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Column: Polio didn’t keep Nordmark from dunking a basketball or being successful at life

Bill Nordmark never looked like a Division I basketball player. His face went this way and that, and his legs were so skinny that his socks needed help staying up. But he did play college ball. I know. I was there.

The coach who kept him around the Georgia State University team was Jack Waters, an Indiana boy who was born to play the game and born to shoot. In so many ways, he was Bill’s polar opposite. No one knows what the coach saw in Bill but he kept him around and every year Bill seemed to get a little better.

I’d like to say Bill Nordmark became an all-star, that he sank a winning bucket at the Final Four or that was a high draft pick in the NBA. He wasn’t but those who knew him will tell you he was an All-American person who worked so hard to defeat a horrible disease.

He was gawky and he played basketball with an unorthodox style, but Bill Nordmark could always leap.

Nordmark died Monday evening, and as word spread around the Atlanta business community love began to flow. He was 69 years old.

His resume as a businessman is lengthy. He was co-founder of the Atlanta Friendship Initiative and he’s a past president of the Atlanta Rotary Club — which to him was much more important than simply eating lunch at a weekly civic club meeting.

But let’s talk about his college basketball career and the fact that he is very likely the only polio survivor to make it as a Division I ball player.

We met when he was a player and in recent times reconnected on social media. Only then did I learn about the polio.

Nordmark talked about that in a published interview a few years ago with Dave Cohen, Georgia State’s basketball play-by-play announcer. It was an enlightening conversation.

“That was something that I’m proud of. I was blessed to be able to play college basketball after overcoming a dreadful disease. There were many people who were paralyzed in ways that they’re still suffering today at this point in time. I’m still very healthy … and so it was a blessing for me to be able to play college basketball and I’m thankful that I got to do it because it’s been a big part of my life.”

Polio struck when he was two years old and living in Kentucky. It was 1952, a time that every mother and father lived in fear of the crippling disease — and it came to live with the Nordmarks.

His family’s house was quarantined. He and his mother were forced to stay inside alone. Only his father could come and go from the house. A sign was planted in the yard “Polio here.”

His parents took him to Cincinnati for regular treatments and he had to travel in an iron lung which to earlier generations looked like something out of a horror movie. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he said as they put the wet, wool cuff on his neck.

When Bill Nordmark came out for the Georgia State University basketball team in 1968, Coach Jack Waters saw something special in an unorthodox freshman who had never made his high school team. That’s Bill on the back row, third from the right.

Bill could have given up but he didn’t. He could have been bitter but he wasn’t. He could have stayed on the sidelines but he didn’t. A fight that would never end was just beginning.

Other than the obvious facial paralysis that would always be noticeable, he mostly recovered from the disease in six months. But even as a child he was reminded that he was different. Taunting kids at school wouldn’t let him forget. Neither would some callous parents.

His father worked for Delta Airlines and the family moved to East Point, a suburb near the Atlanta airport. As he grew taller, he discovered his escape on a basketball court. He played ball every day at a neighborhood gym from 2-6 p.m., went home to eat, and then headed back to the gym to play some more from 7-9 p.m. He found that he was good at defense and was a gifted leaper who could put on a impressive dunking show, even though it was against the rules to dunk the ball in a game.

He goal was to make the basketball team at Headland High School but that dream was never fulfilled. He was the last man cut in both his junior and senior years. But as it was with polio, he didn’t quit.

He enrolled at Georgia State in 1968 and as a gawky 6-foot-4 freshman he made the team as a walk-on. The coach rewarded him with a free lunch in the cafeteria. As a sophomore Waters added a free parking place and as a junior he added free books.

At one of those ball games back then, Bill introduced me to his parents. They were always there to cheer for their son, whether he got into the game or not for they too had memories. To say they were proud of their son would be an understatement.

As a senior his dream was completed. Additional playing time was only a bonus for was awarded a full athletic scholarship — all because he wouldn’t give up.

“I don’t worry about rejection,” he said.

As a member and past president of the Atlanta Rotary Club, Bill worked relentlessly in the club’s End Polio Initiative just as he did when he was lettering in basketball at Georgia State.

As an increasingly successful businessman in Atlanta that perseverance was duly noted.

“I developed a grit inside that people don’t have any clue about,” he said. “It’s true of polio patients.”

That grit inspired him through a career helping the underprivileged with Economic Opportunity Atlanta and in many other opportunities to help others.

In Rotary International he found his special calling. For years the ageless civic organization had dedicated itself to eradicating polio around the world.

Nordmark jumped right into that fight and numbers of patients worldwide show that the club’s commitment is paying off.

“That’s a big deal,” he said.

He didn’t complain out loud, but as he got older, the after effects of polio began to surface, reminding him of that time when there was a warning sign in his yard and trips had to be made in an iron lung.

As a ball player that story was never fully told. But as he got older, he was open about these things on Facebook, sharing stories that were always private before. We began to exchange regular messages. He bragged about his family. He told me about his friendship with Ronnie Blomberg, a former New York Yankee and baseball’s original designated hitter. The two of them worked out together, just as Bill had done when he was a teenager hanging around that gym in East Point.

We talked about his lingering interest in Georgia State basketball and how proud he was of their successes today. He said he and Ronnie were going to just about every home game. We planned to get together for lunch or a ball game but we never did.

His business card had this quote on the back. It reminded him of the days he dreamed of being set free and It reminded anyone who read it why those obscure years on a college basketball team were so important to William Nordmark III.

Courage does not always roar,
Sometime, it is the quiet voice
At the end of the day saying
“I will try again tomorrow!”
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