Chris Connelly of ESPN’s “E:60″ reports:
At 92, John Shear can still pump out 30 pushups every day at the gym. But the man is hailed as a hero not for his unlikely strength but for his brave heart.
Shear has worked as a guard at the Santa Anita Park racetrack in California for 51 years.
He was keeping his normal watch two years ago, holding a rope across one of the gaps in the paddock fence as racing fans of all ages gathered to watch the horses moments before they took to the track.
“Then I heard someone shout out there was a loose horse,” Shear said.
He shouted to everyone to clear the way.
“I went to one side and when I looked down, there was a little girl standing there,” he recalled.
That little girl was Michael Key’s daughter, 5-year-old Roxy Key. Without thinking twice, Shear jumped in front of Roxy, shielding her from the horse that was barreling toward them.
“Before I could even think to even move, here comes Mr. Shear,” said Michael Key, remembering that fateful day.
“I knew I was going to get hit,” Shear said. “I thought there was a possibility I was going to die but you cannot stop and think should I or shouldn’t I. There is a five-year-old girl. I’m 90-years-old. I have had a life. She hasn’t had a life. You got to save that life.”
The horse ran full speed into the pair, knocking both Shear and Roxy to the ground.
“She got up and I was shaking. I was in shock,” Michael Key said. “And she’s like, ‘I’m fine, papa, I’m fine,’ and then she looked over and saw Mr. Shear on the ground and there was blood hemorrhaging and she lost it, she just lost it.”
Shear remembers that moment. “I heard her say when her dad asked her if she was fine she said, ‘Yes dad, I’m all right.’ I felt better that she was safe.”
Describing what would have happened to his daughter if Shear had not been there to shield her from the blow, Key said, “She would have been dead. It would have crushed her, and I would have had, I would have been holding my dead baby in my arms.”
Critically injured, Shear would spend seven weeks in the hospital. Afterwards, he yearned to see the little girl whose life he’d saved.
“I have always wanted to meet her and I was so sad that I never got the chance to meet her when I got better,” Shear said.
More than two years after their lives intersected, Shear, 92, drove to a ballet studio where the now 8-year-old Roxy was about to perform.
“I kept saying to myself, is that Roxy? Where is she? I was on pins and needles waiting to see her. And when I finally see her come out and dance, it felt so exhilarating I can hardly explain. I felt so emotional in my heart,” Shear said.
Shear described the moment her mother met him for the first time.
“When her mother came over and hugged me and said you’re my daughter’s guardian angel, I felt wonderful,” he said. “There was just something emotional about that.”
Michael Key said, “He didn’t save a daughter, he saved a family.”
Sacrificing himself for a child he had never met before, that’s what makes John Shear America Strong.
This piece originally aired on ESPN’s “E:60.”