“You can’t always choose the path that you walk in life, but you can always choose the manner in which you walk it.”                        John O’Leary

January 17, 1987 – St. Louis, Missouri: John O’Leary had watched older kids in his neighborhood playing with fire. On this Saturday morning, with his parents out of the house, the 9-year-old snuck out to the garage where he lit a piece of cardboard and tipped a 5-gallon gas can onto the flame. The explosion rattled windows for several blocks and blew John 20 feet across the garage. With his clothes on fire, he ran back through the flames into the house.

His seventeen-year-old brother, Jim, who was babysitting John and his two sisters heard the explosion and found John engulfed in flames in the hallway. The two girls screamed hysterically as Jim tried to beat out the fire with a throw rug. Unsuccessful, he carried John outside and rolled him in the snow to put out the flames. Jim rushed back in, got the girls out of the burning house and called 911.

John was transported to the Mercy Burn Center in St. Louis. When Susan and Denny O’Leary arrived later that afternoon, they met with the burn doctor, Vatche Ayvazian. His shared his grim assessment, “John has burns on almost 100% of his body. More than 85% are third-degree burns. He has no chance of surviving. We don’t expect him to make it through the night. I’m sorry.”

John’s love was baseball, especially the hometown St. Louis Cardinals. The family listened to the Cardinals on radio station KMOX and John idolized legendary Cards announcer Jack Buck. While John struggled for his life, word reached Buck that a young fan desperately needed encouragement. Although the burn center had a strict no-visitors policy, they made an exception when Jack Buck walked in looking for a little boy named John.

Buck scrubbed up, gowned up and sat by John’s bed. “Hey kid, listen to me. You are going to live,” encouraged Buck. “You are going to survive. And when you get out of here, we’ll have John O’Leary Day at Busch Stadium to celebrate. Keep fighting kid.” To the surprise of the burn unit team, John made it through the first week.

A few days later Buck was back. He went by the hospital every day and he brought professional baseball, football and hockey players with him. His presence provided a ray of hope for a family experiencing a nightmare: not only was John burned severely, but their house was also destroyed, Jim had burns on his hands and the girls were emotionally scarred by what they had seen.

John remained on the fourth floor of the burn unit for five months. He was bandaged from head to foot and strapped spread eagle on the bed to prevent movement. He had 24 surgeries, including the amputation of his fingers. The baths, bandage changes and wound cleaning were excruciatingly painful.

A few days after leaving the hospital, John received a baseball from Buck signed by Cardinals shortstop, Ozzie Smith. There was a note, “Kid, if you want a second baseball, you’ll have to write a thank you note to Mr. Smith.” With his fingers amputated John couldn’t write, but Susan held his bandaged hand, and he scribbled a thank you to Ozzie Smith. Three days later, there was another baseball with another note. “Kid, if you want a second baseball, you’ll have to write…”

In July, a month after John left the hospital, Jack Buck and the St. Louis Cardinals hosted John O’Leary Day at Busch Stadium. Buck pushed John’s wheelchair to the Cardinals club house and to the pitcher’s mound for the ceremony. During the game, John sat in the press box with the Hall of Fame announcer. By the time the Cardinals played in the World Series in October, John had received 60 baseballs and sent 60 thank you notes relearning how to write in the process.

In the darkest of times, one man’s voice inspired a little boy and his family to keep fighting. John went on to graduate from St. Louis University and worked as a real estate developer before beginning a career as a motivational speaker. Today 45-year-old John O’Leary is married to Beth, and they have four children. His story has inspired more than 600,000 people worldwide to never give up, even when there seems to be no chance.