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Sunday, August 29, 2010
Updated: August 31, 1:35 PM ET
Chance encounter sparks friendship

By Ben Hobbs
ESPN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Bill Hansbury is a skinny man, roughly 6 feet tall, with friends in Florida who call him Boston Bill because his accent comes through when he talks about his Massachusetts roots.

Boston Bill
Boston Bill bikes more than 200 miles every week.

A former smoker and drinker, Hansbury, 72, started running more than 40 years ago and has logged marathons and hundreds of road races since. The running was just a start, though.

"I ride a bike about seven days a week," Bill says, smiling, "and I run anywhere from three to five days a week."

Jacob Bainter is a skinny, 10-year-old boy from Orlando, Fla., who plays basketball, rides a motor scooter, knee-boards and loves fishing for bluegill and bass.

"Did my package come?" he asks one day while waiting at home for some action figures. He's deep into watching "Ben 10."

It's one of those things that you can't really explain how or why it happened, but it did. Two-and-a-half years ago, Boston Bill and Jake randomly crossed paths, and since then, Bill and the Boy have become friends, inspiring each other and helping each other cope through the ups and downs of being amputees.

The accident

You can see the pain on Jake's father's face when you ask about the accident.

"I created my own demons that I dealt with and still do," Brett Bainter said.

Jake Bainter
Jake at age 2½.

In April 2004, Brett was mowing the lawn while Jake was riding his bike in the driveway as his nanny watched over him.

"As I passed Jake in the driveway, I waved," Brett recalled. "And unbeknownst to me, Jake had gotten off his bike. And I traveled probably about 30, 40 yards, and at that end there was an obstruction that was at the end of the path, and I needed to reverse. To turn around.

"I placed the mower in reverse, and I reversed. I felt something underneath the lawn mower that I did not feel moving in the forward direction. I looked down, and underneath the mower deck I saw the upper torso of Jake sticking out of the mower deck."

Brett picked the mower off Jake and was able to get help from a neighbor who is a nurse. Jake was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. His mom, Jodi, was at work when the accident happened.

"Thankfully I wasn't there," she said.

"I pick up the phone, and Brett is screaming … and he said, 'I have done something terribly bad. I've done something, the worst thing a dad could ever do."

Once at the hospital, Jodi helped answer questions by the staff. Brett had gone into shock.

Jake, Brett and Jodi Bainter (l to r) August 2004
Jake, Brett and Jodi Bainter in August 2004.

Jake's leg was severely damaged. Imagine an ice cream scoop taking out muscle and tissue from your knee to your hip with your toes being amputated, and you know what happened.

Over about four years, Jake endured 16 surgeries. His parents were hoping his leg would be able to support him throughout his life. With each surgery they realized that might not be the case.

"The rotor blades in the lawn mower damaged his knee, so he lost a lot of movement and motion," Brett said. "Ultimately, after the accident, his leg grew, and it angled out from the knee to his ankle -- angled away from his body. It was not functioning well, and it was almost a bigger problem for him to have than not to have."

Jodi and Brett started investigating the possibility of amputation. Without telling Jake their reasoning, they started introducing him to amputees.

Jake Bainter
Jake wore a brace to help protect it from injury. This picture was taken two weeks before surgery in February 2008.

"With Jake we said, 'We just want to show you that people live differently and we want to show you how some people live, and you could live that way or you could not,'" Jodi said. "'We just need to see what works for us.'"

Ultimately, it was Jake who made the decision. One day during share time at school, Jake told his classmates that he was going to become an amputee. His teacher called Jodi to make her aware of the event.

"We were speechless," Jodi recalled. "We couldn't believe it. But he was prepared. Jake could see himself running."

The next few months were filled with more questions than answers for Brett and Jodi. Although they knew amputation was the best course of action for Jake's future, they hoped they were making the correct decision.

Boston Bill's journey

Boston Bill was a traveling salesman who used to drive around in an RV selling clothes. He'd set up a bar inside that helped seal more than one deal.

He became a fitness fanatic after a visit from a friend who had started running and looked in noticeably better condition.

