April 28, 2013

Steve Solloway: Make no mistake – Roy still relevant

SCARBOROUGH - The images flickered on the big screen at one end of the high school gymnasium. Hockey players in the red-and-white uniforms of Boston University chased the puck. From his wheelchair, Travis Roy barely glanced at the video.

He had watched it so many times before. He had lived it.

After about 11 seconds, the camera focused on a player stumbling, his head down and about to collide with the rink's sideboards. The video stopped at that moment and the screen turned white. Roy resumed talking.

Some 1,000 students at Scarborough High were silent. I scanned the rows of bleachers searching for those stealing glances at texts or tweets on cellphones. I found no one.

It's been nearly 18 years since many of us held our breaths, praying that the 20-year-old kid from Yarmouth with the confident grin and mop of blonde hair would get back on his feet or at least move a muscle. He couldn't.

"I knew I was in big trouble," Roy told his audience. "I could see my breath starting to melt the ice. I could see the doctor moving my hand and I didn't feel it."

His is an old story. After he was first introduced Friday afternoon, Roy asked for a show of hands. How many knew what happened? Arms went up everywhere.

Most of them weren't born before Oct. 20, 1995, but they felt a familiarity with the man who can use his right bicep to raise an unfeeling hand to gesture or push the joystick of his wheelchair. But can't bring a spoon to his mouth. Roy is a quadriplegic.

Eyebrows were raised when I told editors I had been invited to listen to Roy and I was going to Scarborough. Had something new happened in his life? Was there a new story to tell?

No, I told them and that's the point. I wanted to see if Roy is relevant to a new generation that doesn't pay much attention to yesterday, let alone a stumble that so dramatically changed one man's life 18 years ago. What could be their connection?

Life itself.

Monique Culbertson, who introduced Roy and is the acting principal, has heard numerous speakers and been to many school assemblies. "There's the silence of disinterest and there's the silence of being riveted to what you're hearing, waiting for what will be said next."

Make no mistake. Roy's audience was with him, even when the acoustics of the large gym sometimes challenged his amplified voice.

The video resumed, showing the North Dakota opponent sidestepping the check that sent Roy crashing into the boards. It takes another second or two before the game announcer notices Roy is on the ice and not moving.

Later on the video and long after the accident, Roy says he looked up at his father who had come down to the ice. Roy could see the worry in his father's face.

"But Dad, I made it." Meaning, he had reached one of his goals, playing in a major college hockey game. That pushed emotional buttons around the gym.

"Saying that, after what happened, is what I'll remember most," said Nick Bagley, a hockey and baseball player. He was a finalist for the Travis Roy Award this winter. Ryan Bailer, a senior teammate, agreed. Travis Roy already believed his life would never be the same. A goal had been met even if it was just for 11 seconds. That a different type of life awaited didn't matter.

"I can still laugh," said Roy in the gym. "I still cry. I still enjoy the people around me. What's more important than that?"

The students got to their feet when he was done. Not all at once, but in sections. Soon, no one was sitting.

It was a heartfelt standing ovation. For Roy, the message never gets old. What happened on Oct. 20, 1995 can feel like yesterday even as he's moved on. But he no longer needs to heal. He wants to continue to live.

Bagley, Bailer, Trevor Murray and several other teammates joined Roy for lunch at a local restaurant. It didn't escape them that Mike O'Brien, a youth hockey coach from Yarmouth, fed Roy every bite and every swallow of his meal.

It was done so naturally.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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