By Lee Davis
Almost 23 years ago, nobody could have guessed that the birth of a child could lead to the establishment of one of the most successful charitable events in metro Birmingham.
But that’s exactly what happened.
In August of 1992, Paul and Cinna Sotherland of Homewood gave birth to their son, Matt. The child had Down syndrome, along with a heart defect that frequently accompanies the diagnosis.
“It was a shock,” Paul said. “The idea of having a child with special needs is something that happens to somebody else, not you. But he was our boy, and we were going to do whatever it took to help him.”
The following November, Matt was taken to UAB Hospital for open heart surgery.
“We were scared to death,” Paul said. “We had accepted the fact that Matt had special needs, but the fact he was going to need this surgery at such a young age was a lot to take in. We prayed for the best.”
Before their son went into surgery, Paul and Cinna looked out one of the big windows of the hospital to see hundreds of the runners, spectators and volunteers who were participating in the Vulcan Marathon, at the time one of the top running events in the area. Paul had never been a serious runner but somehow drew inspiration from the scene below.
“I had played football in high school but had never done a lot of running,” he said. “But something about the people getting ready for that marathon put a light in my head. There was no way to compare what Matt was going through to training for a marathon, but I made a deal with him in my mind: If Matt would pull through the surgery, I would run a marathon for him the next year.”
Matt’s surgery was successful. And if Paul needed any more inspiration, he got it shortly after the operation.
He received a call from Gene Stallings, the University of Alabama head football coach at the time. Stallings’s team – headed toward the national championship – was scheduled to play Auburn the following day.
But Stallings, whose son John Mark also had Down syndrome, had learned of Matt’s situation and wanted to express concern and offer hope to the Sotherland family.
“That tells you a lot about Coach Stallings,” Paul said. “The fact that he took the time to call and ask about Matt right before a big game shows that he is truly a caring, compassionate person. He’s got to be one of nicest men in the world.”
After Matt came home from the hospital, Paul began his quest to keep his promise to his son.
One day at at time
“In some ways, preparing for a marathon was similar to the challenges Matt faced every day,” Paul said. “You can’t look at a marathon and say ‘I’m going to conquer it all at once.’ You have to take it one day at a time, one step at a time. It was very much the same way with Matt.”
Paul trained relentlessly, often rising before dawn to get in the necessary running. One mile became two. Then two miles became three. Finally, a year later, Paul ran in his first-ever Vulcan Marathon and began to be a regular participant in marathons and half marathons everywhere.
And as the years went by, Matt became Paul’s most avid cheerleader.
Matt and Paul’s story had an impact beyond their family. Early in his training, Paul had turned to Valerie McLean, owner of the Trak Shak running shops, for expert guidance, motivation and practical advice.
McLean responded by organizing a half marathon to benefit the Early Invention Program, now known as The Bell Center, from which Matt received critical therapies in his early years. The event eventually grew into the Mercedes Marathon and Half Marathon, which by 2014 had raised millions of dollars for charities.
“We are big supporters of The Bell Center,” said Paul. “The people there have done so much to help Matt. We are so thankful for what they did.”
Paul retired from marathon running a few years ago but still takes a great interest in the sport.
Matt, as a young adult, lives with his family and still needs assistance with basic tasks. But more importantly, he has the love of his parents, his sister, Katie, and the special needs community.
“None of us can understand exactly what someone with special needs faces on a daily basis,” Paul said. “By setting up a challenge or a goal for ourselves, we can in some way honor them and hopefully inspire good things from others.”
Sometimes inspiration can come from the most mundane places – such as a hospital window. On a November morning in 1992, Paul Sotherland looked out a window and saw the Big Picture.