'Smoked,' but not by stroke

'Smoked,' but not by stroke

CHAMPAIGN — The air temperature was 94 degrees, and it was at least 10 degrees hotter on the Memorial Stadium turf when U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and 12-year-old Jackson Cunningham lined up for a 40-yard dash in front of about 20 University of Illinois football players and other observers.

Both Kirk and the Oakwood Junior High student are stroke victims, and the senator said he had challenged Jackson to a race "to try to smoke him on the big field in Champaign here."

But Kirk admitted that "Jackson smoked me." In the time that Jackson sprinted 40 yards alongside UI offensive lineman Michael Heitz on Monday, Kirk was able to walk about 5 yards, with the help of a cane.

He was OK with that.

"When you see that running, it's amazing. It shows what the team at Carle can do," Kirk said of Jackson's rehabilitation at the Urbana hospital. "When you think about a post-stroke victim to get one foot in front of the other, it's a pretty big achievement. But Jackson, he can already run and kick the butt of a senator."

Jackson suffered his stroke in 2011; Kirk's came about a year later.

"He's been my inspiration," Kirk said of the youth. "I'm constantly talking to my physical therapist, 'Can I run? Can I run?' Constantly asking if my team can get me in a position to run because I set this goal to smoke him. I knew he was really good at running. Once I saw a fellow stroke patient running really well, that really inspired me."

Kirk, who is often in a wheelchair but walked more than 100 yards on the scorching turf late Monday afternoon, said he felt "OK" after the race.

"I don't do well in the heat, but Jackson does well in the heat," he joked.

The senator, who will turn 55 next month, acknowledged that the episode could be perceived as a message to would-be political challengers in 2016.

"To go, go, go. I'm going to be running like crazy," Kirk said. "I don't know if you've seen how many communities I've been to in the last couple of days" during Congress' August recess.

Kirk believes he has improved "mentally and verbally a lot" after his stroke, and is making physical progress as well.

"Right after my stroke, it took me 18 minutes to walk to the nearby water tower next to my house" in Fort Sheridan, Kirk said. "Now it's six minutes."

Before the stroke, he walked the distance in "about four minutes."

Kirk said he does rehabilitation sessions "about every two weeks" in either Illinois or Washington, D.C.

He also said he was glad to work with his 12-year-old friend "to bring more awareness about strokes. Jackson and I, we want to make sure that more people know how to diagnose it, using the FAST system — face, arms, speech, touch. If you have a problem in those areas, you could be experiencing a stroke. For every 10 minutes you wait, it can mean extra month of rehab."

Also Monday, Kirk warned Americans not to underestimate the Islamic state terrorists who last week beheaded freelance American journalist James Foley and released a video of it.

"It's as dangerous as Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, says. The problem is that ISIS has an oil income of about $2 million a day, so they can now use that to start a training and acquisition program for any kind of terrorist attacks," Kirk said.

He said he "took very seriously" a television news report last week that indicated that ISIS had threatened a building on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

"I take that very serious because we remember the early days of the war on terror with al Qaeda mentioning the Sears Tower," he said. "We would be horribly naive to think that we were completely immune from these guys."

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