Follow through

Basketball brought the Catamounts and Josh Speidel together. Then came the accident, the coma and the rehab — and now, their bond is bigger than the sport.

By Amy Wimmer Schwarb   |   Photos by Jamie Schwaberow

A brain is on display, its illustrated cross-section two stories tall on the screen at the front of the lecture hall. The surfaces of its lobes bunch together in efficient rolls, packing more brain into less space. Reasoning, movement, memory, speech, vision – the core of a human starts here, in the valleys and crevices of gray matter.

Josh Speidel, now a redshirt freshman at the University of Vermont, hopes to one day take the court.

“Look at that beautiful gyrification,” professor Jim Hudziak says, admiring the brain’s folds. “Your brain’s not dead. It’s dynamic.”

In the back row of the lecture hall, a 20-year-old University of Vermont freshman sits clutching his right elbow with his left hand, willing his brain to be a little less dynamic. His right hand convulses with electric tremors his nervous system shoots to the appendage. He tucks the erratic hand between his knees, hoping to stabilize it.

The professor goes on to describe neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to develop neural connections and build synapses that create new paths and reroute signals. This ability to reorganize helps humans compensate for injury and disease and continue learning – a process that continues throughout most of life.

A student near the front asks: “When does the brain start to lose its plasticity?” Age 25, says Hudziak, a pediatric psychiatrist. His students get the point, but he emphasizes it anyway: Their brains are in the prime of their lives.

“What you do to your brain,” he says, “will determine what you become.”

After class, Josh Speidel, the freshman with the errant arm, slides his laptop into his backpack. He pushes his right hand into a pocket of his khaki cargo shorts, another strategy for muffling the tremor. He shuffles out of class with a couple of hundred other students. As the pack thins, his stride becomes more visible: His left leg lags behind the sure step of his right. And though the backpack is slung over both shoulders, his left hangs lower, as if carrying a heavy weight.

He walks the 50 feet to the bus stop, the day’s lecture on display.

At 7:04 p.m. Feb. 1, 2015, Josh Speidel, a 6-foot-7 power forward on his Columbus, Indiana, high school basketball team, pulled his 1999 Honda Accord out of a KFC drive-thru and into the path of an SUV. The mom at the wheel of the SUV was treated for minor injuries at the scene; her two sons were unhurt. The 18-year-old girl in Josh’s passenger seat suffered minor injuries and would be released from the hospital that evening.

Fall 2016 cover of Champion magazine.

But the impact left Josh with an injury more vexing. The force snapped his head against the Honda’s door frame and fractured his skull. The high school senior wasn’t carrying a wallet, and at first, emergency responders couldn’t ID him. Then, one recognized him from the sports pages of The Columbus Republic and beneath the basket at Columbus North High School games: “Oh, my gosh. That’s Josh Speidel.”

He was the dominant, muscular big man for the Bulldogs, a kid who still had one-third of his senior season remaining but was already the top scorer and rebounder in school history. He had been readying his body for Division I competition at the University of Vermont in the months leading up to the accident, chiseling his husky, towering frame into 225 pounds of college-ready muscle. But when emergency workers cut through the car’s roof to remove him, Josh was unconscious, vulnerable, weak.

Four weeks passed before he woke up. When he did, he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t grip a small Nerf basketball made for toddlers.

Since then, his parents have celebrated every new neural connection but expected more and more, God willing. And after he recovered much of what he had lost, they faced a choice. They could have kept him close to home in the community that retired his high school jersey and considers him a walking miracle. Instead, they sent him to college nearly 1,000 miles from home, just like he had planned.

All because a high school basketball player committed to a school – and the school committed right back.

Josh was the career leading rebounder and scorer in his high school’s history, averaging 25.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game his senior year. Submitted by Columbus North High School

Josh was 8 years old the first time he stepped into Memorial Gymnasium at Columbus North in southern Indiana. His family, new to the community, came to check out a treasured landmark: a high school gym that seats 7,071 people, making it one of the largest cathedrals to basketball in a state where the sport is religion. The gym lights were dim that summer day, his mom recalls, and her boy stepped to center court, spun around to absorb its size, and announced: “This is where I want to play basketball.”

