Jeff Seidel: Mountain climber takes his Lions support to top of Mt. Everest
November 30, 2012 Jeffrey Gottfurcht shows off a Lions banner at the summit of Mt. Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America. His dad grew up a Lions fan in Michigan. / Courtesy of the Jeffrey Gottfurcht Children's Arth
One member of his team died and another lost his fingers and toes to frostbite as Jeffrey Gottfurcht attempted to climb Mt. Everest.
Gottfurcht's face was chapped and windburned, and he temporarily lost vision in his left eye.
Every step hurt.
No, it was more than that. Every step brought indescribable pain. In his knees. His ankles. His hips. It was like all of the lubrication was drained from his joints, replaced with rusty hinges.
"That's kind of what it feels like to have rheumatoid arthritis," said Gottfurcht, who was diagnosed with the chronic disease in 2001. "There is no lubrication, and it's extremely painful."
As he tried to climb Everest for the second time -- his first attempt in 2010 failed -- he carried two banners in his backpack.
A Lions banner.
And another banner from the Jeffrey Gottfurcht Children's Arthritis Foundation, which he founded in 2009 to grant wishes to kids with the disease.
Gottfurcht reached the summit May 14, 2011, staying for just 1 1/2 minutes because he was so weak and needed to get down the mountain to get treatment on his eye. He lost vision because he was climbing at night, and his headlamp stopped working and he had to remove his goggles for several hours. A 50-m.p.h. wind blinded him temporarily.
"Nothing could keep me from my goal," said Gottfurcht, 39, who lives near San Francisco. "No amount of punishment was too much to take. No amount of suffering could stop me. I didn't care about the pain."
Gottfurcht is believed to be the first person with rheumatoid arthritis to climb Mt. Everest. Everest is in the Mahalangur section of the Himalayas. The international border between China and Nepal runs across the summit point.
And it is safe to say he is the first person with rheumatoid arthritis to climb Everest with a Lions banner in his backpack.
As a general rule, Lions fans aren't allowed to climb such heights for fear they will jump out of frustration.
Football gives back
Gottfurcht's foundation grants dreams and wishes to children with arthritis, similar to the way the Make-A-Wish Foundation does for children who have life-threatening medical conditions.
"Most of the kids want to go to Hawaii, so we do a lot of trips to Hawaii or Disneyland," he said. "We help pay for college education. Computers. Birthday parties."
Which brings us back to the Lions. Today, Gottfurcht will bring two brothers from Michigan to watch the Lions practice, then host them at the game Sunday.
The boys' family did not grant permission to release their names, but Gottfurcht shared an e-mail he received from the mother.
She told Gottfurcht that she had just filled out paperwork at the boys' school, listing all the things they can't do.
"We are so looking forward to this weekend," she wrote. "It's hard to sit and list all the things you can't do and need assistance with. I believe this is truly the light at the end of this week's tunnel."
The Lions do these meet-and-greets throughout the year. A few weeks ago, the team hosted the family of a police officer who was killed in action and several military members who fought in Iraq.
To the players, it's just a few minutes of their time as they sign autographs, pose for pictures and do a little small talk.
To the people who go to a practice and stand on the field and meet the players, it means everything.
This is the power of the NFL. But it also shows how a sports team can make a difference in a community and beyond. Gottfurcht praised the Lions for backing his foundation because it helps raise awareness about a disease that affects 300,000 kids across the country.
"It's sad when you need an entity like that to validate a disease," he said. "Most people in the general public don't know that kids can get arthritis. We aren't talking about the type of arthritis where you get old and your knees hurt. This is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints."
Gottfurcht became a Lions fan at birth.
His father, John Gottfurcht, grew up in Michigan and was a die-hard Lions fan. John Gottfurcht moved to California in the late 1950s -- after the Lions' last title in 1957 -- and the family still blames him for the Lions' drought.
"In Los Angeles, we actually had a satellite dish, 25 or 30 years ago, and it was the size of an automobile, because my dad would watch Lions games every weekend," Gottfurcht said. "I love the Lions more than anything."
The banner Gottfurcht carried to the top of Mt. Everest hangs on a wall in the Lions' practice facility in Allen Park. He presented it to the team last year.
Gottfurcht's goal is to climb the highest peak on all seven continents. In January, he climbed the highest mountain in South America.
"When I got up there, the first picture was of the Lions banner," he said. "Everyone was like, 'Why the Lions banner? Why not the North Face banner?' "
Next January, he will attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa. A Lions banner, of course, will be going with him.
Contact Jeff Seidel: 313-223-4558 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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