September 1, 2014
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The Underdogs Win

Stirring tales of four local people who beat the odds in very different ways.

Photography by Erik Kellar

In sports, when we don't have a team in the game, usually we root for the underdog. Well in life, we do the same. And in Southwest Florida, we are occasionally introduced to people who have more than overcome the obstacles in front of them, inspiring our community with their tenacity, grace, skill and, ultimately, success. We take away from these men and women that anything can  be conquered, whether it's a comeback, continuance or first-time venture.

Eddie Murray Basketball forward, Florida Gulf Coast University

We all know this year’s biggest Cinderella story: In their first ever NCAA tournament appearance, the FGCU men’s basketball team makes history as the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16. The ride from unknown school to major bracket upset thrusts the Eagles into national spotlight, putting FGCU on the map and capturing hearts across the county and country.

Lesser known is the underdog story within—the individual triumph of the Eagles’ “sixth man.” Redshirt senior Eddie Murray hails from North Fort Myers, the Eagles’ only hometown hoopster. He won dunk competitions for Bishop Verot before contributing to FGCU’s “Dunk City” handle, but wasn’t a prized recruit coming out of high school. The 6-foot-8 forward had a less-than-stellar first few years at FGCU, and still didn’t garner much buzz with his stats this season—he started only three times and averaged just 3.8 points per game.

Yet Murray was essential to the Eagles’ dazzling flight to March Madness.

“I kind of grew into a leader on this team,” he says. “Freshman and sophomore year I was pretty quiet, and then I slowly started to take the younger
guys under my wing.”

He accepted the role and embraced it, becoming invaluable both on and off the pine.

“I understand what we need on the team,” Murray says of his five years as an Eagle.

Ending his college career on such a high note was “an awesome way to go out,” he says. “I had people coming up to me in public saying, ‘This is the greatest thing Fort Myers has ever seen.’ Even when we lost, they were so proud of us.”

After hanging up his Eagles jersey, the athlete will tackle a different ballgame. “I’m playing baseball now,” he says. “My whole life I played baseball, and right before high school I shot up a bit, so I (tried) basketball.”

Murray went undrafted in the Major League Baseball draft in June, but plans to explore independent baseball. Wherever he ends up, he says, he will continue to follow the Eagles.

“I plan on being around for a lot of the home games,” he says. “If I get shipped out anywhere, hopefully it will be a city our conference is in.”

Amy Ofenbeck E-commerce clerk, shopgoodwill.com

Asked to recall her latest surgery, Amy Ofenbeck looks to a page-long printout of her medical history. She has undergone eight brain and spinal operations since suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm in 1997, she explains, and she is left with short-term memory loss and physical limitations.

“I was working out at the gym when I just collapsed,” she says. “From my understanding, it was a birth defect … and it was just a matter of time before something was going to happen.”

She was 26, only nine months into her marriage and fresh on the job as an ABC-7 reporter and news anchor for Waterman Broadcasting. The aneurysm was just the first of seemingly endless derailing setbacks. But despite repeated complications and constant challenges, Ofenbeck maintains an infectious optimism.

“I’m just happy to be alive,” she says. “I’m just happy to be here.”

Sixteen years after the rupture, Ofenbeck still uses a cane to walk. She has a hard time remembering where she parks the car, and she takes six different medications to manage chronic pain. Her latest surgery—and most difficult to recover from—was in 2004.

“I was in physical therapy for six months just so I could walk again,” she says. “That was scary at first, but then once I started physical therapy it was like, ‘OK, I gotta do this. Let’s do it.’”

She now is able not only to walk, but exercise, drive and hold a part-time job.

Ofenbeck had to give up her journalism career, but found a new fulfillment at the regional Goodwill headquarters in North Fort Myers, where she uploads high-end donations to its auction website, shopgoodwill.com.

“I’m the type of person that I have to work,” she says. “I love what I’m doing here.”

Her husband, Todd, has supported her every step. Ofenbeck takes pride in her progress—like perfecting the balance it takes to empty the dishwasher—and even chooses to see a silver lining in her memory problem: If she has a rough day today, she forgets about it tomorrow.

“I figure, I’ve made it through everything so far,” she says. “Bring it on!”

 

Lazaro Arbos Finalist, American Idol

At his American Idol audition, Lazaro Arbos introduced himself with a significant stutter. The judges were kind, but noticeably skeptical—until he sang. A crystal-clear rendition of Bridge over Troubled Water earned Arbos a unanimous “yes” from the superstar judges.

“I saw my whole life dream in front of my face,” he says. “It was amazing.”

His voice took him all the way to sixth place, crowning him the season’s last male standing. And if his background is any indication of his strength, the 21-year-old will prove more than just a flash in the pan.

Arbos’ stutter began when he was 6. It got much worse when he moved to Naples from Cuba at age 10, at one point so strong that his mother spoke for him.

“I always went to therapy, but it was kind of a roller coaster,” he says.

People would ignore him because they couldn’t understand him, and he had few friends. When he couldn’t get his point across, his mother would ask him to sing it to her.

“I knew I always wanted to become a singer, and I always wanted to do something big with my life,” he says, “so I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to let anything stop me.’”

He says his Idol journey gave him the self-confidence and courage he needed.

“A lot of what stuttering is really about is being self-conscious and anxiety,” he says. “Idol definitely helped me improve my stutter because I developed tougher skin and ways to calm my nerves.”

Arbos also developed a seriously devoted fan base, and gained lifelong friends in his fellow contestants.

He doesn’t feel his dream ended with his elimination. After a 40-show tour with the rest of the Idol finalists this summer, he wants to sign with a record label and appear on Glee.

“Winning would have been amazing, but at the same time I feel that you don’t really have to win to be successful and to get yourself out there,” he says. “I think being on the show gave me a really good start.”  

Photography by Michael Becker/Fox

 

Kathryn Kelly President and CEO, the Heights Foundation
Kathryn Kelly grew up just down the road from Harlem Heights. Her father, a farmer, employed his field hands from the Fort Myers community.

“The farmland gave way to developments,” she says. “The residents of the community lost their livelihoods, and they didn’t have another skill set to go to. That next generation fell into poverty, and once that happens it’s very difficult to get out.”

In 2000, Kelly took a “sharp right-hand turn” off her architecture and project management career path and returned to her roots. She established the Heights Foundation, providing Harlem Heights residents with education and enrichment—and a chance at self-sufficiency.

“I did an outreach with my church and met a family, and it was because of meeting that family that I decided to start the foundation,” she says.

She describes a situation in which eight people shared two bedrooms and the mother would tie bags of groceries to the ceiling fan to protect their food from invading rats.

“Statistics tell us where they were going,” Kelly says of the family’s six children.

Next, she set her sights on a community center. But she would have the rug pulled from beneath her mission more than once. Two years into planning, an organization revoked its vowed land donation. Kelly switched gears to a five-acre property and embarked upon a $5.5 million project. A philanthropist wrapped up the campaign with a $4 million pledge, and construction began in January 2008.

“If you remember what was going on in the world at that time, the economy crashed,” she says. “In May, the donor withdrew his pledge.”

The 14,000-square-foot building stood empty for four years. But with the encouragement and support of many, Kelly and an advisory committee rallied to reevaluate their goals and raise another $4 million—this time gaining numerous stakeholders.

As of December, the Heights Center stands a completed structure at the heart of the community it serves. The building has allowed the foundation to grow its programs, its staff and its impact.

“Every kid that wants to come here, we want to be able to come here,” Kelly says. “That is my absolute goal. I don’t want to ever say, ‘We don’t have room for you.’”

 

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