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Walking tall

Suffolk hockey player John Gilpatrick astounded doctors by returning to his feet after a severe spinal injury

John Gilpatrick, Suffolk University (Class of 2000)

The first time John Gilpatrick crossed the stage to receive a degree at Suffolk, he was seated in a wheelchair, pushed by the school’s athletics director.

He had lost the use of his arms and legs during his sophomore season on the ice hockey team at the school, suffering central cord syndrome (a condition in which the spinal cord is compressed but not severed) after the back of his head hit a goal post during a game. During years of rehabilitation and adaptation to his quadraplegia (assisted by the NCAA catastrophic-injury insurance program), he returned to school and completed his degree in criminal justice in 2000.

Gilpatrick eventually regained some feeling in his legs following the accident. Still, nearly all of the doctors he consulted – “six out of seven,” he said in a 2001 article in Suffolk’s alumni magazine – advised that he never would walk again.

The next time Gilpatrick crossed the stage to receive a Suffolk degree, it was 2005. He had just completed a law degree.

And this time, he walked.

Although Gilpatrick’s time on the ice as a forward for the Rams was brief, he remained part of the Suffolk athletics program following the accident – in large part because the school’s athletics director, Jim Nelson, constantly supported Gilpatrick through the ordeal.

“Both the lowest of a low and the ultimate of a high, all are encompassed in that one individual,” said Nelson in recommending Gilpatrick for inclusion in the 40-in-40 series celebrating Division III’s 40th anniversary year.

Nelson, who retired last year, says January 25, 1996 – the night Gilpatrick was injured – was the low point of his career in athletics.  Beginning then, Nelson regularly visited Gilpatrick in the hospital and stayed in touch with phone calls, letters and notes, then pushed Gilpatrick’s chair at commencement, proud of the young man’s determination to complete his degree.

In July 2001, Nelson received a call from Gilpatrick’s mother, saying her son wanted to come by Nelson’s office to visit. Awhile later, sitting at his desk, Nelson heard someone say “coach,” and turned to see Gilpatrick in the doorway of his office – standing. Nelson says that moment – “the miraculous moment when he walked to my arms” -- was the high point of his 47-year career in intercollegiate athletics.

Shortly after graduation, Gilpatrick found himself able to walk a couple of steps after rising from his bed, and just kept moving – arriving a year later in Nelson’s office.

He then enrolled in Suffolk’s law school, and a few months later, shortly before the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Gilpatrick walked the Olympic torch nearly a quarter mile through Boston, past the hospital where he was taken following the accident. In 2003, he walked down the aisle of a church in his hometown of Hanover, Massachusetts, to marry his fiancé, Katelyn A. Nolan. He also served as an assistant coach for Suffolk’s ice hockey team.

Now, he works as an attorney in the Middlesex County (Massachusetts) Probate and Family Court, specializing in marital law.

Gilpatrick’s experience as a Division III student-athlete certainly wasn’t typical, except in one respect – it was just the beginning of a highly productive life, propelled forward step by step by the unbroken character of a highly motivated young man.

Nominated by Jim Nelson, director of athletics emeritus at Suffolk University.