Blade runner trying to regain momentum


It was high noon at CES, the annual consumer electronics buzzfest, and Steven C. Barber was looking for a pretty woman with man hands. If you have walked the convention center floor during CES, you know this is like finding a needle in Don King’s bouffant. Perhaps the man hands will make her easier to spot.

Barber is a documentary filmmaker and the manager/best friend of Blake Leeper, one of those paralympic blade runners from Tennessee, who is trying to make the U.S. Olympic track and field team for full-bodied athletes. I met these two at last year’s CES.

I was inspired by Blake Leeper. How can you not be? The kid was born without legs, and he thinks he’s got it good. He thinks he has it better than the black man with the black cat with an interstate runnin’ through his front yard, like in that song John Mellencamp wrote about Indiana.

On this day, Steven Barber is wearing a black suit coat with not-so-subtle pinstripes. Blake Leeper is wearing gold, silver and bronze medals. These are from the most recent Paralympic Games, in London, and the most recent international paralympic championships, in Lyon, France.

Leeper has his medals tied down, because they clang together and make a hell of a racket. Barber tells him to untie the medals. They’re about to go on another marketing run, and he wants these CEOs to hear them coming.

Barber is talking fast, walking faster. Leeper, for once, is trying to keep up. Unlike his running blades, which are as high tech as this stuff on the convention floor, his walking prosthetics are lower tech. They sort of make him wobble when he walks fast.

I’m like two aisles back.

After meeting these two last year, I felt it worth the hassle to park my ramshackle truck at this ramshackle strip mall and make the long walk to the convention center (because they were charging $40 to park at Piero’s) just to see how they were doing.

But then watching them having to hustle sponsorships like this seemed like a story.

I’m blaming it on Pistorius.

Last year at CES everybody seemed eager to jump on Blake Leeper’s bandwagon. Small deals were made with big companies, such as SMS Audio, which is where Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson gets complimentary headphones. Fitty founded this company.

Barber said Mazda had signed on to do a national commercial featuring Blake Leeper, the paralympic runner with the amazing story and the amazing outlook on life. “Air chamber, smoke, slow-motion ... we were three days off,” Barber says.

Then the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius, the original blade runner, or at least the world’s most famous one, was found dead. On Valentine’s Day. After the two had had a disagreement.

“They pulled it,” Barber said of the TV spot.

Now the first thing people want to ask Blake Leeper about is Oscar Pistorius. I know this for a fact, because I heard them ask at CES.

“It didn’t affect the blade runner brand. It destroyed it,” Barber said. “I’m still so pissed off.”

Blake Leeper said he considered Oscar Pistorius a mentor and a friend. But they were becoming rivals, too. Leeper’s time in the 200 meters was within a half-second of Pistorius, and he beat his time with the wind behind his back — which was something, because Leeper, 24, only started running four years ago.

“(Pistorius) opened the door for me, for so many,” Leeper said while alternately smiling that smile for cellphone pictures and wiping his brow, because it was hot and crowded on the convention center floor, and he had been smiling for a lot of cellphone pictures.

And now? After the South African authorities found gorgeous Reeva Steenkamp with three bullets in her lifeless body?

“I was sick to my heart,” Leeper said. “We were changing lives. Now we’ve got to rebuild the whole blade runner brand.”

Leeper recently went on the new Arsenio Hall Show, and the host arranged a surprise meeting with his childhood idol Bo Jackson. You should have seen the expression on Leeper’s face when Bo came from behind the curtain carrying the sprinter’s competition prosthetics.

Steven Barber’s yellow cellphone buzzed, though you couldn’t hear it on account there were a million other things buzzing at CES.

The Daytona 500 was calling. They want Blake Leeper to serve as honorary starter at next month’s Great American Race. The NASCAR people said he’d even get his own news conference.

Barber said he wants to take a crew down there and film Blake hanging out with all those Dales and Rustys, and then use it to market his one and only client, the one with springs for legs and competitive fire in his belly. But a crew costs money.

Untie those medals. Time to make another marketing run.

“I’m the original Jerry Maguire,” Barber says, “And he’s my Cuba Gooding Jr.”

“Black kid from the South, born without legs, people said he’d never walk again, now he’s No. 1 in the world. Dude, it doesn’t get any better than that ... and these people, they can’t see it, they can’t even smell it.”

But the pretty girl with the man hands could hear it.

As Steven C. Barber and Blake Leeper came ripping down a maze of aisles in pursuit of a dream, there she was, and she was as pretty as advertised. So pretty that I didn’t notice the size of her hands. Or if she even had them.

She said she could arrange a meeting with her CEO.

I asked Steven Barber isn’t that what they all say? He said yes, pretty much, but the pretty girl with the man hands seemed really sincere about it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski