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Thursday, April 8, 2010
Gordon thankful for 'Extreme' view

By Marty Smith
ESPN.com

"Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" with guest star Jeff Gordon airs Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

As a society, we generally consider movie stars and singers and athletes our "heroes."

They captivate us with rare and special talent, and as a result influence everything from our fashion sense to our political convictions.

When you really think about it, it's skewed. But I get it. I'm among the contingent that celebrates "celebrities." But what's troubling is we tend to pay little mind to the police officers and firefighters that keep us safe, or the teachers and stay-at-home mothers that raise us well and teach us right from wrong.

We don't champion the everyday. That is, until reality smacks us in the mouth. Tragedy can do it. Triumph, too.

The beauty of the everyday is genuine. It is not contrived. It is truth.

Jeff Gordon is among the contingent that is celebrated almost daily for his professional heroics. His excellence behind the wheel of a racecar invigorates millions, and has for nearly two decades.

For the man living that adoration, it's easy to lose sight of its impact.

That's why moments like those Gordon experienced this January are so fulfilling. They are a stark reminder of one's blessings.

Gordon's dose of reality came courtesy of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." He had watched the show many times and appreciated the work host Ty Pennington and his staff do for those truly in need. So when the opportunity to assist them arose, Gordon didn't hesitate.

Jeff Gordon and Crew carrying furniture
Jeff Gordon helps carry some furniture with other volunteers on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

"When you go through this it makes you really appreciate every day, the good things and the bad things, it makes you see what other people have to go through," Gordon said. "It really puts life in perspective.

"It makes you really love your daughter and your wife and your family, and just be so thankful for what you have, and thankful that there are people out there like that that are willing to give up their time.

"It's just neat to see good people out there doing good things for deserving people. That's what I got out of it the most. It's awesome to know that."

The mission? Build a new home for Derrick and Amanda Suggs of Loris, S.C.

Gordon and the others woke before dawn and met with everyone involved, from television producers to the builders to those charged with destroying the old home. It is a well-oiled machine.

He then joined Pennington on the Home Makeover bus, and began learning about the family, why it was chosen for this project and the emotions that go with it.

"At that point you start to get drawn in," Gordon said. "You get attached to these people, and you haven't even met them yet."

The Suggs are certainly worthy of championing.

The young couple had been raising a son of their own in a run-down home Derrick inherited from his grandfather, who built it in 1953. And when two of Amanda's brothers were on the verge of being separated in foster care, the couple took them in, too.

The mother role is nothing new to Amanda. She has long held it in the eyes of her siblings. The children often were left alone for extended periods of time, and the family moved so often they were rarely in school consistently.

As a result, Amanda dropped out of school in seventh grade.

"She basically took care of all her siblings growing up," Gordon explained. "She had this huge responsibility on her, taking care of all those kids."

At 16, Amanda sought help from her aunt, who obliged and invited into her home Amanda and her two oldest brothers. Three months later, Amanda earned a GED and began community college. At 18, she moved to Myrtle Beach to pursue her education further.

Jeff Gordon inspecting a go-kart
Jeff Gordon gives a go-kart a lookover at the Suggs' house.

She soon met Derrick, and they quickly fell in love and were married. Soon they welcomed firstborn son, Walker, into the family. And not long after that, Amanda's brother Jacob contacted her with troubling news: Her brothers were being taken from their parents and placed in foster care.

She and Derrick didn't hesitate. They opened their doors to the boys.

"[Derrick and Amanda] went from having their own child to having three [more]," Gordon continued. "So all the sudden they're taking care of all these kids in this tiny little beat-up house in South Carolina."

Derrick openly accepted the boys and continues to enjoy mentoring them. But he's much more than father and husband. He's also a devoted public servant. As a Loris police officer, Derrick has taken initiative to improve the relationship between police and community by creating outreach programs with his squad to clean up crime and mentor youth. One of these programs, "Shop with a Cop," provides underprivileged kids a chance to buy toys and clothes.

Last year, he and his partner saved the life of an infant who stopped breathing as his mother drove down the highway. They were nominated for officers of the year.

