When John and Esther Cusack enrolled their 9-year-old son in a sports program for children with disabilities in the 1960s, they had no idea that Michael “Moose” Cusack would become a role model for generations of Special Olympians. In fact, doctors urged the Cusacks to institutionalize Michael, who was born with Down syndrome, because he would have a “poor quality of life.” They refused and their son flourished, inspiring countless athletes with disabilities and encouraging his family to become lifelong advocates for people with disabilities.
“He lived a really full and joyful life. He loved every minute of it. He was appreciative of everything,” sister Constance McIntosh, 67, of Chicago told TODAY. “I’m very grateful to tell Michael’s story. He was a really phenomenal person. He made us all better people.”
Michael died on Dec. 17 at age 64. A decade ago, he had a stroke and then Alzheimer's disease, common in people with Down syndrome. Over the past three years his symptoms worsened and he used a wheelchair.
“He recognized us. But he slowly began to lose his language,” McIntosh said. “His dear, loving nature never changed.”
When Michael was 9, his parents, John, a Chicago police officer, and Esther, heard about a program in West Pullman Park in Chicago led by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, then Anne McGlone. She wanted to teach sports to children with disabilities.
“They had a wonderful, long conversation and (my dad) and my mom signed Michael up for the new program right away,” McIntosh said. “Michael was honestly her first athlete.”
Burke, like the Cusacks, felt that children with disabilities could thrive in sports if only given the chance. Though Esther worried at first.
“My mom was a little hesitant because nobody knew what people with intellectual disabilities were capable of, but she decided it was her job to let him shine,” McIntosh said. “We tried whatever he wanted to do, and he was good at everything. He was especially good at swimming.”
Even before joining the park program, Michael was active. He scrambled over playground equipment with ease, threw a ball “beautifully” and cruised around on a large tricycle. After learning to swim, his parents installed an above ground pool for him to swim laps. Michael understood that sports took hard work.
“He really did learn discipline,” McIntosh said. “He learned that in order to get better he had to practice. He never balked at practice. He actually loved his coaches, loved them. So, whatever they asked him to do, he did it. In that sense he was a role model.”
In 1968, Michael, then 12, participated in an event at Soldier Field, proposed by Burke, which transformed into the Special Olympics.
“(My parents and Burke) would start talking about this track and field event that began envisioning about a year after she started her program and saw the capabilities of her athletes ... how much heart they had,” McIntosh said. “And how much they enjoyed competing and winning, actually.”
When he arrived and saw the lap pool he was blown away. He won his first medal for the 25-meter freestyle.
“He just took everything in stride. One thing you would have to know about Michael is that he never met an audience he didn’t like,” McIntosh said with a laugh. “He enjoyed attention not because of ego. But because he loved people. He loved being loved.”
This was the first of many Special Olympic events he participated in including games at the local, state, national and international levels.
“He was always a happy, generous competitor. I can tell you that dozens of times, I saw him congratulate someone who had had either beaten him or someone who medaled in another event,” McIntosh said. “He never was jealous. Never.”
When he had his stroke 10 years ago, he stopped competing but still was an avid bowler. Michael was a lefty, but his stroke impacted his left side, so his physical and occupational therapist taught him to bowl with his right hand.
“Even after a stroke, he has the heart of a champion,” McIntosh said.
Supporting Michael became a “family affair” and the four Cusack sisters — Maureen McCormack, 62, Colette Cusack, 61, and Carole Cusack, 59 — spent their lives advocating for people with disabilities.
“Many of us were drawn into our careers because of him. My sister and I became special education teachers and all of us became advocates for the American With Disabilities Act and other social justice concerns,” she said. “That was because of our parents’ example. They just did whatever Michael needed.”
Whatever he needed also included a school for children with intellectual disabilities. For several years, Michael could not attend Chicago Public Schools because it did not offer accommodations for people with Down syndrome. So, his John and Esther hired a retired teacher to teach Michael and other neighborhood children with disabilities.
“We were all hugely proud of his accomplishments,” McIntosh said.
McIntosh hopes people look to her brother as an example of a life well lived.
“Every life has a purpose,” she said. “Michael is an example of unfailing courtesy, unfailing appreciation, gratitude for the things that were simple. I think that living by his example will make us better people in the long run. He really was the embodiment of all the human qualities that we cherish.”
Correction: An earlier headline misstated Michael Cusack's age at the time of this death. He was 64, not 67.