altoona) they told me they were going to put a chest tube in and it was going to hurt and it did. That was a rough night. The next three days were pretty fuzzy.
“When I came to the doctor came in and told me I was paralyzed but I already knew that. It was hard to take at 24.”
Harder things were in his future as he adjusted to his disability. Things he did without thinking now took tremendous effort and courage.
“After my spinal fusion, the first time I sat up it was the hardest chore I had ever done,” he said. “And I remember thinking, ‘I can’t even sit up on my own, how am I going to do anything else?’ I had no clue what was out there for people with disabilities.”
But during his rehab at HealthSouth in Pleasant Gap he encountered a woman named Carol Brooks, who had been paralyzed for more than 20 years. She helped turn him toward a future that wasn’t as bleak as it might have seemed at the time.
“She was such an eye-opener for me,” he recalled. “She let me know that life goes on, that there were many things I could do, that I just had to take things one day at a time.
“It took time to learn to do things I had taken for granted, dressing myself, going to the bathroom myself. My little girl (Anna) was six months old at the time and I was wondering how I was going to take care of her if I couldn’t take care of myself.”
He found a way, thanks in no small way to his wrestling career where he learned about hard work and perseverance as part of those BEA teams that were part of a dynasty that ruled District 6 for the entire decade of the ‘90’s.
“I remember Curt being a very hard worker, very dedicated and disciplined,” said teammate Mike Maney, who won a PIAA title in 1999 and was a two-time All-American at Lock Haven. He now coaches at Bellefonte and appreciates even more the example Markle and the upperclassmen set on those teams.
“Curt was older than me and I always looked up to him,” Maney added. “The culture in that program then was to get better. The expectation was set by the older guys and you were expected to stay at that level or rise to a different level. Curt helped set that expectation for me. He would get into a weight class that was challenging for him, weight-wise but he made the sacrifice for the team. If we had a hole in the lineup, he would go down to that weight.”
Cutting a few pounds was nothing compared to the challenges Markle faced after his accident.
He returned to school two months later, attending Career Technology Institute in Johnstown, studying to be a draftsman. While there his competitive fire flared and he found an outlet for it in wheelchair basketball.
“We were pretty good,” he says. “We traveled around to play in New York, Maryland and Ohio.”
He wound up doing an internship with a firm in Somerset but wanted to return closer to home. Eventually, he found at job at Wal-Mart, running a cash register.
“People would come through the register and say, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’” he said. “I would tell them you never know what’s in your future or how you’ll react to it.”
Things were going well enough for him to be promoted to assistant manager but here again, fate took him down to his back.
“I was the assistant manager for two days and I had this huge wound on my hip and I developed a bad infection,” he said. “That laid me up for a long time.”
When he recovered he decided to enroll at Penn State last fall, pursuing a degree in environmental systems engineering a course of study that will allow him to spend time outdoors.
He also was introduced to Paralympics experiences, throwing the shot put and discus. He has qualified for the national tournament in the discus by 40 centimeters, well behind the veteran throwers.
“The first time I got to throw those implements that competitive edge snapped back in,” he said. “I had to learn from the ground up, beginning with the chair I sit in and then the techniques. It was a huge learning curve. But there are amazing people around here who can help. They videotape everything and then break it all down. And I thought I was in shape but now I’m starting to get back into the shape I need to be in.
“Coach (Terri) Jordan said she saw potential in me and that I should follow it and see where it leads,” Markle continued. “It really comes down to you out there. You snap back into that one-on-one mentality. It felt good to be competitive again.”
He’s 34 now, weighs 165 after wrestling at 112 in high school , and has the arms of a 189-pounder. His training regimen includes lifting weights three days a week and throwing the implements two days. His dream is to qualify for the Paralympics in the future.
“I love it,” he said of his training. “When 11 o’ clock rolls around I’m ready to go. I’m not usually angry about anything but if I’m frustrated about something, just having a bad day, this always picks me up.”
He also received a huge boost this spring when he was awarded the Medal of Courage by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. His speech at that banquet moved the audience.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine,” said notoriously hard-nosed Dick Rhoades, himself a member of that Hall of Fame. “I talked to him right after his accident and he was so confident that things would be OK. And I talked to him years later and he was still confident that things will be OK. He has not let this defeat him.”
“I did get emotional,” Markle admitted. “A lot of memories came flooding back, both good and bad. I talked about what has happened to me since high school and how I’ve come to realize how precious life really is.
“And I talked about how wrestling has helped me overcome all of the negative feelings I had and become a better person. If I didn’t have that wrestling background who knows where I would be. It taught me what hard work is all about. It taught me so much I can’t even begin to put it into words.”
He also admits that for all of the victories he has achieved in every day life, there are times when life itself can be so hard.
“I still have those days where I ask, ‘Why me?’ It took me a long time to realize this was meant to be, that it had to be,” he said. “This has made me stronger in my faith. I lost it there for a while but when I regained it it was stronger than ever. I feel like I’m supposed to be an advocate for people with disabilities.”
Toward that end he is now president of Penn State Adaptive Outreach Club which encourages people from the community with disabilities to see what is out there for them.
What’s out there for Markle is hunting, fishing, water-skiing, snow skiing and now kayaking.
“I think I can say I’m probably doing more things than I did before my accident,” he said. “One of my favorite things to do is to take my little girl hunting and fishing. She’s a girly-girl too; she is into dancing. But she loves to hunt and fish.”
For himself, Markle is playing the cards fate has dealt him.
“On one of those television shows, I think it’s Mountain Men, someone asked one of those guys what he does for a living and he said ‘I live life for a living.’ I really like that quote. That’s what I’m doing, living life.”