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Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Life of Reilly®

By Rick Reilly
ESPN The Magazine

It's been almost A year since the dinghy nearly sank the battleship, since the stand-in nearly stole the movie, since golf nearly went giddily, happily nuts.

That was during last year's U.S. Open Monday playoff, when a Joe PotRoast kind of guy named Rocco Mediate took America on a joyride—and Tiger Woods to the 91st hole—before finally losing.

But here's the weird thing: The world acts like he won.

For instance, the next week, he's at the airport, waiting for his connection. (He's a guy named Rocco who hits it 280 tops, has very little hair and quite a lot of butt. You think he's got his own jet?) He's exhausted and dozes off. When he wakes up, there are 15 people staring down at him. "I felt like some kind of panda at the zoo," says Mediate, 46. "I opened one eye and said, 'Yeah, it's me.' " Nobody does that to Tiger. Nobody!

It's been almost a year since he's had to buy a drink. Almost a year since he's gone a full day without hearing, "Thanks for last summer, Roc!" Almost a year since the guy who looks like a plumber nearly flushed the god of golf. And yet people keep patting him on the back like his name's on the trophy.

"That day meant a lot to me. I don't know if it meant much to Tiger, but it meant a lot to me." He's tried to talk with Tiger about it, but no luck. "I want to ask him what he thought of Monday. And Sunday. Nobody does that to him. Nobody!"

Sure, some wise guy will crack, "How'd it feel losing to a one-legged guy, Roc?" But he always answers, "Look, he hit it 335 off the 18th tee on Monday. He wasn't dying."

Mostly, Mediate has become America's favorite loser. "He can't go into a Starbucks without 10 people telling him where they were that day," says Mediate's best friend, Cindi Hilfman, the physical therapist who fixed his back in 2007, when all seemed hopeless. "I think it's the joy he showed. Everybody else in that situation looks like they're going to puke. But not Rocco. He looked like he was having a great time."

Into Mediate's life since then have come 10 times the endorsements, 10 times the fame, a role in the next edition of Woods' video game, a White House barbecue, a new book and 10 silos full of confidence. But mostly what's come into his life are hundreds of letters, of which this one is his favorite:

Rocco:

On May 30, 2008, my youngest daughter, Allison, was on the way home from [high school] graduation practice when she was involved in a wreck. I forever lost her that day. Friends and family who had come to see a joyous event … ended up attending a funeral.

Losing a child is every bit the hell people say it is. The days that followed were the darkest of my life. I stayed at home … and I found myself watching the [golf] tournament for some unknown reason.

Slowly, I became captivated. I found myself pulling for you—and I had never even heard of you. I got something out of the way you handled the outcome that I'll never forget. It's something that helps me to this day. You showed me that it is possible to lose and yet not be beaten.

I have lost and lost big, but I am not licked. That Monday was a big day for me. I picked something up that helped me get back on my feet that I still lean on. It was not only what you did but how you did it—with grace, poise, dignity and charm. Watching the highlights made me remember and prompted me to say thank you.

--John Ray, Longview, Texas

And now Mediate could use something to lean on. Cindi is in the fight of her life, with congenital kidney disease. "Nobody's giving me a timeline," she says, "but if I could get a new one within six months, it would be … wonderful."

Cindi is drilled by constant pain so bad she controls her own morphine meds and is continuously in and out of the hospital. Her suffering is Mediate's suffering. "He's got people all over the world trying to help," she says. "He's calling Callaway, doctors, friends—anyone to come up with a plan for me."

Great golf opens doors, even medical ones, and Mediate will need it when the Open comes to Bethpage, N.Y. on June 18. Luckily, he's hitting it straighter than a Kansas highway. "Man, I'd like to be in that final group with Tiger again," Mediate says. "And take him."

Because the only thing better than losing with charm is winning with it.

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