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KALISPELL - Doug Betters can't walk but he can fly. His airplane is equipped with hand controls and he is equipped with an unflinching desire to seize life. He once dominated 300-pound linemen and collected NFL trophies. Today he saves lives, and flies when the sky calls.

Last week, Betters maneuvered in a wheelchair around his airplane, which sits in a hangar at Glacier Park International Airport. He explained that he hasn't flown in two years because of his wife's motion sickness. Not to mention, flying costs a lot of money.

But he'll be back in the air eventually - of course he will. Very little that Betters does at this point should surprise anyone. After breaking his back and becoming paralyzed in a skiing accident in 1998, Betters is a quadriplegic. He can't use his legs and one of his hands doesn't work. His good hand, his right, functions at about "80 percent."

None of this, however, has slowed his mission to help pay medical expenses for kids in northwest Montana. This year, Betters is holding the 25th Whitefish Winter Classic, an event he founded in 1984. The event was canceled one year, in 1998, when Betters broke his back. It's held in Whitefish, with Whitefish Mountain Resort serving as a major sponsor.

The event raises money to help pay for non-insurance medical expenses for kids in northwest Montana who require medical attention outside of the region. Betters said families generally receive between $500 and $5,000.

The charity's mission statement explains: "Although funds do not cover direct medical costs, they pick up where insurance leaves off, assisting with travel, food, lodging and some therapy equipment from specialized bicycles and wheelchairs to rehab hot tubs."

To date, the event has raised more than $2 million, including more than $80,000 last year that was distributed to about 50 families. Hundreds of kids and their families have been helped over the years, Betters said.

"It seems like it was yesterday," Betters said while looking at a flier from one of the original events. "It's kind of fun to look back."

For the event, Betters brings in NFL and college football figures to meet with the kids and the public, while participating in events. Their celebrity status brings exposure to the event and stimulates interest. NFL legends James Lofton and Steve Young have participated in the past.

At this year's event, to be held Thursday through Sunday, there will be 14 football figures - players and coaches. Among them is Kalispell native Lex Hilliard, who now plays running back professionally for the Miami Dolphins. Other native Montanans who play pro will also participate, including Tuff Harris, Casey FitzSimmons, Colt Anderson and Dan Carpenter.

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Betters uses his football connections to attract the players and coaches. He starred as a defensive lineman for the University of Nevada in Reno, and the University of Montana in the 1970s before being taken in the sixth round of the NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins in 1978.

As a pro, Betters was a member of the Killer Bs, a defensive line crew named for the first letter of their last names. They are one of the most famous and respected defensive lines in NFL history. Betters played pro from 1978 to 1987 and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1983.

Toward the end of his career, Betters attended a charity event in Colorado called the Cowboy Downhill where rodeo stars tried their hand at downhill winter sports to raise money for a specified cause. People loved the entertainment and Betters thought he could do a similar event, trading in cowboys for football players. The Whitefish Winter Classic was born.

Betters decided to place all of his charity's focus on local kids, as opposed to aligning it with a national cause, even though he had connections that stretched from coast to coast. At the time, Betters was living part-time in Whitefish. Today, he is a full-time resident at his home on Whitefish Lake and has been for some time.

It immediately became clear that many children faced the very challenges that Betters' charity sought to alleviate. Sometimes kids just couldn't find the medical expertise or surgical procedures they needed in the valley, or even in Montana. And for families to take time off of work and travel long distances required expenses that were often unmanageable, or nearly so.

The charity event was an instant hit, because of both the cause it served and the fact that there was nothing else like it in Montana. A tiny town like Whitefish doesn't generally see the likes of 15 professional athletes holding publicly attended events.

Betters had no problem garnering NFL celebrities and memorabilia. He said he was good friends with the Dolphins' equipment manager and would say, "Hey, can you go get Danny's jersey and have him sign it?" This "Danny" was Dan Marino. Prized merchandise like that tends to raise money at charitable auctions.

And, of course, plenty of Betters' jerseys have been distributed over the years.

"People are probably getting sick of seeing them," he said.

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One of the first kids the Whitefish Winter Classic helped was Katie Walton, who was born with a heart defect. The family had to travel to Salt Lake City for surgery when she was a baby, then again when she was in high school. Walton and her family became annual fixtures at the event, volunteering and essentially serving as spokespeople.

"The expenses they helped out with were of tremendous help," Walton's mom, Dawn Dosch, said last week. "We were so grateful for what they did and that's why Katie and I got involved."

Anyone who knows their football history knows that Betters was a warrior on the gridiron, and anybody who knows about the life of a quadriplegic understands that Betters' warrior spirit runs far deeper than football. He concedes that he has moments where he thinks, "God, if I could have both hands, wouldn't that be sweet."

But Betters isn't bitter. He still fly-fishes, goes boating and cruises in his car. He laughs heartily, as only a man of his size can. And, somewhere down the road, he'll take to the air again in his plane.

"It could always be worse," Betters said. "It's something my dad always said and I believe it."

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