For Mark Keys, the pen is mightier than the scalpel.
Thirty-four surgeries on his back and legs, coupled with a host of other ailments, have left the onetime boat rigger unable to work and largely homebound since 1991.
His physical problems have led to an unusual and consuming hobby. He writes letters to celebrities both obvious and obscure — athletes, actors, singers and other newsmakers — looking for insight and inspiration, or simply to make a connection with people he admires. By his estimate, he's written about 10,000 of the letters, always with a self-addressed return envelope, and seldom is there a day when he doesn't receive at least one response.
"I've been doing this since 1990, and I've never had one person say, 'Get out of here,' or be rude to me. Ever," said Keys, 54, who walks with a slight limp but otherwise is able to get around his Costa Mesa condominium pretty well. "My wife says it's because of the way I am."
In his handwritten letters to them, he asks one question: "What was your best day?" The best responses cover virtually every inch of wall space (including some ceilings) of the home he shares with his wife and two teenage daughters. He has published six books of "My Best Day" responses, with a seventh on the way.
Dean Martin wrote him back. So did his favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, who doodled a rabbit for him after Keys told him he loved the movie "Harvey."
Ditka got back to Keys shortly after he was hired as coach of the New Orleans Saints. Former Penn State coach Joe Paterno wrote him back during the season, as did Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, and NFL players Lomas Brown and Marcellus Wiley.
Even though he seldom uses a computer, Keys has become an expert at sleuthing addresses and getting ahold of people through agents, movie studios, sports teams, and the like.
"I used to write people just to get their autographed picture, just something to do to keep busy," Keys said. "After I came up with the 'My Best Day' idea, I'd be watching a Burt Lancaster movie and think, 'Oh, I've got to write him. See if I can get ahold of him.' I'd write to them through their agents, and these people started writing me back, sending me autographed pictures and little notes. It was so cool."
Many of the responses he gets are similar, people whose best day was meeting their spouse, or the birth of their child. But some best days are less predictable.
Chuck Bednarik, a Hall of Fame linebacker with the Philadelphia Eagles, wrote: "As a young aerial gunner on a B-24 Liberator during WWII, after coming back from Germany on my thirtieth and final mission — I kissed the ground and it was all over — I survived."
Legendary running back Walter Payton wrote: "The day my son inducted me into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, on July 31, 1993, in Canton, Ohio. It meant a great deal to have my son by my side and be part of a very special occasion. I felt emotions that no record or championship could ever bring."
For Keys, a root canal is nothing. He was a healthy kid growing up in and around Newport Beach, did a lot of body surfing, could dunk a basketball. But he suffered a back injury at work in 1991 that eventually required surgery. Not long afterward, his ankles went. Then, his knees had to be replaced. He was nearly killed in a head-on car accident, and got last rites from a priest after an infection almost cost him his left leg and his life. A few years ago, his body stopped producing adrenaline and testosterone. In short, he's had an avalanche of ailments.
What's noticeable about Keys, though, is a distinct lack of self-pity. He's upbeat and passionate about his family, and his letter writing. He has donated a third of his modest book profits to various charities. With his recent best day book involving USC athletes, a third of the profits went to the school, a third went to a charity helping former players down on their luck, and he kept the rest.
"It's something that's given him a purpose," said his wife, Laurie. "He looks forward to the mail. He looks forward to the next book. He could sit in bed and say, 'Oh, poor me.' But he doesn't. He makes the best of every day, gets up every day and does his therapy, and spends his time researching, looking up addresses, writing these letters, then getting the reward of getting them published. ... "
"And we're still waiting for the big payout," her husband interjects.
In a sense — and Keys knows this — the payout has already come.