Two years ago, Marc Burkom and his father, Howard, were on a six-mile hike with the Boy Scouts. There was a lot of rock climbing. After about three miles, the other scouts kept slowing down to let Marc, who has two artificial feet, catch up.
Finally, Marc Burkom stopped with a half-mile to go because the pain became too great, but he still finished the course.
"He was really proud of that," said Howard. "But for the rest of my life, I will never forget what he said to me in the tent that night. He said, 'Dad, it's good to be alive.' "
Marc Burkom, 13, was born with fibular hemimelia syndrome. In both legs, he was missing the fibula, the long, thin outer bone between the knee and ankle. It caused deformity in both feet, and he has only two fingers on his right hand.
The feet were amputated when he was 3 months old.
But that hasn't stopped him from soccer, baseball, basketball, football, cycling, hiking, skiing and swimming. Or trampoline, guitar, karate, archery and roller skating.
"Marc is definitely very energetic, which is why his prostheses are always in need of repairs," said Howard, 44, a systems analyst for a consulting firm. "He has never lacked confidence.
"This past summer, I saw him do something I never thought he would do. I always had to push-start him on the bike because he didn't have the muscles in his ankles to push himself off. Then one day, I came home and saw him riding the bike by himself. Nothing he does surprises me anymore. Nothing."
Marc Burkom is an athletic junkie.
One day, he is marking the other team's best offensive player for Beth Tfiloh's soccer team, the next day he is the target man -- pushing, shoving and fighting for a possible goal.
He plays any infield position using the same throwing and catching technique as the New York Yankees' Jim Abbott, who once gave him an autograph. He also is a shooting guard, still trying to master that outside jumper.
And oh, is he opinionated.
"If the Spirit is going to be successful, Goran Hunjak has to step forward," said Marc. "Paul Wright can't do it alone."
"He's always playing or talking sports. It's just a very, very important part of his life," said Eli Pristoop, 13, a teammate of Marc's at Beth Tfiloh.
But Marc has another passion.
The Burkoms belong to the Peer Visitation Program, affiliated with the Amputee Association of Maryland. They visit with families, and Marc has counseled other amputees, including one boy who lost his leg after a brick wall fell on it and another whose leg wasamputated after being hit by a train.
"I try to encourage them and show them all the things I can do. I tell them I go to school. I tell them I have friends, and they don't tease me," said Marc. "I try to make them feel confident. I'll take my foot off and show them how it works and ask them if they have any questions.
"A good sign is when they start asking questions or talking about different subjects, like Michael Jordan's retirement or if we're going to get an expansion team. That means they're planning to do some things, get involved. If they're depressed and not listening, they just say yes or no or shake their heads."
Dr. Liebe Diamond's eyes light up whenever you mention Marc's name. She performed the surgery on him nearly 13 years ago. She shows slides and pictures of him at various clinics. And Diamond can relate to what he has overcome.
She has only three fingers on her left hand, and part of her right foot has been amputated.
"I spoke to them quite frankly about my own experience," Diamond said from her office at Kernan Hospital. "With a little ingenuity, an amputee can do anything he or she wants to do.
"Mentally, he's ahead of most kids his age," said Diamond.
Marc faced rejection early.
"I remember once playing football in class, and I asked this kid to let me play quarterback," he said. "He said no, but he let every other player play quarterback. I was on the line the whole time. I understood, though. He didn't think a guy with seven fingers could be quarterback."
Said Howard Burkom: "Marc knows he is not a great athlete, that he cannot always compete with the top athletes, but he has a fantastic attitude. There have been experiences that forced him to mature. There have been times where he has been bullied. But he has been taught that he can't be bullied.
"Occasionally, some coaches will treat Marc like he is glass, like he will break. But he doesn't like it, and we won't stand for it."
Lights, camera, problems
Marc Burkom was going to be the first baby born in a Baltimore birthing room. The late news anchor, Jerry Turner, was there that night at Maryland General Hospital, along with several other reporters. Lights flashed. Cameras rolled.
When Marc was born, his birth defects were not caught on film. Diane Burkom, 38, had a hint something was wrong when she was not allowed to hold her child.
"They wrapped him up real tight in a blanket, said he was very coldand had to go under some warming lights," said Diane Burkom. "They didn't want to tell us in front of the TV cameras."
According to Diamond, the one bone Marc Burkom had in each of his legs was bent at a 90-degree angle below his knees. Each foot had three toes.
"We called people that night, told them we had a little boy and he had some problems with his legs," said Diane Burkom. "We told them we'd know some more once the doctors looked at him again, but other than that he was healthy. We wanted Marc to be as functional as possible. Our biggest question was: 'Will he ever be able to walk?' They told us probably yes, but not without a lot of surgery being done."
Then came another agonizing period.
The Burkoms were faced with the remote possibility of saving the feet, or having them amputated at a very young age. They met with doctors in Baltimore, Washington, Detroit and Delaware before making the decision to amputate.
On the night before surgery, Marc touched his foot for the first time.
"If we hadn't amputated, if we had done nothing to Marc's legs, he would live in a wheelchair. It would have been one operation after another," said Diane.
"Marc's surgery was at such a young age, his brain never knew what it felt like to walk on his feet. We did it so that he would never know what he missed."
The Burkoms also knew that one day other children would ask Marc about his feet. So they wrote a storybook, "The Story of Marc's Feet."
"We didn't read it to him every night, but occasionally," said Diane. "When Marc started to become verbal, we wanted to have an easy way to explain it. We wrote it wasn't his fault or our fault. It just happened."
During one of Marc Burkom's first indoor soccer games two years ago, one of his feet slipped off.
"Marc was lying on the floor. His foot was a couple of yards away," said Howard Burkom. "I was told the referee had to think about it, that he just kind of stood there for a while. He finally called something like a drop ball."
Relaxing others with humor
Marc Burkom laughs. He does that a lot.
"There was the time he was at camp, about three years ago, and one of the kids said it was so cold, his feet felt like ice, and Marc replied his feet were so cold they felt like plastic," said Diane Burkom.
"Or how about the time he went to Eliot's [his younger brother] camp and the leaders asked for three objects, and somebody gave them Marc's foot. He's got a great sense of humor, and he's very comfortable with it."
The laughter has replaced some of the initial stares from his team and classmates. They feel uncomfortable until they get to know him.
"He encourages me," said Josh Phillips, 13, a soccer teammate. "Those legs are pretty heavy he has to carry around, and he never misses practice, he never asks for any special treatment."
Teammate Joey Samuels, 13, said: "He's a good student, works very well with others and doesn't get into any fights. He doesn't talk about his feet. It's not like he avoids the topic. It's just no big deal to him."
"I've always tried to be aggressive, play hard and if I have to, I'll get my uniform dirty," said Marc Burkom, who wants someday to become a judge. "No matter if we're playing an undefeated team that is averaging five goals a game, I know that we can win. That's the way I am. That's the way I'll always be."