About Heart of a Lion
Now that Heart of a Lion – Our Journey of Faith and Courage has been published, I can sit back and reflect on the process of getting the writing gig, researching and eventually writing it.
Willie Burton was a high school wrestler in Louisville who gained national prominence because he wrestled for four years at Fairdale High School with cerebral palsy. He had little use of his legs and a weak right arm as a result of his physical handicaps. He won only one match in his entire four-year career at Fairdale. ESPN thought his story so incredible they did an E:60 documentary called WILLPower, narrated by Dan Gable the famous college and Olympic wrestler. It details the challenges Willie needed to overcome to achieve his goal of becoming a wrestler. I find WILLPower so moving that nearly every time I watch it I get choked up.
I got the gig to write Willie’s story through a mutual acquaintance. I had written two award-winning historical fiction novels, The Crossings, and The Indian so I felt I had the skill to take on this challenge. It wasn’t until I began the process it dawned on me I didn’t have any experience at writing a memoir, I knew little about wrestling, at least the type they do in high school, and I knew less about cerebral palsy. In addition, Willie lived over a hundred miles from my home. I definitely had a, “What have you gotten yourself into,” moment but I knew the only way out was to work my way out.
But my lack of knowledge in the subject and the fact I was jumping to a new genre, non-fiction from fiction, may have slowed me down but didn’t stop me from enthusiastically pursuing the task at hand. In my research, I learned a lot about cerebral palsy, one of the most debilitating conditions one can suffer with. Since it’s caused by a bleed in the brain, most often in premature babies, it can affect its victims in many different ways.
I also researched and learned about the technical issues of wrestling. I didn’t need to become an expert but I needed to be able to write intelligently about it.
Then I had to interview Willie an untold number of times to get his entire story – so off to Louisville I’d go and go and go. I was writing his story in the first-person so I needed to be able to say it in his words as best as possible. To get proper perspective in addition to interviewing him, I interviewed his mother Brenda, his father Larry, his friends, his coaches, his physical therapist, his teammates and anyone else who had touched or been touched by Willie in his journey.
After I had finished my work and in the editing process, it was decided something was missing. Willie’s story is really about him and his mother Brenda. She cared for him as an adoptive special-needs child from birth and influenced him in many ways on his life’s journey. So back to the drawing board, as they say, I went and wound his story and hers together to get the final product. It was the secret sauce I needed to make this story as special as it should be.
While I have enjoyed this journey, mine not being so much of faith and courage as theirs, I’ve told others I’ll be happy to return to my normal comfortable genre, fiction, where I can sit back and start making things up again.
ESPN E:60 WILLPower
This documentary about Willie Burton touched many people, including me. After watching it, how could I not want to help tell his story?
As Olympic gold medalist Dan Gable puts it, "Once you've wrestled, everything else in life is easy." Unless, perhaps, you are Willie Burton of Fairdale, KY. Burton wrestles, but as this ESPN E:60 story reveals, nothing in his life is easy.
Willie and Brenda Burton with Barry Kienzle
To learn more about Willie and Brenda, go to www.willieburton-ky.com