On Oct. 20, 1995, Travis Roy’s collegiate hockey career ended almost before it started. Just 11 seconds into his first shift for Boston University, he crashed headfirst into the boards while trying to deliver a check, cracking his fourth vertebra and damaging his spinal cord.
In an instant, his dream-come-true became a nightmare.
His life as a hockey player ended abruptly; his life as a quadriplegic began.
Now, 20 years later, so much has changed from his life before that fateful shift, yet a few constants remain.
“I think about hockey every day,” he says. “It goes through my mind regularly.”
More on Travis Roy
• Dec. 3, 1997: Travis
• Jan. 21, 1998: Travis Roy Autobiography Hits Shelves
And at night, he still, on occasion, dreams the same dreams of many hockey players: His big chance has arrived but he can’t find his stick, he didn’t pack his gloves or his skates are broken.
“In the dreams, I’m always letting [former Boston University] coach [Jack] Parker down because I’m not ready to go,” Travis says. “I wake up with the emotions and have to tell myself that it was just a dream and I haven’t let Coach down yet.”
In his role as a motivational speaker, he even shows video of the accident as part of his presentation.
“I’m pretty numb to it now,” he says, “but I keep hoping the video ends up differently.”
The video, of course, never changes. The reality of quadriplegia remains. As does the love for the sport, but it’s a love now tinged with great sadness.
“I still enjoy hockey,” Travis says. “I’m still amazed by the sport, I really am, by the speed and the grace. It’s such a special, special sport.
“[But] I am brokenhearted over hockey. It was my first love.
“I didn’t expect it to go away, but I can still feel it, I can still smell it. I just love it. I love it.”
The Boston Bruins recently signed Travis to a one-day contract and had him drop the ceremonial first puck while wearing a Bruins jersey with his name and BU number, 24, on the back. It was a heartwarming honor, but a bittersweet one when considering what might have been.
“There was a little piece of it being a dream come true,” he says. “It just wasn’t the way I’d planned it at all. I still wish I had the other opportunity, too. I still wish I could have traveled the other road.
“I’ll never know what kind of player I was going to turn out to be. But when I look at the guys who made it [in the NHL], they had something special. In my gut, I think I would have made it.”
Instead, paralysis imposed severe limitations on a life that had appeared to have a limitless future. Those limitations remain to this day.
“As far as taking care of myself and getting up and ready for the day, I can’t do anything,” Travis says. “I’m so limited.
“Once I’m in my wheelchair, once I’m set up for the day and I can get over to my computer and I’ve got my earpiece in my ear for my phone, that’s when my independence grows. The computer and technology is my world, and it has enabled me to do so much of what I’ve done for the last 20 years.”
What has made the biggest difference is that Boston University was part of the NCAA’s catastrophic insurance policy. As a result, Travis’ long-term, around-the-clock care is covered, which is far from the norm for quadriplegics.
“I do have 24-7 home care year round,” he says. “So I can do what I want and when I want with the help of that care. That’s been a major relief.
“It’s not my mom and my dad that’s getting me up and ready for the day or my sister or my friends. That’s what most people with this condition have to deal with. It becomes very [overwhelming] for family and friends.
“And if it’s not family and friends doing it, it’s limited hours [of care] through the state and Medicare and Medicaid. Home care is not a pretty business, quite frankly.”
Conspicuous by its absence in Travis’ list of his possible aid-givers is that of a girlfriend or wife. In the immediate aftermath of the injury, his girlfriend at the time, Maija Langeland, remained a rock by his side. Eventually, though, they went their separate ways.
Romantic relationships have remained difficult, if not quite impossible, ever since. In many ways, it’s one of the cruelest things taken from so many quadriplegics.
“I’ve only had a couple relationships since my injury,” Travis says. “I had one shortly after it, a Masters student doing physical therapy. She was great and a beautiful girl.
“But it was too frustrating for me. I was the one that brought it to an end.”
Travis didn’t try again until about a year ago.
