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NYC marathon helped heroic NYPD sergeant fight demons

There are some things in life that cannot be cured, but only outlasted. Things that only time and scar tissue can begin to cover. Or perhaps a marathon: 26.2 miles of rubber-slapping asphalt, of nipple-chafing, muscle-cramping, blister inducing, where-have-I-been and where-am-I-going and what-makes-me-think-I-can-finish?

And the pace is of no consequence. There are 38,000 or so runners who complete the New York City Marathon each year. Among them, one man's 12-minute mile is an act of utter laziness, while another plodding at the same pace is undertaking an act of catharsis and courage. This column is about one of the latter.

John Downey is a 31-year-old sergeant in the New York City Police Department. At a muscled 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Downey isn't a natural marathoner. (He placed 36,297th in 2008.) Baseball was always his sport. As a groundball pitcher, he tried out with the Mets in 1996 after high school, and went on to pitch at Molloy College on Long Island. But it was exactly because the marathon was outside of his comfort zone that he had to do it.

In less than a year, he had lost his mother, Roseann, and his mother-in-law, Janet. They had been his psychological escorts through life. He could have turned to alcohol, as he had seen too many other police officers, and his own father do. Instead, Downey chose to train for the 2008 New York City marathon instead. Instead of retreating from his pain, Downey opted for pain he could push through the way he would have to push through life without his two confidantes -- their names scrawled under "R.I.P." on his running shirt.

Roseann died first, in March 2006, from complications of undiagnosed diabetes. "She was a stubborn old Italian," Downey said of his mother, who ignored signs like fatigue and frequent bathroom trips. "She didn't think the doctor had anything useful to tell her."

It was Roseann who first showed Downey what it meant to be a professional protector. She worked 25 years as an NYPD crossing guard in Brooklyn's East New York neighborhood, and had an off-duty habit of coming outside to shuttle kids across the road on the regular occasion when the street-lights blinked out. "Roseann was like the mother of the whole neighborhood," said Olga, a secretary at the rectory at Blessed Sacrament, a local church. She also managed to guide Downey through East New York in the 1980s and '90s, when the crack epidemic hit the area hard. In 1990, when Downey was 12, the East New York police precinct, which is only a few square miles, reported 109 murders. That was also the year Downey was doing a newspaper route and saw his first shooting. "I didn't want to know anything," he said, "I just biked away."

Roseann was always waiting at home to let him know that he could keep going, that everything would be all right. She had a gift for giving comfort; one that Downey inherited, and that, in moments of upheaval, would become his most precious skill.****

Five years before he finished the 2008 edition of the five-borough classic, on Oct.15, 2003, Downey had just completed a court appearance in Manhattan and was heading for the ferry back to his precinct in Staten Island. He had barely missed the previous boat, and grudgingly settled down with a jumbo pretzel to wait for the 3 p.m ride. It was a fateful delay.

Twenty minutes after it launched, Downey and many of the other 1,500 passengers realized that the Andrew J. Barberi was heading to dock awfully fast. The assistant captain, who was alone at the wheel, had blacked out. The 310-foot ferry plowed full-speed into a concrete pier that opened its side as easily as an opener peels back the top of a tin can. "I had never seen anything close to this," Downey said. One moment, a group of New Yorkers -- a blessedly small group, because it was not rush hour -- exhausted from a day's work in the big city were commuting home as many of them had done thousands of times, and the next moment some are missing legs or feet. Eleven people died as a result of the crash, and 70 were injured, some of them irreparably. Save for Downey's uniform, and his calming presence, it would have been more.

A crush of passengers fled the horrific sounds of glass shattering and metal grinding on concrete. Some, in a panic, moved to jump overboard. Downey knew he was the last line of defense between the frightened wave of commuters and the cold autumn water where the Hudson River spills into the Atlantic Ocean. As he, and many other officers did on 9/11 when it came time to help, Downey put his own fear and anger on hold.

