John Covington doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him.
He doesn’t want you to treat him differently because he had two heart surgeries before his sixth birthday. He doesn’t want any special treatment because he was born with a radial club left hand, a condition which required multiple surgeries and cost him his left thumb.
Mostly, Covington doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him because he’s never felt sorry for himself. And it’s that mentality that will allow the 24-year-old Covington to realize his dream of playing professional golf when he tees off in Harmony, Fla., on Monday in his first National Golf Association Hooters Pro Golf Tour event.
Covington’s health struggles began at the age of six months, when Dr. Zuhdi Lababidi, the chief of pediatric cardiology at University Hospital, discovered that Covington had a large hole in his heart and had both main arteries coming from the same section on the right side of his heart, a condition known as double outlet right ventricle. Covington’s left arm was also shorter than his right, and his hand curls at an awkward angle, due to a bone condition called radial club hand. Lababidi said that often bone abnormalities in the arm are accompanied by holes in the heart. However, Covington’s malady was a different situation.
“Anytime there’s a bone abnormality in the arm, there is a high chance of having a hole in the heart. But his double ventricle was rare for the arm anomaly,” Lababidi said.
Lababidi said that until recently, patients with Covington’s heart condition often died in their first year of life. However, in the past 20 years, things have changed.
“In the past 20 years, most of them (double ventricle patients) live a normal life span,” Lababidi said.
At the age of 13 months, Covington had the first of two operations on his heart, an experience that frightened his mother, Becky Covington.
“We had seen devastating problems with other children that had the surgery while we were there,” she said.
The Covingtons themselves narrowly avoided complications following their son’s surgery.
“He didn’t come off the lung machine on the first try,” his mother said. “They were able to get him off of it on the second attempt, but I worried for the next four years about the second one about how he’d come out.”
By the time the second one rolled around, 5-year-old John Covington was old enough to realize how scared his mother was and did what he could to calm her.
“I comforted my mom, kept telling her everything was going to be all right,” Covington said. “My mom was worried bad, and I didn’t see the repercussions of what was happening.”
Both Lababidi and Becky Covington credit that same reassuring and cheerful demeanor as a reason for Covington’s overcoming his medical obstacles.
“John was always fun to have around, always cheerful and highly motivated,” Lababidi said.
“He’s exactly like that today,” Becky Covington said. “He’s a good time and enjoys laughing and being with people.”
Covington would not be the first person most people would expect to be playing professional golf. However, he has dealt with the underdog role all his life with little complaint.
“I never had one (a low point) in my whole life,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I had to go out and prove something.”
Becky Covington said that the family was prepared to handle the challenge of raising a child with health problems.
“We were ready to take on whatever battle we had to fight to help this kid,” she said. “I’ve never been sorry, but I’ve always felt privileged to get the special child I got.”
That attitude is why Covington credits his family for helping him realize that nothing was going to come easy, and that he had to work for what he wanted.
“It was instilled in me by my parents and uncles to play the game, and not to let me win,” he said. “I think the worst thing you can do is to play something and let someone win.”
“You have to get out and show people you can instead of accepting their pity.”
When he was younger, Covington played football and Little League baseball as well as golf. He said that he probably wouldn’t be as good of a golfer if he had two properly functioning arms, despite what friends and family have told him.
His cousin and frequent golf partner Shane Durnil said that his hard work and competetive nature are the key to his success.
“So many people thought that he couldn’t do anything,” Durnil said. “I never looked at him as handicapped. He was just always good at everything he did.”
Always an athlete
Both Becky Covington and her husband Mick are avid sports fans. From a young age, John Covington was no different.
“From time to time when he was little, he would go to the toy box full of stuff and he would pull out a ball, so he’s been interested in those kinds of games since an early age,” Becky Covington said.
Ever since those younger days, Covington has been a hunter and fisher, a football fan, and, of course, a golfer.
Covington said that he started playing at age 8. It was a memory he wouldn’t forget.
