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A survivor, Gladfelter savors life's adventures

This article originally appeared in the York Daily Record as part of "The Greatest Athletes" series in October 2008. 

Rod Gladfelter spent four nights a week last winter in a sleeping bag outside of his home.

It was part of his preparation for running a 100-mile ultra-marathon in Alaska — in below-zero temperatures in February.

Gladfelter, it seems, is experiencing an athletic awakening of sorts at age 50.

It’s been more than three decades since he was arguably the greatest two-sport athlete in the history of York County Tech.

He went on to play Division II football at Liberty University before earning a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys.

Ever since, he’s taught school, coached football, flown airplanes, hunted ducks and fished for tuna and marlin — and recovered from a severe spinal cord injury.

But now he’s raised the intensity.

What started as a way to lose some extra pounds has now grown into a two-day, ultra-marathon quest in which contestants must pull a survivor’s sled in case they are trapped in a blizzard.

To train, Gladfelter is running 7 miles every other day — including sometimes jogging from his home in New Salem to his job teaching physical education at York Township Elementary. He not only slept outside but has often gone for midnight training runs — anything to help acclimate himself to the cold he will face in Alaska.

In July, he ran his first ultra-marathon, a 30-miler in 95-degree heat with 5,000-foot inclines in West Virginia. He finished in 7 hours, 15 minutes. Last month he finished about 35 miles of a 50-mile race in severe heat and humidity at Codorus State Park.

Of course, this is the guy who went on a 300-mile bike ride into Virginia with a buddy when he was 13.

“It’s the adventurous part of me,” he said of the ultra-marathon. “It’s something you do alone, in the wilderness. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal.”

• • •

The photograph, in all of its 1970s glory, still hangs high above the lockers in the hallway of York Tech.

Gladfelter is posed in a football uniform, his long, wavy reddish-blonde hair blowing in the wind. A football is in his right hand, as if he is ready to throw a make-believe pass.

He laughs about it now.

“I had a set of lineman shoulder pads for the picture. I just threw on some green socks. I had a loose pair of pants, and they said, ‘Here’s your football shirt.’ I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ It was November and overcast and the wind was blowing like 30 mph.

“It was just a bad picture day.”

But what a wonderful time, though.

York Tech was a new school back then, and, even though its teams were never large, it did attract enough star athletes and enjoyed some surprising success.

Gladfelter was one of the best.

He was a star center fielder and pitcher on the baseball team, but it was football where he truly made headlines. He was an honorable mention all-state pick as a senior quarterback with about 1,300 passing yards and close to 900 more rushing. He was a standout defensive back, too. And he kicked and punted.

“He was our Jim Thorpe,” said Gene Fake, his coach then.

Gladfelter went on to star at defensive back at Liberty University in Virginia before that tryout with the Cowboys.

Then came his career as a welder — and the spinal cord injury that nearly changed his life in the most tragic way.

• • •

Three hundred pounds of steel fell on him at a Lancaster job site, compressing his spine and blowing out two disks. Surgery that was supposed to last four hours drug on for 16. He said doctors told him that they lost him twice in the operating room. He was paralyzed from the neck down for a few days until swelling around his spine subsided.

He worked himself back through a year of therapy.

“Every day I wake up and move my hands and feet I say, ‘Thank you, God.’”

That’s when he turned to teaching and assistant football coaching jobs at Spring Grove and Dallastown, where he is the defensive coordinator of the varsity team.

Then he learned to fly airplanes, starting with lessons four years ago at the York Airport.

Certainly, he is a busy man these days.

Aside from teaching, coaching and flying, he also welds tanks part-time at BAE Systems — using his vocational degree.

And he does motivational speaking at high schools, colleges and businesses.

Now, he’s preparing for his biggest race at age 50.

His days at York Tech, it seems, have motivated him as much as anything — kids from all over the county bonding together to win some football and baseball games they weren’t expected to win.
“It was a springboard,” he said.