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Manatee rolls out red carpet for true heroes

John Botts got a pass from an Army hospital in San Antonio to play in Jim McMahon’s Swang “N” Super Bowl Bash.

Botts, of Nashville, Tenn., lost a leg in combat in Iraq and is awaiting medical retirement.

He was one of about a dozen veterans who got to rub shoulders with celebrities and play on Arnold Palmer-designed golf courses Kings Dune and Cypress Links on Friday at Lakewood Ranch.

Or should I say that Botts and his comrades in uniforms were the true celebrities? No doubt about it, they sacrificed for their country in ways that most of us can’t imagine.

No, there are sports and entertainment heroes, and then there are true heroes.

Chad Pfeifer, 27, of Boise, Idaho, also lost a leg in Iraq, after he was wounded April 12, 2007. Keith Wolverton came to the tourney with braces on each arm and leg. His injuries were so serious he needed speech therapy to learn to talk again. But there he was, grasping a golf club and sending shots down the fairway.

If there was any self-pity among these young men, I didn’t detect it. Each was relishing the moment and looking to the future.

Asked how he was doing, Botts replied that he was doing fine.

“I’m able to golf,” he said.

Botts excused himself for a few moments to have his photo made with one of the celebrities, David Mobley, golf’s long-drive expert.

Mobley was happy to oblige. “Thank you for all you’ve done,” Mobley told the soldier.

Botts said the trip to Manatee County was “the best vacation I ever had.”

Then he said the Palmer courses were “by far the best I’ve ever played on.”

And there was no doubt it was the largest collection of famous people he had ever shared a golf course with.

Gary Carter, the Baseball Hall of Famer and former all-star catcher for the New York Mets, was in Botts’ foursome.

Pfeifer played with comedian and actor Joe Torry, and had an opportunity to visit with many other celebs, including Hercules star Kevin Sorbo, golfer John Daly and host Jim McMahon.

Pfeifer is finishing up studying kinesiology, a system of muscle-testing and therapy.

Botts would like to go into teaching.

Both men were a little hesitant to talk about their experiences in Iraq.

Pfeifer said he has mixed feelings about Iraq, but that American men and women in uniform have done a lot of good in that country.

“I don’t think it’s a lost cause,” he said.

Botts was guardedly optimistic.

“I think it’s moving forward,” he said, adding that once the Iraqis are fully responsible for their own security, “they’ll figure it out.”

Wolverton was happy just to talk about football and his friendship with McMahon, whom he credited with playing an important role in his comeback from grievous injuries.

“I wish more people knew Jim McMahon for who he is and all the good he does,” Wolverton said. He was referring to McMahon’s bad-boy image, going back to his days as the head-band wearing quarterback who led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl glory.

Wolverton has known McMahon for several years and said McMahon would talk with him for hours and call him regularly on the phone to encourage him during his recovery.

“He got me through a lot of things,” Wolverton said.

For his part, McMahon, though clearly enjoying himself, and wearing Wolverton’s floppy Army hat, was content to let the spotlight fall on the vets.

That was the way McMahon and his wife, Laurie, wanted it. “They are the true celebrities and heroes of this event,” Laurie said.

Despite a rain delay at the start of the tourney, McMahon said the event “turned out great” and that the “people here have been fabulous.”

The McMahons couldn’t say enough about the hospitality they received in Manatee County for an event that raised money for several good causes, including helping wounded warriors.

Scott Lamoureax, director of golf at Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club, said the tourney was the first time the Kings Dune and Cypress Links courses have been reserved for one event.

All other golfers were diverted to the Country Club East course, without one complaint from anyone, Lamoureax said.

And then Lamoureax came back to what every celebrity had been saying: the wounded warriors were the true heroes of the event.

Giving them a day they’ll never forget, including turning over a pretty spiffy golf course to them for an afternoon, just feels right. This country can hardly do enough for them.

It makes you humble and proud to meet these young folks, who have done and sacrificed so much for their country.

A super pick

And because today is Super Bowl Sunday, I couldn’t resist asking McMahon who he thought would win.

“I think a good offense beats a good defense,” he said. Advantage, Cardinals.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 708-7916.