Teen goalie stands tall on two prosthetic legs

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Corey Marko loves attention but still doesn't understand why people make a big deal out of his prosthetic legs.

Need proof?

After a tough loss for his hockey team, the 13-year-old goalie took off his legs, turned them backward and started walking around the locker room to cheer up his teammates.

Then there was the time during a baseball game that he strode to the plate and rapped on his artificial shin with the bat just to rattle the opposing pitcher.

''It lightens up the situation,'' he said. ''It shows that just because you have a problem, you can't just mope around and not do anything. You have to get out and try new things and see what you can or can't do.''

On Saturday, Corey will be the guest of honor -- and the center of attention -- when he plays in a charity game to raise funds for Children's Hospital of Buffalo.

''I love attention,'' he said. ''If the game gets screwed up, you don't notice the forwards or defensemen that make little mistakes. But if a goalie makes one little mistake, it changes the complexion of the game.''

More than 1,500 people are expected to turn out for the event celebrating a teen's talents and the ability to overcome long odds resulting from a birth defect.

Marko's legs were amputated above the ankle when he was 8 months old.

''I've just grown to live with what I have, so I don't know anything different,'' he said. ''I don't consider myself special at all. I'm just a normal kid, a normal kid with fake legs that can do everything else a normal kid can do.''

It's an attitude that continues to inspire people around him.

''We raised him like he had his legs,'' Paul Marko said of his son. ''So he doesn't have a clue that he's not supposed to be able to do any of this.''

When doctors told Paul Marko that his son's deformed legs would have to be amputated at the shin, they also told him there was an option: amputate one leg and try to save the other.

But doctors warned that Corey probably would spend a lot of time in a wheelchair and recommended the double amputation. Devastated, Marko and his wife clung to the hope doctors provided.

''They told us, 'If you do this, someday you'll see him run to first base,''' Paul Marko recalled. ''Those words will follow me to the day that I die.''

Those words also proved to be prophetic. Corey hit 14 home runs last summer in youth baseball, and he has developed into one of the better hockey goaltenders in his age group.

Corey is among a growing number of disabled children reaching levels once considered impossible, the result of new technologies making more lifelike prosthetic limbs and of rehabilitation clinics taking an aggressive approach in counseling children with disabilities.

''We've got a lot of success stories,'' said Karen Decker, a social worker at Buffalo's Robert Warner clinic, which Corey attends. ''There's an incredible drive within these kids to have fun.''

Mike Ginal, who has one leg, is another of the clinics' patients. He went on to become a backup goalie on the Harvard hockey team.

Corey hit the ground running -- literally -- and has yet to stop. At 6-foot-1, he is outgrowing his ninth pair of prosthetics.

After a recent practice for the Grand Niagara Peewee travel hockey team, he left the ice muttering, frustrated at allowing a few soft goals. Despite some dazzling kick saves and one where he got his blocker on a shot rifled by his coach, Marko was hard on himself because his team was in the midst of a tough schedule. His prosthetic legs didn't even enter his thinking.

''He's just an amazing guy,'' said Keith Doyle, a 12-year-old teammate whose grandfather is organizing the charity game. ''I hope the kids at Children's Hospital get to see what Corey can do because it means they can try to do what Corey can do. As long as you try, you can do whatever you want.''

Paul Marko is no longer surprised by his son. Last year, he watched Corey teach himself how to jump back up on his skates without using his stick -- difficult with prosthetic ankles that don't bend.

''I watch the kid and, geez, I forget about his legs,'' Marko said. ''When I get down a little bit, I just look at what this kid has had to deal with every day of his life. But to him, it's not dealing with anything.''

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