Basketball. The sport casts a mystic spell in Columbus, the birthplace of Chuck Taylor, a World War I-era high school basketball team captain who went on to design the iconic shoe that bears his name. Forty miles away is Indiana University, Bloomington, where five Division I men’s basketball championship banners hang in the rafters of Assembly Hall.

Basketball loomed large over generations of Josh’s family, too. His 6-foot-7 great-uncle set scoring and rebounding records in Huntington, Indiana, in the 1960s. Dave Speidel, Josh’s dad, played for the Eastern High School Comets in the 1980s in tiny Greentown, Indiana. Mary Speidel – “Grandma Mary” to Josh – is perhaps the family’s biggest fan. At 72, she stands 6 feet tall and still follows Eastern in the high school tournament.

By the time Josh was 12, the family was piecing together what kind of athlete he would be – the kind who delivered when it mattered. His Little League team advanced to the 2009 Great Lakes Region Tournament championship game. Josh wasn’t the star. His team didn’t win. But he did hit two home runs in a game broadcast on ESPN. “They never remember that I was 2-for-17 before that,” he muses.

His mom, Lisa Speidel, confirms: “When the lights are the brightest, he steps up.”

Throughout his senior year of high school, Josh was preparing for his upcoming year with the Catamounts. Submitted by Greg Alexander

By the time he was in eighth grade, even his choice of high schools – Columbus East, the alma mater of his older sisters Jamie and Micayla, or rival Columbus North – was a subject of community interest. Josh chose North and the gym that captured his heart years earlier.

He earned a spot on the varsity starting five as a freshman. By that point, basketball occupied him year-round. When Kyle Cieplicki, then an assistant men’s basketball coach at Vermont and now an associate coach, visited to see Catamounts prospect Ernie Duncan of Evansville, Indiana, compete in an AAU tournament, he stuck around to watch Ernie’s younger brother, Everett, in the under-15 league. And he got his first look at Josh.

“He had a great blend of power and mobility,” Cieplicki says. “I saw him as a physically strong and powerful kid, but still pretty graceful. He had a combination of skill level and understanding of the game.”

And Josh wasn’t done developing. He led Columbus North in scoring as a sophomore. As a junior, he again led in scoring and also became the top rebounder, averaging 17.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Cieplicki returned, this time bringing head coach John Becker with him. When Josh stepped onto the court, he found his dad in the crowd and made eye contact with him before tipoff – their traditional pregame connection. Josh demonstrated a versatility in that game against Evansville Harrison High School – featuring the Duncan brothers – that solidified the Catamounts’ interest. “We decided we really wanted to prioritize him,” Cieplicki says.

Josh’s skills didn’t escape other schools’ attention. He received scholarship offers from 13 programs, including Vermont. His other top choices were Ball State University, Loyola University Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago – all drivable from his Indiana home. If he chose one of them, Grandma Mary could make it to some college games.

It rained both days of Josh’s official visit to Burlington, Vermont – a disappointment for the Catamounts coaching staff, which was trying to make a good impression. Becker and Cieplicki took the Speidels to dinner on Church Street, the eclectic main drag just off campus, then walked to Ben & Jerry’s for ice cream. Indiana might be famous for basketball, but Vermont has its own homegrown selling points.

In a photo from that evening, the coaches pose with Josh under the downtown streetlights, their arms draped around him and his around them. The recruit wears a gray long-sleeved T-shirt bearing seven green block letters: V‑E‑R‑M‑O‑N‑T.

“It’s hard to put into words, but when we talked to the Vermont coaches, they really connected with us,” Lisa says.

“They did a really good job of investing in Josh. We didn’t know how much, then.”

Two months later, on his 18th birthday, Josh announced his commitment to the Catamounts.

The announcement meant recommitting to hard work. Josh began lifting more and followed Vermont’s progress in the season. The coaches also followed his as he pushed his scoring average to 25.6 points and once again averaged 9.3 rebounds. Josh became the top career rebounder in school history as a junior; by December of his senior year, he was the top career scorer, too.