But Boston Bill developed a staph infection in his right leg, which eventually led to amputation just below the knee.

Just days after being released from the hospital, he was using a hand-crank bike. Later, he started a foundation, bostonbill.org, a nonprofit that seeks to raise money to buy prosthetic legs for those who cannot afford them on their own.

This past spring, Bill returned to the hospital. The infection -- MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) -- had returned, this time in his left foot.

"Luckily I'm only going to lose a few toes this time," he said at the time. "I'll be out of here soon and running and biking in a few weeks."

The meeting

It happened Feb. 19, 2008. Jake and his parents were on their way to pick up his grandparents, then off to the hospital for his amputation surgery. They turned a corner and saw a group of men standing on the side of the road next to their bikes. One of them, an amputee, was Boston Bill. He had stopped because his bike cleats had malfunctioned and he needed help releasing from them.

Jake Bainter
Jake rests following one of his 16 surgeries after the lawn mower accident.

Bill remembered, "At that particular point, a young couple pulled up in their SUV, and the husband had said to me, 'I saw you riding with your prosthetic leg,' and he said, 'I turned around. I wanted to come back and talk to you.'"

Brett turned the vehicle around and pulled up to Boston Bill and his two friends. Brett, Jodi and Jake got out and introduced themselves as the Bainter family.

Bill recalled their telling him they were on their way to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and that Jake was going to lose his right leg. They told him they couldn't imagine what Jake was feeling.

"So, I talked to him about what was happening to me -- he was 7, I was 70 -- and I thought as soon as he's got that surgery behind him, and he has that leg with him, he's going to be in good shape," Bill said.

The meeting was just what Brett and Jodi had been looking for.

"He wasn't just an amputee, he was an amputee living life, fully functional, all the things that we wanted for our son," Jodi said. "So he was the perfect example of final validation for us on the way to this crazy, monumental journey."

Jodi then took a photo of Jake and Boston Bill.

"I had no idea that picture would get frozen in time and mean so much to us over the years to come," she said.

The meeting lasted only a few minutes.

Bill and Jake
Bill and Jake on the day of Jake's surgery, Feb. 19, 2008.

"To this day, I believe that was somebody else making that appointment -- setting that appointment up," Brett said. "That's pretty powerful."

Two days later, Bill arrived at the hospital to see his new friend and relay some added information from their meeting.

"I got back on my bike, and I clicked back into those pedals," Bill said, "I was not thinking about the pedals or why I had stopped. I was thinking about that little boy. But the pedals worked fine. That was two years ago. They have worked fine ever since."

The Bainters were blown away.

"We were hugging and crying," Jodi said. "It made it even more beautiful and perfect, and we were really grateful. We were grateful that we met Bill, we were grateful that he showed up that day, and he has just become a friend of ours now and he will be around in our family forever."

Jake is forthright about how his situation has changed.

"I could run before the surgery and then I couldn't," Jake said. "After surgeries, I always had a brace or a cast. I used wheelchairs and I had a walker. I had the amputation so I could run better. Now I can run faster."

For Jake, changing in and out of his prosthetic is as simple as taking shoes on and off.

A family gathering

Boston Bill & Jake Bainter
Bill helped present Jake with his new running leg at a Challenged Athletes Foundation event in San Diego in October 2009.

By June, Bill was back riding his bike daily and had just started running again. During a family gathering at the Bainter home in Orlando, he and Jake meshed like old friends. They share a special bond through the loss of a limb.

"The biggest thing that I saw happen with Jake," Bill said, "and I likened it to when you see a tree and it has some dead limbs on it and the tree is never growing -- when that limb was removed in that year, it was amazing how Jake just grew up. He just suddenly sprouted right up."

Said Jodi: "Bill has really helped encourage Jake as an amputee because Bill understands what Jake's potential is. He pushes Jake to try and do maybe more than he would."

Jake added, "I'm glad I met Boston Bill. He's my friend."

Ben Hobbs is a producer in ESPN's Event/Studio Feature Unit. ESPN reporter Greg Garber contributed to this report.