BOSTON — In the fall of 1995, Boston University forward Travis Roy was paralyzed after taking a spill into the boards at BU’s Brown Arena. The case received national attention and outpourings of support.
Three months later, in relative obscurity, another player, from a small crosstown school, also suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury, playing a game on the same ice surface where Roy’s injury occured.
Today, John Gilpatrick is walking.
The former player from Suffolk, a Division III school from the ECAC Northeast Conference, had planned to keep the news a secret for a few more weeks, but when news leaked out, the school called a news conference for Friday.
When Gilpatrick walked into the room, it was not a Super Bowl commercial gimmick. It was real. He pet Ice, the dog that has been his companion since the accident. He then walked to the table and hugged coach Brian Horan, who was an assistant the night of the injury.
“Obviously, going to the hospital that night, there was fear,” said Horan, who rode with Gilpatrick in the ambulance. “I could see fear in John’s eyes and I was scared too. Now, there’s just the total elation of seeing John walk.”
Suffolk athletics director Jim Nelson was with Gilpatrick in the hospital the night of the accident. He has grown very close to Gilpatrick over the years. After family and doctors, Nelson was the first to see him walk.
“He returned from vacation a week ago, and his mom called,” said Nelson. “She said he would like to see me. I said ‘Great,’ because I hadn’t seen him in a month.
“A half hour later, I was sitting at my desk and he called my name, and walked over to me. It stunned me. I sat there what seemed like an eternity trying to fathom it. We embraced. It was very emotional.”
Gilpatrick actually suffered a serious injury once before. During a high school game during his sophomore year, an injury left him with whiplash and some paralysis for three weeks, requiring use of the so-called “halo” to stabilize his head.
He returned to play after getting clearance from doctors. Then, Gilpatrick lost use of his legs and right arm in the accident at Suffolk, which occured when his head collided with a goal post. Coming when it did, the tragedy created a kinship with Roy.
“I’m so happy for him. It’s just amazing,” Roy told the Associated Press. “I can’t imagine sitting in a wheelchair for four years and then being able to walk again. As much as I believe it will happen for me, there’s a whole other side to it actually happening.”
Roy’s injury is worse, leaving him no feeling below the neck. But Gilpatrick’s progress has, as it did when New York Jets lineman Dennis Byrd walked again, given new hope to Roy and all paralysis victims.
“He had the chance of improving after the next two years. But usually, when they get to two years from their injury, they don’t show any significant improvement over the rest of their lives,” Dr. David Apple, a spinal cord specialist, told the AP. “But every spinal cord injury is different. You never can say.”
Another awaiting such progress is Erik Drygas, a defenseman for Alaska-Fairbanks who became the third player in little over a year to be paralyzed in a college hockey game when he suffered the injury in the fall of 1996.
“John has locally shared the spotlight with Travis, but not nationally,” said Nelson. “Until there is a modern medical breakthrough, people like Travis and Christopher Reeve have to wait for that. But we all believe that will happen.”
Gilpatrick began getting a burning sensation in his chest a week before his first steps. He worried it could be a heart attack. After feeling uncomfortable for a week, he came out of the shower one day and told his stepfather, Allan Jones, that he might be ready to take a step.
“I was afraid because neither one of us knew what we were doing,” said Jones, who was concerned the attempt would end up like previous ones, where he could easily push over Gilpatrick with just two fingers.
“I pushed him this time and he pushed back at me,” Jones said. “That’s something I could never feel before.”
His mother, Elaine Jones, someone Gilpatrick calls his best friend and advisor, rushed home from work. Allan Jones got nervous that Elaine would be mad for doing something wrong.
“I really never thought that he would walk. But he always thought he would,” said Elaine Jones. “He just was relentless in his pursuit to stand.”
“When I took those first two steps, I was looking ahead to walking full time,” Gilpatrick said. “One shot, one make. I hit it right on the button. I didn’t know how it would turn out, but I made it.
“We’ve come a long way since that evening in the ambulance on the 25th of January. It still hasn’t really hit me. I’m still in a little bit of shock. To be here, sitting here, and walking after 4 years, I can’t even tell you how that happened. Doctors don’t have the answers.”
Nelson said there is a lot of speculation as to why Gilpatrick can walk again. The spine never severed, so maybe the blood that collected has dissipated and started to flow again. Or, perhaps, he said, it was just sheer willpower.
“In some regards, John has become a surrogate son to me,” said Nelson. “It still stands to me as the most dramatic thing to happen to me in three decades of intercollegiate athletics.
“As a parent of five kids all around his age, this is one of those things that just gets to you as a parent.”
Gilpatrick has been acting as an assistant coach at Suffolk for the past year. He graduated in May, on the same day as Roy. The Dean of Admissions for Suffolk’s Law School, Gail Ellis, was on hand at the news conference. She said Gilpatrick was accepted into the school and will begin classes in August.
He will, however, continue to coach. Many of Suffolk’s players were in attendance at the news conference, and one day, Gilpatrick hopes to skate with them again.
“I looked at them and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could coach these guys out of a wheelchair,’ ” he said. “Obviously, my hockey career is over. But I would love to be on skates to coach these kids.”