Jeff Harig knows the first rule of show business is give the audience what it wants.
So, when some students at Kingsbury Country Day School asked him to remove his legs, he obliged.
Harig is a bilateral below-knee amputee who works on movies and television shows as a stuntman.
“I am the guy that gets beat up and makes everybody (else) look good,” said 45-year-old resident of the Village of Britton, which is near Tecumseh in Lenawee County.
Harig has performed stuntwork in many films. Some of the bigger ones include Real Steel, a 2011 movie about robot boxers starring Hugh Jackman, and Deadpool, a 2016 movie starring actor Ryan Reynolds as an antihero mercenary from Marvel Comics.
In Real Steel, he said there’s a brief shot of him among a crowd of fight fans, waving a prosthetic leg in one hand and an adult beverage in the other.
“You’ve got to pay really close attention, but you’ll catch me,” Harig said.
Harig was visiting the charter public school in Addison Township as part of its Make a Difference Day activities (see Page 14). Students spent the morning learning what it would be like to live without a leg or an arm or their eyesight.
Harig’s message to students was simple.
“The only thing that can stop any of you from doing anything is you,” he said. “If you want to do something bad enough, do it.”
He compared life to a “blank book.”
“It’s your job to write your story because in the end, all you have are your stories,” said Harig, who grew up in a rural community in Monroe County.
Harig’s story begins in 1984, when at the age of 12, he was run over by a train.
“I was too close to it when it was going by and I slipped on the ice,” he said.
After he was hit, Harig managed to drag himself about 25 to 30 yards to a ditch. There, he cried and yelled for help.
Fortunately, a “superhero” heard him and came to the rescue. A man named Larry, who had served as a medic during the Vietnam War, quickly packed snow around Harig’s wounds and kept throwing snow in his face, so he wouldn’t fall asleep.
Harig survived, but he was now missing both his ankles and feet.
His body was forever changed, but not his world. He was an active, “curious” kid before the accident and he continued to be so after. He gives a lot of credit to his family for that.
“My family didn’t change their life for me,” Harig said. “My family never did anything different because I got hurt. They didn’t let me be disabled. They didn’t hold me back.”
Because of that, “I was walking within a month after the accident.”
Harig was also driving everything he could get his hands on, from dirt bikes and tractors to all-terrain vehicles and trucks.
“The rule was if you could start it, you could drive it,” he said.
He also surrounded himself with active friends. Whatever they did, he did it, too.
“The only thing that ever stopped me from doing something was myself,” Harig said. “Luckily, that didn’t happen a lot.”
“I’m a Type A personality without my feet. I couldn’t imagine myself with my feet,” he quipped.
All this helped Harig realize he’s “no different than anybody else.”
“You guys get up and put your shoes on. I get up and put my legs on,” he told students.
“I’ve had my prosthetics longer than I had my real legs, so I kind of don’t even remember what it was like to have real legs,” Harig continued. “In my head, this is normal.”
Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see people with disabilities. But that wasn’t the case back in the 1980s.
“You didn’t see us on TV. You didn’t see people with disabilities out and about,” Harig said. “It’s not because society was bad. It was because the products (such as prosthetics) weren’t really good.”
His first prosthetics were “two wooden legs”
“I walked around like a pirate,” Harig said.
Seeing a wheelchair-bound person in a print ad for a new Wal-Mart store was a revelation for him.
“That was the first time I’d seen anybody like me,” he said.
Harig expressed his gratitude to Kingsbury students for their current fund-raising efforts to purchase prosthetic legs for people around the world (see related story on Page 14).
“As someone who’s an amputee, I want to thank you guys for what you’re doing,” he said. “You’re going to change their life.”
“I think everybody should have two legs, even if you have to buy them,” Harig noted.