U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Corbin Stacey enters the men’s 33-40 ultra heavy weight competition today with a heavy heart.
He will have two close friends, Jeremy Keene and Grandmaster Al Cole, on his mind—two people whose memory he tries to honor and keep alive through competition in his first and last U.S. Open as a competitor. A former quadriplegic and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder victim, Stacey is fighting for injured and mentally harmed military men and women, trying to set an example that there is life after the life-jarring events of the battlefield.
By the looks of it, he is a man who wants to climb the medal stand on Wednesday for everyone in his life as much as himself.
“I always was that guy who wanted to kick a little bit, fight a little bit and teach a little bit,” said Stacey, who is a retired 18-year veteran of the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
A master instructor, Stacey’s journey to Las Vegas has been more about what he has learned.
In August of 2009, Stacey was participating in a training brigade before being deployed overseas when he fell and broke three vertebrae in his neck. The fracture pinched a nerve, which resulted in paralysis of all four limbs. He went six weeks without the ability to walk or move his extremities.
Then two miraculous things happened while recovering at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas: he regained the ability to feel, walk and move, and he met 20-year-old Jeremy Keene.
“He was regular kid from Pennsylvania,” remembered Stacey. “He would go to UFC fights, basketball games, just a normal American kid who wanted to serve his country. That’s what impressed me about him.”
Stacey was three months into his rehab when he met Keene, who found out he had testicular cancer soon after starting basic training. They were a generation apart—“He was like my son,” said Stacey, who has three children of his own. “I could have been his dad.”—but they found many bonds from the start.
“I didn’t know he was into martial arts (early on),” said Stacey. “I was in the gym jacking around on the punching bag and he was like, ‘You know how to do taekwondo?’ I told him I used to teach before I got hurt. He wanted to do that so we would work out.
“That’s when we started talking smack about who would fight in the Open and who was going to go to the (National) Championships.”
With ailing bodies as their bond and an interest in taekwondo the glue, Keene and Stacey’s friendly and competitive rivalry began. They golfed, they worked out and they pushed each other. The two made tentative plans that they would fight in a U.S. Open together.
But it was Keene’s positive outlook on his inevitably expiring time on Earth that pulled Stacey out of the darkness that PTSD and fighting through grueling physical therapy casts. Keene forced Stacey to stay active and get out of the house on even the most difficult days.
“He’d blow the horn outside of my house and when I came outside he would be like, ‘Come on, let’s go play some golf.’ That was him.
“He was a good kid like these kids out here—young, witty, hard-headed sometimes. But he never complained. When he was really sick he would be basically passing out in formation, like pale white, ghost white. We called him the rock of the formation. He had the IV tube in his arm from the chemo, but he would show up, sitting there with the (IV) bag in his pocket.”
Keene lost his fight with testicular cancer Feb. 26, 2012. He was 23. The two Army medics shared a friendship for two years, but Stacey fights to keep his memory alive far longer.
Stacey knew he would make the trip out to Las Vegas for the U.S. Open since 2010 when he and Keene would talk trash about who was the better fighter. They both decided they would compete at a U.S. Open and Stacey takes to the mat today to fulfill that promise.
Two days ago, though, he received a piece of unnerving news: his longtime taekwondo instructor, Grandmaster Al Cole, passed away following his own battle with cancer. He was 52.
Stacey can credit Cole for much of his success in taekwondo. He trained under Cole after he took up the sport his senior year of college. He earned his Kukkiwon black belt at Cole’s insistence (he is now a Level 5) and he even instructed under Cole at Cole’s Taekwondo in the Cleveland area. Most importantly, Cole was another player in Stacey’s life that showed him there is life outside of his injuries.
“He introduced me to the Paralympic program,” said Stacey.
In large part Stacey came to Las Vegas for Keene, but now that he is here, his focus will be on Cole’s lessons.
“If you try your best, even if you lose, you’re a good student,” Stacey said, echoing Cole’s message. “Not everybody here is going to win. There are only a few spots. Be a good student.”
So Stacey will do his best, not only for Keene and Cole, but for his fellow wounded soldiers who are looking for a purpose after injury.
“I’m trying to do this to show them that they can get out of the house—that it ain’t over,” he said. “A lot of problems with our soldiers is they are scared to do stuff. They don’t really want to test the waters until they see somebody else do it. Then they’ll think, ‘Let me try that.’”
Stacey said he does not know what he would do with his medal if he were to win one. He could give it to Keene’s parents, the Cole family or his wife—so many people have gotten him to the competition mat today.
But the obstacles continue.
Stacey has permanent numbness on the right side of his body after suffering a second neck injury sustained in a car wreck just four months following his paralysis, a condition for which he must swallow 22 pills a day. He will certainly be at a disadvantage against other ultra heavy weight competition today, but he has trained, studied film and shed 40 pounds since registering for the tournament in September.
Standing in front of the weigh-in room on Tuesday at the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, Stacey wore matching Wounded Warrior Project clothing— a hat, t-shirt and jacket. There is a thick, raised scar above his right collar bone at the base of his neck. The reminders of where he has been and where he continues to go were evident, and although he competes today as an individual, there is an army of people he fights for.
“Perseverance and resilience are the goals to life,” he said. "You’re going to have bad days and you’re going to have good days. At the end of the day you’ve only got one life and you’ve got to live it. Like Jeremy would say, ‘Hey, I could be dead.’ That rings in my head every day. I’m just happy to be walking. Whatever happens after that, I can’t be mad.”