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Dennis Leoni and Herschbach
L to R: Dennis Leoni and Bob Herschbach at the 1st annual golf tournament
The game of golf is not about how many strokes it takes to make par, but about how well you are able recover from a bad shot. Today, Los Angeles based non-profit, RECOVERY SHOT, along with the California Rehabilitation Institute, is helping stroke victims and others get back into the game.
By The National Business Post Staff
January 17, 2023
In golf, a recovery shot is what gets you out of trouble. Jack Nicklaus calls it the greatest shot in the game. Just as the term “home run” may be from the game of baseball, it is used to mean “success” in everyday life. Recovery shot is a term like that—while born in the game of golf, can be applied in a myriad of ways. We don’t need or refer to a recovery shot when something good has happened. Rather, only when we’re in trouble, a recovery shot can happen, anywhere, any time — and the result is always positive.
This is the story of how that idea became Recovery Shot, a new Los Angeles based non-profit created specifically to help anyone wanting to take advantage of the medically proven therapeutic values that exist in the game of golf.
Golf is a game that is measured by how many strokes you take to complete the round. Interestingly enough, it was that same word — stroke — that made Dennis Leoni the inspiration for what followed.
Dennis Leoni, an athlete, and now a successful award-winning Hollywood writer/producer/director, suddenly and unexpectedly, in 2015, became one of the 795,000 people who suffer a stroke each year in the United States. This data was not on the mind of 60-year-old Dennis when he awoke on the morning of December 22, 2015. As he made a routine “pit stop” to the bathroom and returned to bed with Debbie, his wife of 36 years, he began to feel “strange.” He never suspected he was on his way to becoming a stroke statistic.
“Everything went haywire,” Dennis remembers.
The former Hollywood stuntman was in good physical shape and a very good golfer who had played competitive pick-up basketball into his 50s. Debbie knew immediately that her husband was in big trouble. He walked back to the bed and she realized he looked “disoriented.”
“I asked if he was okay and he did not answer me and was holding his head,” she recalls, adding that Dennis sat on the bed and then collapsed.
She called 9-1-1 and was told to force her husband to sit up. While there’s no such thing as good luck in having a stroke, the Leoni family was lucky because they lived within close proximity to a Valencia fire station and a hospital. Help arrived in less than 10 minutes and five minutes later, they were at the hospital.
After two excruciating hours, their daughter Sierra arrived, Debbie got to the hospital. On her way to Dennis’ room, she ran into a nurse who gave her an update.
“We have to put him on a ventilator,” the nurse said.
That information “dropped me to my knees,” Debbie remembers. “I got up, pulled myself together and said to myself: This is it. This is where it starts, but you are going to give everything you’ve got and we are going to be okay. The doctors had given him less than a one percent chance of survival. The fact he was alive was enough for me.”
Her experience in the television industry as a producer of projects and manager of people gave her the confidence to take charge.
“My mom gets things done,” Sierra boasts. “She was the driving force behind his recovery.”
Dennis had already beaten odds while he was working in the entertainment industry. He graduated from his stuntman career and went on to create Resurrection Blvd., the first and longest running Latino prime-time drama in the history of U.S. English language television. The show aired on Showtime for three seasons.
During the first week of January 2016, while doing his rehab work, Dennis suffered a second stroke, making him among 23% of stroke victims who suffer multiple strokes. The second stroke took part of his peripheral vision in both eyes.
Six-and-a-half weeks after his first stroke, Dennis — against incredible odds and to his complete joy — finally got to go home to continue his rehab. The new phase of recovery was about to begin.
The couple’s younger daughter, Selena, was living in Las Vegas at the time of Dennis’ first stroke, and arrived at the scene at 8 p.m. that evening. At the time, she did not know she would end up staying at the family home for the next several months, helping with the day-to-day care of her father, serving as “executive chef.”
Selena, who normally made every meal from scratch, remembers the day she made tomato soup — her dad’s favorite. But that day, Dennis had other ideas. He got up by himself and headed into the kitchen. “This man is going to make himself a hot dog!” Selena said. And that’s what he did.
A big part of Dennis’s home therapy was walking around the cul-de-sac with a belt wrapped around him so a therapist could catch him if he fell. As his recovery continued, one lap with a walker which was a challenge to begin with, turned into a dozen. He eventually walked to a nearby pool, and began to add swimming laps for more rehab. And to increase his cardiovascular capacities, blowing scores of balloons became an integral part of his lung therapy.
Dennis Leoni
The Leoni Family, Dennis surrounded by Sierra, Deb and Selena
“I was not happy,” Dennis remembers. “At times it was only the anger which drove me to work harder.”
Bouts of depression set in, along with painful stints of gout, adding more discomfort.
“I gave myself so many pep talks along the way,” Dennis recalls. “Try to stay grateful …it could be worse.”
One of the key members of his support team was Robert Herschbach, a longtime friend who had met Dennis in the fall of 1982, playing pick-up basketball games. It was Robert’s suggestion that helped change the course of Dennis’ life, encouraging the Leonis to move to Camarillo in Ventura County, California. It was June of 2017. Robert and his wife, Connie, lived there and played golf at Spanish Hills Golf Club. Robert boldly predicted that he’d have Dennis “up and playing golf within a year after moving,” and dedicated himself as the guy who would make it happen.