“I went with my dad, and I ended up crashing the cart my first time out,” Covington said.
Covington said he played almost every day in the summer during his youth. Most of those rounds he was accompanied by Durnil.
“Me and my cousin would go out and play 36 holes some days,” Covington said. “It was a really cheap way of baby-sitting.”
Durnil said that their matches brought out the competetive nature in both boys.
“We were definitely competetive,” he said. “We would always go back and forth, win some and lose some. It got to the point where he wins all the time now.”
“We used to hit off the ladies’ tees when we were younger. Our dads made us move back when we started beating them.”
Covington continued to play throughout his career at Rock Bridge High School. He said that he was good but nothing spectacular in high school. After high school, he went out to California to the Professional Golf Career College, and eventually landed a job as assistant general manager at Fox Creek Golf Course in Edwardsville, Ill. It was then that the idea of playing professionally hit him.
“I started playing with some of the pros there and in the men’s league, and I did pretty well,” he said. “That got me to thinking, ‘What if I could do this for a living?’”
Covington took the Player’s Ability Test, which consists of 36 holes of golf in one day. The goal is to score at or less than 15 points above the course rating in order to get into the Professional Golf Management Program, which gives a player access to professional tours, such as the NGA Hooters Pro Golf Tour.
After some time on the NGA Hooters Tour, he hopes to fulfill his dream of playing on the PGA tour.
“I hope to cut my teeth for a few years,” he said. “I’d like to work my way up and take a run at Q (qualifying) school.”
Becky Covington said that she has faith that her son can do anything he sets his mind to do, but his biggest barrier at this point is money.
“The only thing stopping him is finance. He’s got everything else,” she said. “We’ve taken on a lot of his payments, and he’s staying with us for now.”
She added that her son has been out in the community contacting local businesses in order to get sponsors to help pay for the cost of playing professionally. He already has some sponsors lined up, including University Hospital.
Inspiration to others Covington said that one of the most pivotal experiences of his life was a trip his mother set up, one that took Covington and Durnil to Kansas City to meet with then-Chicago White Sox pitcher Jim Abbott. Abbott was famous for throwing a no-hitter and having a productive career despite having no right hand.
“He was a really cool cat, a down-to-earth guy,” Covington said. “He told me that if I wanted it, I should go get it, even though the steps might be higher or longer. He told me not to get bogged down.”
Since he made the decision to turn pro, Covington also wanted to be an inspiration to other children, just as Abbott was for him. That’s why Covington is working on a plan with University Hospital to go in and visit some of the children and talk to them about overcoming adversity. He said he plans to start in April, and said he is excited about inspiring others.
“I’ve always had the dream of being an inspiration to others,” he said. “The message I’m trying to give is to inspire any person to do what they want in life.”
Covington is already off to a good start. In July, he won one of 12 University Hospital Hope and Spirit Awards. The award demonstrates courage and perseverance in overcoming extraordinary circumstances, according to University Hospital’s Web site.
But the award pales in comparison to the connection Covington made with Josh Backman, a fourth-grader at Rock Bridge Elementary School. Backman suffers from paralysis of the right arm, a condition brought upon by a stroke at a young age, according to school counselor Glenda Keith. After an assembly in which Covington spoke to the audience, Keith said that Backman, a recent transfer to the school, took to Covington.
When Covington went on a tour of the classrooms the next day, Backman accompanied him, and the two talked extensively. Since then, Keith said, Backman has shed his shy demeanor and is excited to try and be successful in school, as his hero is in life.
“He just beams and is excited every day to be at school,” Keith said. “He asks me every day if John is coming back before the tour. He says that his dad said that they may even go and see him play.”
Since then, Backman has spent 30 minutes every day mentoring a first-grade student who has similar physical disabilities.
Covington said that the meeting had a profound affect on him as well.
“He reminds me of myself back then,” he said. “He impressed me more than I impressed him.”