DONALD HEATH: BJ Ganem is a different kind of football hero

Posted: February 2, 2014 – 4:48pm | Updated: February 3, 2014 – 12:26am | Follow This Article | Tweets by @DonaldHeathSMN

By Donald Heath

His mobility has been hindered, but his direction has never been clearer.

It’s been more than nine years since a roadside bombing during his patrol in Iraq took a portion of Savannah native BJ Ganem’s lower left leg, leaving him now with a prosthetic leg below the knee.

But the attack couldn’t take away his spirit.

Photo courtesy BJ Ganem Savannah native BJ Ganem meets President George W. Bush.
Photo courtesy BJ Ganem
Savannah native BJ Ganem meets President George W. Bush.

Ganem, 37, works for the Semper Fi Fund, a nonprofit organization that through its various programs lends physical, financial and emotional support to combat veterans.

One of the programs Ganem is closely affiliated with is the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team.

And while we marveled over the athletes in Sunday’s Super Bowl in the Meadowlands, there was another inspiring story loaded with more heroes competing a few days earlier in their own Super Bowl just a few miles away in West Orange, N.J.

That’s when Ganem’s team comprised of amputees played a team of FDNY 9/11 first responders and NFL alumni in a flag football challenge to draw awareness to the injured veterans’ plight.

Leading up to the game, Ganem made appearances on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” ESPN, the NFL Network, Fox & Friends and the YES network.

Several major newspapers across the country picked up the story of the unique game. Through the media blitz, Ganem, the WWAFT’s team captain, remained calm and collected.

And determined to show optimism.

“I can do anything someone dares me to do,” said Ganem by phone from his Reedsburg, Wisc., home on Saturday. “The only thing I can’t do in this prosthetic is grow toenails.”

Savannah bred

Ganem is the grandson of the late Johnnie Ganem, whose package store on Habersham Street has been in business since 1942.

BJ graduated from Benedictine in 1995. He played linebacker on Johnson High School’s football team for a year before transferring to BC and playing on the Cadets’ football team.

After graduating high school, he spent one year at Georgia Southern before deciding to join the Marine Corps.

Spoken like a true Savannahian, BJ said he timed boot camp so it finished in time for him to partake in Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

He served four years of active duty before joining corporate America in 2000. He also joined the marine reserves.

Ganem worked as a sales associate for Kraft Foods, got married and had two children Dylan (now 14) and Mackenzie (12).

But in May 2004, his reserve unit was activated and he was headed back to Iraq.

His fateful night came later that year on Thanksgiving.

BJ drove the Humvee — the lead vehicle in a convoy. There were six passengers. They saw Christmas lights across the street like they had seen several times before.

These lights, however, were rigged to a Russian-made artillery shell.

It exploded. The gunner in the passenger seat died. Two others were injured along with Ganem.

“It was very frightening,” said Evelyn Ganem, BJ’s aunt. “His first words on the phone were, ‘I’m OK, I’m going to see my children.’ ”

BJ recovered, but life kept throwing a steady stream of obstacles.

In 2007, he was divorced. Finances fizzled and he filed for bankruptcy.

“There was a lot of confusion,” Ganem said. “I went through a lot of soul searching. You wonder what the end result is going to be.”

The road ahead

Ganem paid homage to “family, friends and people I don’t even know” who stuck with him through dark times.

Ironically, for a guy who’s already given so much to his country, Ganem wants now to give more.

So in 2011, he left Kraft Foods and turned his full attentions to the Semper Fi Fund.

“He’s full of gratitude for life by being so close to death,” said Evelyn Ganem of her nephew.

BJ’s remarried, and he and his wife, Sarah, had a baby boy, Knox, last August.

And his work with Semper Fi Fund continues. Last year, Ganem visited hospitals and provided support to injured victims from the Boston Marathon.

Organizing football games was a new part of the equation to strum up awareness for the Semper Fi Fund. His team won the game 32-14.

But really, everyone won, as amputees displayed their athletic skills.

On the “Late Show with David Letterman,” Ganem appeared relaxed and took off his prosthetic leg to show Dave. It was a poignant moment that seemed to symbolize the normalcy of an amputee’s life.

Ganem is comfortable carrying the torch.

“(Letterman and his staff) were gracious and I think the show generated a lot of media attention,” Ganem said. “Football is showing (amputees) what their bodies can still do. To me, it helps in the healing process.”

On the Letterman show, websites and were pitched for those wanting to learn more about the organizations.

At the end of his six-minute interview, Letterman laughingly turned to Ganem and said, “Here, take your leg and get out of here.”

The audience cheered Ganem in appreciation.

And he took the leg and strapped it back on and shook hands with Letterman.

“God bless you, BJ,” Letterman said.

Donald Heath is a sportswriter for the Savannah Morning News. Contact him at 912-652-0353, email him at and follow him on Twitter @DonaldHeathSMN.