"Jabs is my hero"
On December 30, 2011, Benilde-St. Margaret's High School faced off against Wayzata High School in a Minneapolis-area junior varsity hockey tournament. In the third period, two Wayzata players checked 16-year-old junior Jack Jablonski, sending him head-first into the boards. Jablonski lay motionless on the ice, unable to feel anything. Doctors later determined that he had suffered a severed spinal cord at the neck and two fractured vertebrae. After surgery, doctors told Jack's parents that their son would likely not walk again and would have only limited use of his arms.
When news of his injury reached the media, Jack received thousands of messages from adults and children in all corners of the nation and the world. National Hockey League players and other professional athletes added their voices, fundraising events were quickly organized, and students donned white shirts with such hand painted messages as "Jabs is my hero."
As Jack lay immobilized in the Hennepin County Medical Center's intensive care unit with a halo and brace stabilizing his head and body, his thoughts turned to the two opponents who had checked him. Both were reportedly calling regularly and taking the injury hard. Jack was receiving worldwide support and encouragement, but the opponents (whom the media did not name) were left to bear their own emotional burdens anonymously with their families.
Jack's mother, Leslie, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that her hospitalized son "keeps asking, ‘How are they [the two opponents] doing?' He's just so worried about them." Jack said he did not blame either player, because "no one ever intends to injure someone," and he did not want them "to live on dwelling over this."
"He's somebody all of us can look up to"
Almost a year earlier, on January 12, 2011, 17-year-old Belvidere North (Ill.) High School senior, Heriberto "Eddie" Avila, faced Sean McIntrye in a varsity wrestling match. McIntrye applied a single-leg takedown, a basic wrestling move that is not supposed to injure anyone. This time, however, Eddie suffered broken bones and a ruptured artery in his left leg. After two surgeries lasting nearly 12 hours, doctors had no choice but to amputate the leg above the thigh to save his life. The Illinois State High School Association's executive director said that in more than 30 years, he could not remember a similar injury in a wrestling match.
When Eddie awoke in the hospital and tearfully saw the outcome of his devastating injury, he too quickly thought about his distraught opponent. "There is no one to blame here," he told the New York Times. "This was an accident. We need to pray for Sean, too, because he needs to have peace in his heart. . . . I'm just really worried about Sean."
When his teammates visited Eddie in the hospital, one said that "We expected to help him, but he actually helped all of us. It was incredible to hear how courageous he was." "He's somebody all of us can look up to," said another teammate.
When Eddie visited McIntrye and his team two months later, McIntrye "got too choked up to talk" and "had tears in his eyes," but Avila told him that "he was an awesome guy." In turn, McIntrye and his high school's athletic director wrote letters nominating Eddie for the National Federation of State High School Association's 2012 National Spirit of Sport Award.
Courage to forgive
From the security of the keyboard, I could easily type that I understand how Jack Jablonski and Eddie Avila felt as they began coping with their life-changing injuries. I won't feign understanding, however, because, quite frankly, I don't know how I would react if I were a high schooler in their places. I suppose I could try to imagine, but imagination is just that.
What I do know, however, is that Jack Jablonski and Eddie Avila each deserve respect and admiration from athletes and non-athletes alike. Both academic honor students played their sports clean and hard for years before sudden events changed their lives. From their hospital beds, both quickly forgave opponents who meant no harm, but who will bear deep emotional scars for the rest of their lives.
Forgiveness in the face of adversity may take the greatest courage of all.
Sources: Karen S. Schneider, The Way We Play, Sports Illustrated, Feb. 27, 2012); Kelly Smith, A World of Support Rallies Behind Jabby, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jan 6, 2012; Bob Sansevere, "Jabs" and His Team Have Reason to Cheer, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan; 6, 2012; http://www.jabby13.com/ (Jack Jablonski's website); http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/jackjablonski; Dirk Johnson, After Amputation, Wrestler Tries to Ease Rival's Pain, New York Times, Mar. 5, 2011; Matt Trowbridge, Belvidere North Wrestler Shows Heart, Spirit After Amputation, Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, Jan. 31, 2011.