“I figured after all these years I’d give it a shot,” he says. “I was older and wiser and at a different stage in my life. But after a month I found myself in the exact same place. It was so frustrating. I ended that relationship as well.
“It’s a missing piece [in my life]. I kind of hoped to have kids. I kind of hoped to have a wife. But I can’t be the person that I want to be, and I can’t pretend otherwise.
“It’s really hard. It’s another devastating, frustrating piece of paralysis. Being a quadriplegic in a relationship takes a lot of your masculinity away.
“I miss the passion. I miss the romance. I miss the friendship. I miss the partnership. I miss everything that comes with a relationship.”
Although almost all of that sadness can be laid at the cruel feet of quadriplegia, Travis takes some of the blame.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. “Part of it is me, it’s very much me.
“I know people who have figured it out and found love in a relationship. But for me, I’m a little stubborn. I can’t pretend. I can’t be the person that I am inside. The person inside can’t express himself the way I want to through daily physical activities, whether it’s opening a door or laying on the couch and cuddling or any of that.”
Although nothing can come close to making up for all that Travis lost, he can still look at some things he’s gained.
“The older I get, the wiser I am,” he says, now 40 years old. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons at a very early age.”
One of the most important ones was reiterated in a TED Talk he recently watched, one with the message that if you want to be happy, be grateful.
“I’m not the happiest person in the world, but considering my circumstances I’m a pretty happy person,” Travis says. “I am grateful. I’m at a point where I look around at my friends, some family members and peers and I’m a lot happier than these people are.
“Why is that? Not only because I love and really appreciate my family, but I actually take the time and call them and I do things with them and I acknowledge those moments. Brand names and money, faster cars and bigger homes, you can have them. Give me a nice home and a warm bed and no major financial burdens or worries, and that’ll make me a happy guy.
“I have to sit and watch a lot. I watch people interact. I sit on the sidelines in a lot of ways. You learn a lot about people when you watch and listen.
“The biggest lesson is that life is simple, a lot more simple than people realize. You just have to cut out all the noise and figure out what are the two or three or four things that are really important to you. Then [evaluate] how much time, energy and focus you’re putting into those things and integrating them into your day and your life. That’s what I’ve learned and that’s what I do.”
Aside from friends and family, Travis has chosen to put most of his energies into his foundation, The Travis Roy Foundation, which is dedicated to enhancing the lives of individuals with spinal cord injuries and their families. Recently, it has increased fundraising to about $1 million per year, which is then spent half on research and half on grants to individuals ranging from $1,000 to $7,000.
“It’s a huge part of who I am and what I do and what I spend my time on,” Travis says. “To touch all those lives is a special opportunity.
“Paralysis is a really horrible thing, especially quadriplegia. With paraplegia, people can still be pretty independent and live a really productive life, but if you’re a quadriplegic the amount of energy that goes into your care can be pretty exhausting. I haven’t given up on research; I want to see paralysis come to an end.”
That burning desire goes far beyond whatever personal improvement he might achieve.
“I don’t know how much I’m going to benefit from the research at this point,” he says. “I’m 20 years in and I don’t know if I’m going to walk. I’d be very grateful, just for the sake of my independence, to get [use of] my arms and my fingers and not need 24-7 home care.
“At this point, hopefully, that’s a realistic goal. I don’t know if I’m going to walk, but if you let me live by myself independently, that would be huge.
“There are too many young people in nursing homes because there’s no one to care for them and the families can’t handle it. There are problems with infections, pressure sores and complications of the bowels and bladder. Nobody wants to talk about this topic because it’s not fun to talk about.
“Paralysis is devastating. You can live with it, it’s bearable, and you can live a very productive and successful life and that’s what I’m doing. But I’m doing it with some financial resources, backed by the money that was raised for me, with great insurance, with family, friends and with a unique opportunity to have a career speaking and making a living. Most people with my problem don’t have that.
“I want the next generation, my niece and nephews, not to have to see their friends go through this. I want to be a part of putting an end to paralysis.”