But one person still wasn’t persuaded that Vermont was the right choice. Grandma Mary told her son and daughter-in-law she wanted to meet the coach herself.

By the evening of his accident, Josh had chiseled his towering frame into 225 pounds of college-ready muscle. Submitted by Columbus North High School

They arranged the conversation when Becker visited for the Columbus North-Columbus East rivalry game. Josh’s grandmother told Becker she was concerned about him going so far away for college. That she had never flown on a plane but wanted to see Josh play college basketball. She even told him she worried Josh might get a tattoo in college. “That’s a grandma thing,” Lisa says. “You do not ink your body.”

Becker told Grandma Mary that as long as Josh was on the team, Becker would do everything he could to schedule some Vermont games in the Midwest. And he mentioned the Catamounts’ schedule for Josh’s freshman season, which included a game at Purdue University, about an hour from her home.

Grandma Mary softened. Perhaps, she later told her family, she might board a plane for the first time to visit Vermont.

On Jan. 30, 2015, Vermont coaches watched a live stream of the Columbus North game on their phones from the team bus. Josh didn’t play his best; knowing his future coaches witnessed it from a distance didn’t help. “Sorry you had to see that,” he texted Cieplicki. But Josh recovered the next night at Whiteland High School in what might have been the best game of his life: 33 points, 18 rebounds. Even a few dunks. That night, a girl from Whiteland – just two interstate exits north of Columbus – gave Josh her cellphone number.

The next day was Super Bowl Sunday. Josh lost interest by halftime, so he left the house, saying he was going to the gym to shoot.

After 17 months of helping Josh recover, Lisa and Dave Speidel supported him starting college in Vermont. “Why in the world would God bring Josh this far, to leave him?” Lisa Speidel asks. “He’s not going to abandon him.”

Dave and Lisa Speidel ignored the first phone call. What telemarketer would call during the Super Bowl? But when the phone rang a second time, they answered. On the line was a nurse from Columbus Regional Hospital. There’s been an accident, she said. We have your son.

The Speidels remember scenes from Columbus Regional in snapshots. The medical personnel outside their son’s room, looking at his parents as if they felt sorry for them. The image of their boy, alone and shaking on an exam table in a frigid room. “He’s cold,” Lisa announced, alarmed to see him so uncomfortable. No, the nurses responded. He was posturing, his brain sending signals he couldn’t control. The Speidels remember, too, the sheriff’s deputy escorting them to a neighboring room to meet the girl who was in their son’s passenger seat. Who are you? Lisa asked, trying to make sense of what this stranger – a high school girl from Whiteland – was doing in this nightmare.

The staff readied Josh for transport to Indianapolis, the only city in Indiana with a Level I trauma center. He traveled by ambulance – the February weather wasn’t fit for a helicopter. It also wasn’t fit for two parents to drive 50 miles on the interstate, racing at speeds of 90 mph as they tailed the ambulance. They peered through the back window, hoping to pick up clues in what they could see -- the bobbing heads of emergency workers trying to save Josh’s life.

Their prayers on that drive were urgent and specific. They asked God to flood them with every emotion so they could process all of them – the anger, the sadness, the denial – even as they sped on the icy highway. They wanted to work through each one there, in the car, so they would be prepared when they arrived at the hospital. Heads clear, hearts ready for whatever came next.

Two days after the accident, in the middle of college basketball season, a Division I men’s basketball coach from New England sat at a hospital bedside in Indianapolis. It was midnight, and they were alone, just player and coach. Becker tried to make conversation with a nurse, hoping to scrounge some scrap of information he could turn into hope. She offered none. And so he focused on the patient – the stillness of his eyelids, the way his chest rose and fell with the pump of a ventilator.

Basketball didn’t matter in those hours. It wasn’t the important thing. And yet, it was Josh’s thing, which made it the only thing. What can a basketball coach say to the parents of a basketball player who lies next to them, appearing lifeless? Becker offered this: “We’re with your family. Josh is a part of us, whether he plays basketball or doesn’t. He’s a Catamount.