The Leonis moved in with the Herschbachs while they began their new home search.
Meanwhile, the pro at Spanish Hills Golf Club, Leo Lee, had made it possible for Robert to take Dennis out on a golf cart and cruise around the course. Robert continues to pay tribute to Leo, who was instrumental in enabling Dennis’ use of the course.
“His commitment was amazing,” Robert remembers. “He provided the tools I needed to create a planned recovery for Dennis. He believed the game of golf could be utilized to bring back motor skills and curtail depression. Leo was resolute about the process for over three years, always asking about his progress.”
Eventually he challenged Dennis to hit a few balls on the driving range.
“I could stagger around a little,” Dennis recalls. “And then I started holding the flag for the foursome.”
Putting was next.
“What helped was the ability I had to stand very still when looking over the ball,” Dennis remembers. Next came: “Hey, let’s play a couple of holes.”
Two holes lead to six holes which lead to nine holes. Along the way, Dennis had to battle the vertigo which to this day causes a lot of dizziness and fatigue.
“I could see the competitiveness rise up within him…the sparkle had returned to his eyes,” reflects Robert. “It was great to see.”
While it took almost three years, Dennis did the unthinkable — he played 18 holes. Now, he’s plays 18 holes every time out, and shoots in the low 90s. The idea for Recovery Shot was beginning to take shape. Dennis recovered thanks to his friend, Robert, who generously and selflessly took it upon himself to get Dennis back to playing golf. But an idea began to evolve. What if others could improve their physical and emotional health, as well as speed up their recovery while enjoying the game of golf?
In researching the idea, Debbie discovered that no adaptive golf programs existed in Los Angeles County, a county that has more than 10 million residents. Debbie realized there was a great opportunity to serve this community — an opportunity existed for Ventura County as well.
It was later that year that Debbie, Dennis and their inner circle of friends created Recovery Shot.
The Leonis huddled with their core group of friends — Robert and Connie Herschbach — along with Jim Hirsch, another longtime writer/producer who both Dennis and Debbie had worked with.
“It was Hirsch, like a dog with a bone, who wouldn’t let the idea go,” says Dennis. It actually wasn’t called Recovery Shot until golf pro Eddie Fierro made the suggestion over lunch with the Leonis.
Adding their old friend John Tangney of Blue Yonder and Hirsch’s business partner, Robert Papazian, and some pro-bono legal advice from attorney Neil Carrey, the group soon formed the board of directors for Recovery Shot with a clear mission statement:
“To bring the healing power of golf through fresh air, exercise, and friendship to anyone suffering from debilitating injury or illness. Providing support to all who want to get back on the path to improved physical and mental well-being.”
This new non-profit found a willing and supportive partner in the California Rehabilitation Institute in Century City.
A joint venture of Cedars Sinai, UCLA and Select Medical, The California Rehabilitation Institute is now the largest rehab center in the Western United States where last year, more than 3,500 patients were treated. Dr. Richard Montmeny, CEO, confirms the connection between patients being helped at the Institute and the therapeutic value of light exercise, outdoor activity, and all the other values that golf as a sport and activity can provide.
“I’m a golfer myself, and understand the potential therapy of a golf outing—companionship, fresh air, getting back to some form of physical activity and rebuilding confidence in one’s abilities,” states Montmeny, “Our goal is to help provide Recovery Shot with patients that have an interest in golf, giving them a chance to enhance their rehab, whenever it makes sense.”
It turns out Dr. Montmeny plays golf at Spanish Hills Golf Club, the same club where Robert had first brought Dennis to make his remarkable recovery.
On November 14 of 2022, the first Recovery Shot Golf Tournament took place at Saticoy Country Club, a beautiful course where they had just hosted a successful Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tournament a month earlier.
Course rehab shot
L to R: Clint Coleman - Chief Development Officer, California Pizza Kitchen and double amputee, Maneshka Cohen - Executive Director, CA Rehabilitation Foundation, Richard Montmeny - CEO, CA Rehabilitation Institute.
The course was in perfect condition. The owners and operators of Saticoy, all personal friends and supporters of Robert, embraced the mission of Recovery Shot. And that day, 132 avid and excited golfers teed off, enjoying a day of glorious weather, exciting events and the genesis of this new non-profit. Cheech Marin, once a member at Saticoy, served as the evening’s host and emcee. The legendary Delores Huerta, recipient of the distinguished service award from President Barack Obama, also attended to provide support.
Next year’s tournament has already been set. Saticoy Country Club will be hosting the tournament on September 18, 2023.
That day, the Ventura Fire Department provided a truck and created a fantastic and exciting ball drop, and half of the proceeds went back to support first responders. Several of the golfers who played that day were themselves an example of what Recovery Shot’s mission is all about. They included Clint Cole, who had lost both legs and received prosthetics and rehab from the CRI. Four members of Wounded Warriors played as well, helping to establish a couple of the ways in which Recovery Shot provides therapy and support to those with physical or mental disabilities.
With many generous corporate and personal sponsorships across the entire event, the day was a huge success. Today, donations continue to flow in from across the nation showing support for this newest non-profit that is giving those in recovery, the best shot at their next chapter in life.
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