Downey bellowed in his New Yawk accent, telling passengers -- even a man who lost both legs below the knee -- that it would be OK. He told them that they needed to stay onboard, to move to the highest part of the boat, in case it began to sink, and to spread along both sides so as not to cause the ferry to list. In that moment of chaos, when the tether of order and authority on the human mind is threadbare, the people listened. They stepped back from the edge, and spread out.

Retired NYPD lieutenant Donald Tierney Jr. was a passenger on the ship, and in a letter to police commissioner Raymond Kelly he would write that "Officer Downey took control of the situation immediately ... There is no doubt in my mind he prevented numerous distraught passengers ...from jumping from the ship."

****

In February 2007, 11 months after his mother died, Downey's mother-in-law left him behind as well. This was not the normal in-law relationship. Janet was a second mother.

Back in 1983, when Roseann would walk Downey to kindergarten, Janet was by her side. Downey's future wife, Christina, was the one hiding shyly behind Janet's leg, stealing cautious glances at the wide-eyed and bubbly little boy who seemed only to want to tease her.

But the two kids lost touch when Christina was a teenager and her family moved to Long Island. It was when Downey was in college at Molloy, often too tired -- from a combination of studying, baseball, and working at his uncle's gas station -- to make the commute home, that he reconnected with Christina. They fell in love over those long nights and Janet's cooking. On Christmas morning in 2000, Christina woke up wearing the ring that Downey had clandestinely slipped on her finger. Those were the happy memories before Janet withered so drastically away from lung cancer that she needed Downey to carry her, in her wheelchair, up and down the stairs.

When she died, Downey heaved as seismically and bawled as deeply as when his own mother had passed. Both times, "he hugged me and just cried hysterically," recalls Downey's brother-in-law Robert. "He stayed there for two or three minutes."

****

As rookie marathoners tend to learn the hard way, the marathon pays little deference to one's life trials prior to race day. Somewhere around the Queensboro Bridge at mile 15, Downey started hurting. Bad. He texted his cop buddy Sean Carlton: "I'm dying ... I don't think I can make it."

A few miles later, Sean texted back, and he knew just what to say: "Go get your mother, she's waiting at the finish line."

Downey had to finish, to let his mother, wherever she was, know that he could do it. There are a lot of things he wants to her know. He wants her to know how angry he was that she refused to go to the doctor, and that his kids, John Jr., 5, and Ryan, 2, will grow up without their grandmother. She had relatives with diabetes, after all. How could she not have known? But he also wants her to know that he forgives her, and that he plans to raise money for families with children suffering from diabetes, and that he'd like to go room to room in hospitals checking with parents to see if they can cover their children's medical costs.

He wants her to know that even though he moved away to Staten Island, he hasn't forgotten where he came from. Walking through his old neighborhood, he still points out the shuttered drug dens, and some of the men who once frequented them. He still says a quick 'hello' to Jimmy the Bomber, who, despite the nickname, is actually one of the good guys. He still knows that single city block, where both he and Christina grew up, and where he played basketball with a wood crate on a telephone pole, and painted a football orange so it was visible at night in the churchyard.

On that same block, he says his "hello's" at Blessed Sacrament where his parents were married, where he was baptized, and where his mother's funeral was held. Down the street is the building that once housed the bar where his father spent far too many glassy-eyed hours.

He wants his mother to know, though, that her ex-husband has been dry for five years, and all because of her son. One day in 2004, Downey got a frantic call from his grandmother. In another drunken stupor, Downey's father had left the stove on all night, and could have burned down the house where he lived in the basement, beneath Downey's grandmother, aunt, and uncle. Downey went over and ripped the stove out of the wall, and moved it upstairs. It was the wake up call his father needed.

He wants her to know that he's going to be all right, even without her. John Jr., at the ripe age of 2, told him so on the morning of her wake, when he spotted daddy at the bottom of the stairs, sweating and crying upon return from his morning run.

He's going to be all right. After all, like thousands of others who will cross the line on Sunday no matter the pace or the pain, he proved to himself, on a special New York City day that comes around every November, that one thing he can do is continue.

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