Josh stands with Becker (left) during the national anthem at the Vermont-Purdue game nine months after the accident. Josh sometimes clasps his hands together to control the tremor in his right arm. Michael Conroy / AP Images

“We have a spot for him, whenever Josh can get to us.”

In those moments, his statement could have felt like an empty promise. But Dave was focused on the next step, whatever it might be, and Becker’s words offered possibility.

“OK, let’s go – Josh is going to be out of here in a week or 10 days. Sectionals are still a month or two away,” Dave told himself. “Let’s go – what’s next?”

Two weeks passed, and still, Josh slept. If he didn’t begin rehabilitation soon, doctors said, he might miss his window for ever recovering at all. One told the family to consider long-term care and to get comfortable with the idea that Josh might not ever be able to care for himself.

Lisa cut off that conversation. “You know what?” she told the doctor. “I’m not going to listen to you. We’re going to believe otherwise.”

Two more weeks passed. And then, on a day when winter had nearly turned to spring, Josh opened his eyes. Lisa turned to some friends gathered in the room, astonished: “Did he really just do that?”

At first, his eyes opened for only a few minutes a day. But Dave knew what eye contact meant to both of them.

Let’s go – what’s next?

In those weeks, Dave and Lisa took turns checking in on the house, catching up on bills and going to work. On one trip home, Lisa spotted a form letter from the university, alerting her that a deposit was due to hold her son’s spot.

She wrote the check and dropped it in the mail. “We don’t know when,” she told herself, “but he’s going to go.”

Josh’s waking minutes became longer. Six weeks after the accident, he could make sounds – just gutteral moans and growls. A team of therapists began strapping him to a tilt table and, degree by degree, over a couple of days, positioning him more and more upright. In a standing position, Josh couldn’t hold up his head – and only his dad was tall enough to hold it up for him – but a physical therapist asked his parents to bring in some basketball shoes. “I want to make this as real as possible,” she told them. “Basketball is what he knows – so let’s see what he knows.”

They placed Josh’s hands on a basketball, allowing him to touch the grain of the leather. They dropped the ball on the floor of the center, reassociating him with the bounce and its echo. More days passed, and he could toss a small Nerf lightly in his bed. His high school coach visited, borrowing language from practice to direct his player: “Josh, pass me the ball.”

One night in late March, on a night the Columbus North girls basketball team played in the Class 4A state championship, Josh sat in his hospital bed, watching the game on a laptop. The family thought he would fall asleep during the first period, but he stayed awake for the duration, his eyes following the action as his Columbus North classmates won the state title over Homestead High School, 62-56.

Let’s go – what’s next?

Ten weeks after the accident, Josh lobbed the Nerf ball in the direction of a hoop hanging on the back of his door. That same week, his dad thought he heard him say “Mom” after she had stepped out of the room. Lisa had to hear it for herself, so she placed Josh’s fingers on her throat so he could feel the vibration as she formed the word. He put his fingers on his own throat and repeated: “Mom.”

In his workouts, crawling helps him relearn how to swing his right leg with his left arm and vice versa while walking.

More names came within days. “Jamie.” “Micayla.” “Grandma.” He looked at a picture of his basketball team and ID’d his teammates. Which one is No. 32? his mother asked. Josh replied: “Me.”

Let’s go – what’s next?

One question haunted the Speidels in the weeks and months they spent waiting for their son to show them what he could do. Even if he opened his eyes, found his voice, relearned to walk – even if they dared to think he might once again shoot a basketball – other pieces of his brain might be forever changed. Would he still be the boy with the nonstop work ethic? Would he still have a big laugh? Would he still love Harry Potter? Would he even remember Harry Potter? Would he still tease his Grandma Mary that he wanted to get a tattoo of her face? Would he still have the soul of a star high school basketball player who, in a game of pickup ball, would choose first a top player from the girls basketball team? What about the part of his brain that made him charming, kind-hearted, funny – would it be intact?

Ernie Duncan’s birthday arrived in early May as he was concluding his freshman year at Vermont. Josh sent Ernie a video of himself, sitting up in bed at his rehab center. His words came slow, but clear. “Hey, Ernie. Happy birthday. I miss you,” Josh began. “I just wanted you to know that I’m a better basketball player than you. All right. Love you.”

