By MIKE READLING
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- Ask John Clewis, and he will sheepishly admit he doesn't follow baseball.
Sure, he had heard of Tony Saunders, but up until a couple of weeks ago, he didn't pay too much attention to the former Rays pitcher's comeback attempt. It might seem, therefore, that Clewis was a little out of his element Tuesday at Tropicana Field as he wheeled his wheelchair to behind home plate.
Actually, Clewis was right where he wanted to be -- in the spotlight and standing out as a role model.
Clewis, a senior at Wharton, received the first Tony Saunders Courage Award, recognizing a student/athlete who best exemplifies the courage, character, competitive desire and fighting spirit of the former Rays pitcher.
Clewis and 10 finalists, including Chamberlain's Mallory Code, Academy of the Holy Names' Molly Johnson, Riverview's Rocky Velasco and Gaither's James Streeter, were recognized before the Rays' season opener against Toronto. Clewis, who turned 19 on Tuesday, received a plaque, a $2,500 scholarship, a rendition of Happy Birthday from the crowd of nearly 41,000 and a cake.
"It's a great honor," he said. "We've been joking that I'll probably be in all the history books for getting the first one."
Clewis, who was born with spina bifida, is a three-year letterman for the Wharton swim team. Despite not having use of his legs, Clewis has finished every race. "He has had the courage to be placed by teammates in the water and swam with only his arms," Wharton coach Marcie Scholl said. "I have boys who don't want to wear the Speedo or take off their shirts, but he has finished every race. People know John because he made a statement every time he got in the water."
Making statements is something Clewis embraces.
"I hope this makes me a role model for somebody who says they can't do something but then they look at me and say, "If he can do something, maybe I can,"' Clewis said. "This shows that you can find something good in people; not just physically, but emotionally."
Saunders retired last season after breaking his left humerus for the second time. He watched videos and read nominations from nearly 50 schools in the Bay area before narrowing the list to 11.
"When I saw that video and read the story about him, it was just great," Saunders said. "When you see what he does, what all of these kids do every day, it's just amazing."
Johnson, who worked the ceremony around a softball game, is a three-sport athlete at AHN and holds a 3.6 grade point average while coping with the death of her mother, who also served as principal. "It feels great," she said. "This is a big deal. It was a surprise for me. I didn't even know I was nominated."
Code, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, asthma and diabetes, competes on the national level in junior golf, has played on Chamberlain's past two state title teams and won the Rolex Award Tournament of Champions.
Velasco has overcome family and personal health problems while starring for the Sharks football, wrestling and track teams and compiling a 3.6 GPA. Streeter played every game and was named All-Suncoast this past football season, during which his mother died.