I HAVE BECOME a big fan of Raymond Dix. He has qualities we all should admire in the modern athlete -- determination, intelligence, good instincts, modesty, the courage to play through pain, team spirit, passion for his sport. He expects no special treatment. Even when he's tired and aching after a game, he won't let his father pick him up and carry him to the car.
He does what a lot of hockey players do after the final buzzer -- he goes home and takes a hot bath.
Raymond Dix isn't in the National Hockey League, yet. For now, he seems content with Baltimore Youth Hockey, the primary city-based league for boys and girls who get the puck bug. He plays wing for the Stars of the BYH Squirts, coached by Mike Flannigan and Jim Prey. His teammates are between 9 and 11 years old.
Raymond, a fifth-grader at Glenmar Elementary in eastern Baltimore County, will be 12 in June. He's 4 feet 1 inch tall, the smallest boy on the Stars and the teams they face, from Bowie to Benfield. Most of his teammates and opponents have 8 to 12 inches on him. But as time has gone by -- and I've been watching Raymond from the parent gallery at BYH games for three years -- his size has become inconsequential.
He managed to score the winning goal for his team the other night.
But that's not why I'm a big fan of Raymond Dix.
I admire this particular hockey player because he had to travel a few extra miles in life to get himself into position to make that goal.
He was born five weeks premature, weighing just 3 pounds, 3 ounces. Some cerebral bleeding left scar tissue that caused fluids to build up around his brain. When he was 6 weeks old and weighed 5 pounds, Raymond underwent the first of several operations to relieve the hydrocephalus. A surgeon implanted a shunt that ran like a tiny pipeline from Raymond's brain, under his skin, across his chest and down to his stomach. The shunt drained the excess cerebral fluid. It worked for several months.
But in the fall of 1988, Raymond had surgery three more times to adjust his shunt. In December, Dr. Benjamin Carson, the all-star pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, installed a second one. Raymond has lived with the shunts since.
His mother Debbie remembers all the important dates in Raymond's medical history -- collapsed lung and pneumonia in 1989; shunt adjustment in 1991; blood clots near Raymond's brain in 1992. And then there was the morning, also in 1992, when Raymond did not wake up. "I drove him to Hopkins," his mother says, "and while he seemed [unconscious], he would answer me. He could understand me. I heard him say, 'I don't want to die.' "
There was more surgery that day to take pressure off his brain.
In addition to those problems, his mother says, doctors discovered that Raymond had a rare condition that caused some of his bones to fracture and chip. He grew slowly and his walk had a pronounced waddle. That's because the balls of his thigh bones did not reach all the way into the sockets of his hips, which were misshapen.
When he was 6, Raymond underwent surgery to correct that problem. A surgeon attached steel plates and screws to his bones to make them fit snugly into his hips. The surgery helped his left leg, but not his right. One leg is slightly longer than the other. He still waddles when he walks.
And when he skates.
He's going to have more orthopedic surgery after hockey season ends this month.
But not before.
Raymond is determined to play. You can't persuade him not to, say his parents, even though his legs ache terribly when he leaves practice or a game.
Of all the medical problems he's had, none affected his heart. He has a lot of heart. He never misses a practice. He's often the first kid to suit up for a game.
Raymond got the puck bug four years ago, on the day his father, Lee, took him, his older sister Natasha and his younger brother Kevin to see the last incarnation of a professional hockey team in Baltimore, the gone-and-almost-forgotten Bandits. The Dix kids -- there's a fourth one now, 4-year-old Michelle -- love the sport. Fourteen-year-old Natasha and 9-year-old Kevin also play on youth teams.
The first time I saw Raymond, he was wearing a green uniform and appeared absolutely tiny on the ice, rocking from side to side as he skated.
Last year, he wore yellow and didn't seem much bigger. "Raymond is a very smart player," says Ed Donnellan, who coached him in 1998-1999. "He knows his position and plays it well. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in smarts. He's a true team player. He never whines about not playing enough or not scoring goals. He plays because he loves the game."
From what I've seen, Raymond never mindlessly slaps at the puck. He doesn't seem at all afraid about getting into the right position, either, though his opponents tower over him. His coaches and teammates respect him. Raymond gets as much ice time as any player on the Stars. His teammates pass him the puck if they spot him open or hear him tapping the ice with his hockey stick.
More often, though, it's Raymond who does the passing.
"Raymond knows his limitations," says his father. "He knows that if he gets the puck away from the other team, that he's not going to score on a break-away. So immediately, he says to himself, 'Who can I pass to?' (ELLIPSIS) I always tell him, 'Get in front of the net, Raymond, get in front of the net. Something's going to come you.' "
The other night, it did. During a tie game at Northwest Ice Rink in Baltimore, Raymond positioned himself near his opponent's goal and pushed a loose puck into the net. His teammates had to be restrained from jumping off the bench, over the boards and onto the ice in celebration. Not only was it Raymond's first goal of a season that had started last fall -- and only the second one of his career -- but it turned out to be the deciding score in a close game.
"I'm very proud of Raymond," says his mother.
Me, too. I'm a big fan.