Ernie Duncan forwarded the video to his younger brother, who was at his senior prom but watched the message again and again, laughing and crying in his tux.

This Josh felt like the one they knew.

Josh shoots baskets at Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium, where coach John Becker sometimes finds him shooting late into the evening.

On the evening the Speidels brought their son home to Columbus, the house lacked groceries, just as the family lacked energy. “Well,” Dave said, “let’s go out to eat.”

His son resisted. He had last stepped out in this town as a high school basketball star in the best physical shape of his life. His frame now carried 50 fewer pounds. Tracking conversations in public, where people spoke quickly and talked over one another, was difficult. And he still wasn’t mobile. “I don’t want to do that,” he said. “I’m in a wheelchair. I’m embarrassed.”

“It’s not about you,” Dave replied. “We’re hungry. Let’s go.”

Finally, after 117 days in three different medical facilities, Josh could be comfortable at home. But Dave and Lisa were determined not to let him get too comfortable. Laziness, no matter how appealing or deserved, doesn’t build brains.

Let’s go shoot baskets. Let’s go work out. Let’s read. Let’s go to church. Each outing yielded a new opportunity, a fresh synapse.

Even the times when Josh lost his grip on his walker created chances to learn. Once, he took a spill in the yard in front of his house. He lay in the grass, processing how to find his feet. He rolled over on all fours, bracing his hands against the ground and planting his shoes in a sure spot. As he tried to find his balance, his arms gave way, and he fell to the grass once again. “You better get up,” Dave told him. “Or I’m just going to leave you out here in the yard, and the ants can eat you.”

Josh attends an all-student-athlete meeting with his teammates.

In Columbus – even throughout Indiana – Josh was a hero, a remarkable testament to faith and hard work. Just days after coming home, he rose from his wheelchair and took a couple of steps to accept his high school diploma at Columbus North with the Class of 2015. That summer, he stepped to center court, with help from his parents, to hear his name announced as an Indiana All-Star. That fall, he joined the Catamounts for the Purdue game the coach once had pitched in his appeal to Grandma Mary, and an NCAA waiver allowed Josh to sit on the bench with the men he had hoped would be his teammates. Josh received a Mackey Arena ovation.

But often, in the darker days, he tired easily. The smallest tasks required thought, and thinking consumed energy. Many days, he says, he just wanted to sleep. Watch TV. Play with his cats.

When Lisa, an elementary school assistant principal, returned for the fall semester in 2015, her superintendent offered a proposal. What if Josh joined the school staff as an instructional assistant? It promised a paycheck, a structured schedule and a chance to put his brain to work.

Josh arrived at the school cautious and unsure of his role. But by the end of the academic year, he was confident enough to approach the teacher with his own ideas for presenting a math problem to a struggling fourth-grader. “I think they might get it,” Josh told the teacher.

He arrived the first day of class in a wheelchair and used his own legs to walk out on the last. In Josh, the children saw a living example of what hard work and tenacity can produce. And he picked up something, too – a possible new vision for his future. He thinks he might want to be a teacher.

The Speidels wanted to be anywhere but Columbus on the one-year anniversary of Josh’s accident. So they boarded a plane and went to the other place Josh feels at home – Burlington, Vermont. The Catamounts introduced Josh during a home game, bringing fans to their feet, welcoming him to the fold.

Two weeks later, Becker called the Speidels. “You know what? Let’s get him here,” the coach said. “Let us have him, and let’s see where this goes.”

This time, it was Becker asking, “What’s next?”

Dave liked the sound of that.

Suddenly, the previous months seemed to hold value, as if they had been building toward a purpose all along.

The Speidels’ work with their son took on new urgency. “I’m not going to be there to help you get into the shower,” Lisa would say. “So what are you going to do?”

One day this summer, Dave and Lisa drove to a laundromat in Columbus. They introduced their son to the machines and left him there with dirty laundry and some quarters. “We’ll be back,” they said.

