When King Congie lines up in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, the West Point Thoroughbreds colt will give his owners more than the usual reasons to cheer. His very presence recalls the remarkable life and legacy of his namesake, Congie DeVito.
A beloved West Point team member, Congie transcended the severe physical limitations of a disease that debilitated him from birth and cut short his life in February. But he made an exceptional use of his 35 years on this earth to uplift and inspire all who came to know him. That circle continues to widen, thanks to the improving horse who will bear his name on a grand stage — the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
"He's been the biggest inspiration in my life," said Terry Finley, the founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds. "I miss him a lot, and I'll never forget him. He's been a guiding light in my life, and a lot of other people's lives."
Congie was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder that is more familiarly called brittle bone disease. So fragile were his bones that 25 of them were fractured at birth, and he suffered another 125 broken bones during his childhood.
Confined to a wheelchair his entire life, Congie was dependent upon others for his care, and he endured additional effects from the disease. He grew to be only 4 feet, 2 inches tall, and his breathing was compromised, resulting in his unique, squeaky-sounding voice. In addition to his physical hardships, he experienced a family tragedy: his father was killed in an automobile accident in 1990, when Congie was only 15.
Yet Congie did not become embittered, or indulge in self-pity. Though his body was weak, his mind and his spirit were unusually strong.
Congie might have inherited his indomitable will from his mother Roberta, who went to extraordinary lengths so he could attend Temple University. Indeed, Roberta took care of all of the logistics herself.
"His mother actually took him to every class, every day, at Temple University, without fail," Finley said. "She had to pick him up and lift him and put him in the chair and put him in the car — he didn't have a motorized wheelchair at that time.
"She was an angel, and he would not have been even close to the man that he was without her. She was such a vital, vital part of his life — to do that for four years straight, and without recognition, she was totally unselfish in caring for him, in every way she could."
Roberta made it possible for him to get to class, but Congie's outstanding intellectual ability took care of the rest. Excelling in his studies, he was inducted into the honor society of Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated summa cum laude in 1998.
Congie gave himself an unusual graduation present — a share in a racehorse. The longtime racing fan, whose parents had taken him to the track as a youngster, had heard about the partnerships available through West Point. He approached Finley and became a partner in a horse competing at the lower levels of the game.
Finley didn't realize Congie's condition until they met in person, a few months after their initial contact over the phone. Their first luncheon taught Finley something else about Congie.
"When I first met him, he was like, 'I'm good friends with John Chaney,'" Finley said, referring to the legendary Temple basketball coach. "'I'm good friends with all the Temple basketball players.'
"The day we had lunch for the first time, Tim Perry, who's a first-round draft choice in the NBA, walks in the restaurant, he sees Congie, and he goes nuts. So he knew everybody.
"John Chaney was more of a father figure to Congie than anybody. It was a special thing."
Finley would eventually come to know just how wide-ranging Congie's interests and connections were.
"He was as close to a Renaissance man as you can get," Finley commented. "He loved the horses — totally immersed into horses, totally immersed into Temple sports, both football and basketball; he was immersed into plays and Broadway and the opera; he loved fantasy sports; he had friends all over the country.
"We don't really have very many people now in today's world who have the time to do all these things. In that respect he was totally, totally unique in the diversity of his interests."
"He had as good of an intellect as I've been around," Finley noted. "I'm around a lot of people. He didn't have to take a back seat to anybody in terms of intellect and drive and passion -- and skill. Technologically, he knew computers. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty with technology.
"So it was a perfect time for a guy like Congie DeVito to focus his efforts on technology for a company like ours that is in the racing business. You couldn't have asked for a better person at a better time."
Congie had the inspiration to configure the website as one would for a brokerage account, grasping the common threads between horse partnerships and brokerage firms.
As brilliant as he was on the technological side, however, Congie was just as engaging when it came to personal relationships. Precisely because he had to rely on others for every aspect of his life, he had a profound insight into the importance of teamwork, and how the West Point partners in turn relied on him for the flow of information.
Congie's life situation "was core" to his view of partnership, Finley said.
"It was never about me or I, it was always about the team. It's kind of a cliche, but he actually had to have partners — he had to have his mom, he had to have doctors, he had to have a support staff, so if anybody, he was as big of a fan of the partnership concept in life as you could have.
Part and parcel of Congie's concept, though, was a dose of mischievous humor.
"He was joking till the very end," Finley noted, describing how Congie played a prank on him about the updated West Point website, which was two years in the making.
"They were going to tell me that they lost the whole website. And the back-ups had been corrupted by a virus, and they were going to have to start brand new. When they finally told me, I had a normal reaction that you would expect, and he seemed to get a great chuckle out of that."
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