Obviously, Derrick, 28, and Amanda, 26, had sacrificed their own gains to help others, and it was high-time someone helped them.

Their home was in shambles. The roof leaked and electrical wiring was exposed and the foundation was rotting. Worse yet, the asbestos siding was cracked and weathered.

So Pennington, his staff, Gordon and WWE superstars the Bella Twins, Big Show and R-Truth stepped in.

"It was surreal, man. It was really amazing," Gordon said. "They definitely went through a lot, and struggled. But yet they're amazingly making it work. I don't know how.

"You start going through their home, and you go, 'Oh, my God. How have these people been able to manage, and stay together, and go through the things they're going through like this?' The roof's falling in. The floors … holes in the floor. It's just a really bad environment.

"You wonder how they're this close and working this all out, with all these odds against them. It's just amazing."

For a man accustomed to serving others, it wasn't easy letting others serve him.

Suggs Family
The Suggs family, clockwise from left, Derrick (28 years old), Jacob (17), Jordan (10), Walker (5), Amanda (26) and Mason (9 months), are already in their made-over home.

"It's hard, honestly," Derrick Suggs said. "As a police officer you try to do things for other people, and try to worry about others rather than yourself. I try to be humble. I was raised, 'If you don't work for it, you didn't earn it and don't deserve it. You're not entitled to anything.'

"It was hard to accept it, and let them do that like they did. But it's such a blessing. It's great for my family and kids. I wish I could thank every one of them. They seemed to genuinely care about my family."

Gordon said the Suggs' knew who he was but weren't the biggest NASCAR fans, though 5-year-old Walker was a big fan of cars and had a go-kart.

"They were just so excited about the whole thing, and then they were like, 'Oh, my God! Jeff Gordon!' By the end of it, they were big NASCAR fans," Gordon said. "We bonded."

Did they ever.

"I have to say, he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet," Derrick said of Gordon. "And not just when the camera's on, either. Even when the camera's off, he talked to you, asked about you. You wouldn't expect that from someone of his stature.

"He's up there on the food chain, and he talked to you just like anybody would, as humble a guy as you'll ever meet. People keep asking me, 'What was he like?' It surprised me. You'd think somebody of that stature wouldn't want to talk to you that much. He was as nice, as polite as could be.

"I liked him already as a driver. But as a human being, I like him even more."

A go-kart track and BMX bicycle track were included in "the build," and a car was built in Walker's room. It was an actual racecar, pieced together, a real body and chassis but cut to a smaller scale. Walker has his own racing seat, his own steering wheel, one of the brake-bias adjusters and gauges from Gordon's racecars.

Gordon said construction took one week. He did some sawing and helped complete some rooms, but for the most part "they made it easy on me."

Jeff Gordon and Harry Dill riding bikes
Jeff Gordon gets ahead of builder Harry Dill with ease on the Suggs family's new BMX track.

"I like building stuff," he continued. "I wish they'd let me do a little bit more, but they're under such strict time constraints they couldn't let me do too much. I'd slow them down."

During the week, Gordon had to go to Daytona Beach, Fla., to attend NASCAR's Preseason Thunder fan fest event. He was gone for two days. When he returned, there was basically an entirely new home built.

"It's just mind-boggling what they do in seven days," he said. "I couldn't believe it."

He was also ill-prepared for the emotional component. It is every bit as emotionally charged for the show staff and volunteers as it is for the family that benefits.

"That is absolutely true," Gordon said.

There are hundreds of volunteers, all thankful to be part of the project and many of whom personally know the family. When the time comes to present the new home, emotions overflow. The production staff rallies the community, and the family pulls up.

"There's not a dry eye in the place -- the whole place," Gordon said. "After you've been there for a week, you just can't help but be so overwhelmed for them of what they're getting ready to see, and excited and emotional.

"It's a crazy experience. I told Ty, I don't see how you guys do this every week. I'd be an emotional wreck. It's unreal what you go through, because you can't help but get tied so closely into it."

How could you not? It's a story about good, honest, regular people getting their due.

That's worth celebrating.

Suggs Family Home
The finished product after "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" was done with the Suggs family.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.