A couple of hours later, the parents returned to find Josh and clean clothes, folded in neat stacks. “Well, look at that,” Lisa said. “The boy can do laundry.”

Josh (32) will practice and travel with his team this year, though his coaches are still deciding what practices will look like for him. One of the remaining barriers between Josh and basketball is a dystonia in his right arm, caused by muscle spasms sent by faulty brain signals.

On the Vermont campus, Becker’s office is in the same building as Patrick Gymnasium. Sometimes when he works late, he’ll be packing up at 6 or 6:30 p.m. and notice the sound of a ball bouncing against the hardwood. “It’s Josh, shooting,” Becker says. “This kid’s unbelievable.”

Josh continues to rebuild his brain, synapse by synapse. Besides the tremor in his arm and the limp in his gait, he ponders a question just as big, though common for a college freshman: Where does he fit into the social scene on campus? He still struggles to follow the rapid back-and-forth of party conversation, and sometimes rest sounds better than hanging out with teammates. He also lacks some of his old confidence.

Josh chats with a classmate before a lecture.

But in other ways, reports Everett Duncan, now Josh’s roommate, he’s getting along fine.

“I’m talking to this girl,” Josh told Everett earlier this semester. “She asked me to lunch.”

“Hey, that’s great,” his teammate encouraged. “You should go.”

“She probably just wants to take me to the dining hall,” Josh replied.

“No, no, take her to Church Street,” Everett urged. “Take her somewhere nice.”

In the training room one day earlier this semester, Josh was on all fours, the weight of his body helping to tame the relentless tremor in his right arm. Marc Hickok, Vermont’s co-director of athletic performance, told Josh to crawl with his legs extended, his right arm moving in rhythm with his left leg, then the left arm with the right leg.

That movement – one arm with the opposite leg and vice versa – is what babies imprint when they crawl before they walk. Hickok wants to ensure it is natural for Josh, too, so he can carry himself, once again, like a basketball player.

Josh tried to stand, but his body slumped on the training room floor. He found a sure spot on the mat and braced his body with his hands. Hickok, standing nearby, offered: “Try again.”

On these days in the weight room, college feels a lot like home. “Mom and Dad were like, ‘Josh, get up – we gotta go to the gym,’” Josh recalls. “‘Josh, get up – we gotta go shoot some baskets.’ Dad was more the physical part, like basketball and lifting. He went to the gym with me a lot. Mom made me sit down at my table and read or do homework.

“I look back, and I get mad at myself for getting upset with them for pushing me so hard,” he says. “I guess I didn’t realize just what that did for me.”

It’s the second week of Vermont’s fall semester, and Josh’s academic advisor wants to see him in her office. He isn’t sure why. Josh’s short-term memory can falter, but so far he feels on top of his 11-credit-hour load. He relies on the calendar on his phone to be an extension of his brain.

Josh meets with Loren Dow, an academic advisor in athletics.

Today’s lineup: an 8:30 a.m. class, a 10 a.m. appointment with Loren Dow, the athletics department’s assistant director of academic services, then an 11 a.m. workout in the training room.

On Dow’s agenda: Josh’s daily meetup with his academic coach. He missed his appointment the day before, she notes. He also didn’t show up one day the previous week. Josh is alarmed – he can’t place where he was or why he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. “Are you suggesting I don’t take my academics seriously?” he asks.

“No, no, no,” Dow reassures. “The big thing is, it’s cool if something comes up – but you just need to let her know. Going forward, we should keep that time sacred.”

Time. These days, all of it is sacred.

Josh’s senior year of high school – from signing his letter of intent with Vermont to meeting the girl from Whiteland – is lost to him. His parents tell him he and the girl had grabbed a soda right before the accident. “They weren’t even together five minutes,” Lisa says. “We don’t know what God’s purpose is or why their paths crossed, but they did.”

The next few years are critical, doctors say, for restoring brain function. Josh will spend much of that time in classes, workouts, tutoring sessions, practices, exams, games, team meetings – each one edging him closer to his goal. “I want to be able to put on a University of Vermont uniform and take the court and play,” Josh says.

Let’s go. What’s next?

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