Trying to Be Travis

By, Brendan Collins

Getting ready to head out on the road for another scouting adventure this morning and I got a call from my mother that Travis has been taken off life support. We knew this was likely the day before but there isn’t anything that can prepare you for that call.

Words could not begin to describe the impact Travis Roy has had on my life. I do not believe I am alone in that statement which further speaks to his character and the expansive positive footprint he left on this world. On the ride down from Vermont to Philadelphia tonight I was hoping I would feel a sense of happiness and ease knowing Trav was now in a better place, out of the wheelchair and skating again. However, my selfishness overwhelmed all my senses and was overcome with a sadness of what life will be like going forward without my cousin, my mentor, my friend, my hero. The terrifying realization that next time I am in a pinch or need some advice and I call his numer there won’t be anyone on the other end fills me with an emptiness I can’t even fully comprehend.

For my brother and I, Travis was our hero long before he ever stepped foot on the Boston University campus. He was our first cousin and 11 years our senior and at family events would have us out in the driveway playing hockey. He was basically using us as cones to stickhandle around but our excitement to be around him and watch him at his craft overshadowed any realization of our real purpose as a practice substitute. As I said in my brothers wedding best man speech that in our childhood we didn’t want to be like Travis, we wanted to be Travis.

He had a dream to become a Division 1 College hockey player and before we even knew what that meant that became our dream as well. We taped our sticks like Travis, we wore his number, we did everything we could to emulate him. We went to hockey camp every summer in Yarmouth, Maine where our Uncle Lee (his father) ran the camp and Travis was our counselor. I remember my parents taking us to watch him play at Hockey Night In Boston and took us to watch him play for Tabor Academy. Unlike most people whose heroes are people they may never meet or have an encounter with; we had the benefit of it being family.

I remember being 7 years old and on our family dock in Colchester, VT and urging Travis to go to UVM. He had been recruited by every major college hockey program in the country. I didn’t know anything about the landscape of college hockey or what Boston University was I just knew that Burlington, VT was close and Boston, MA was not.  He would have familiarity if he went to Maine being the hometown superstar or going to Vermont where his father is in the hockey hall of fame but instead he did what he always did, he pushed himself outside of his comfort zone and chose the defending national champion Boston University to play for heralded coach Jack Parker. Arguably the greatest developer of NCAA talent in the history of the sport.

We had tickets to go see him play the second weekend of the season against UVM but his career obviously cut short with a tragic accident going head first into the boards 11 seconds into his first college hockey shift. The small town kid from Maine who despite all odds climbed his way to the top of the college hockey world only to see it all disappear in a matter of seconds was devastating for all who had followed him.

As my brother and I came of age; we took off furiously in our quest to play NCAA D1 hockey just like Travis in our #24 jerseys. We gained an even greater appreciation for how difficult that dream was to accomplish. Only about 300 players every year will attain the dream of making it to NCAA D1 hockey and of those players the overwhelming majority are over 6ft tall and come from Ontario, Minnesota, Michigan, Massachusetts or major hockey markets. Travis was sub 6ft, he was from small town Yarmouth, Maine and he played high school hockey in his hometown through his junior year before going to Tabor Academy.

We set out on the same dream, we left our small town high school program to attend prep schools and left it all on the ice and in the classroom to achieve that goal. We didn’t reach that pinnacle but we had Travis with us every step of the way watching our games, being supportive, giving advice and mentorship when needed.

As we got older it was more and more evident that while we were spending our admiration on his hockey playing ability; the true hero of Travis was deep within and it showed to the rest of the world after his accident. The blonde haired, blue eyed, big smile freshman who was on top of the world a few months prior to accident would return to campus a year later confined to a wheelchair. He would attend class, go to the lunch room, to the dorm and try to fit in like every other college student but with nurses and aides helping him as he wasn’t independent. His fight for independence and to live a normal life led him to write a book about his life titled “Eleven Seconds” and start the Travis Roy Foundation to help other spinal chord injured survivors and medical research for a cure. After earning his degree he went on to become a motivational speaker talking to everyone from elementary students on the importance of a positive attitude and perseverance to corporate America sales teams and leadership groups on setting goals and being a leader on their teams.

While I was attending Holderness School, Travis came to speak to the entire student body about his pre-injruy and post-injury life and it motivated a group of my friends to sign up to play in the annual Travis Roy Foundation Wiffleball Tournament. To this day, 17 years later those same people show up year after year to raise money and awareness and each member of that team has their own unique and special relationship to Travis. One of our teammates, Allie Skelley, was my hockey coach at Holderness and he too had his NCAA D1 hockey career cut short from a neck injury. I saw firsthand the impact Travis had on his life and it was the first time that I realized just how much Travis meant to people outside of our family.

As I went on to college I worked for Travis over the summer months as a night aid helping him get out of the chair and into bed and being around if he needs anything during the night. That experience was another lens I saw Travis out of which was far different than the hockey player, the motivational speaker, the mentor and the loyal, supportive cousin. Of all the jobs his nurses and aides perform the nighttime aid is the easiest. You don’t need any kind of nursing background and you don’t do anything technical but even with that being said, the simple act of putting Travis to bed at night is an eye-opening experience. I remember my first night it took me a half hour to get him from the wheelchair to the bed. I went into the room beside him and cried; I just couldn’t imagine having to do that every day and I realized how clueless I had been to that point on what Travis really goes through on a day to day basis.

The job was to give Travis his nighttime pills, undress him and then put him to bed. However this task required putting a netting behind him so that I could attach that to a crane-like device and lift him up and out of the wheelchair so he’s suspended in air in this net and then wheel the device to the bed where you then have to slowly lower him until he’s laying down. You have swap out his urine bag, you clean some equipment and plug in the wheelchair. One time I forgot to plug in the wheelchair and the next day I went to my other job and came back and Travis said “hey you forgot to plug in the wheelchair” and I had never felt so awful. He realized how bad I felt so he sarcastically said “don’t worry about it, I just cancelled all my meetings and was confined to my house all day. Don’t worry about it.” The salt he was hurling on the wound sunk in and I never made that mistake again.

The hour of bed prep every night was something I looked forward to all day. It was a time alone one on one with Travis to pick his brain about life, about hockey, about movies; really anything that was going on and I cherished it. What Travis didn’t know and I probably didn’t appreciate fully at the time was his hero status in my book rose dramatically after seeing more behind the scenes what he was dealing with every day. The hockey player my brother and I looked up to had become more than a sports figure hero with his positive attitude, his perseverance and his selflessness to live a life for other people. That superseded anything he ever did as a hockey player.

Everything good that has come in my life has come trying to be Travis; setting goals, chasing those goals with everything I had just as he had done. My brother and my childhood was almost exclusively dedicated to that dream of playing college hockey and once we got to college it quickly became trying to be successful after school. Patrick went on to go to Law School and I went into the finance world with the shallow goal of trying to become rich. After a few commission checks I realized pretty quickly money wasn’t a big enough motivator for me and I had to follow my passion which was hockey. The sport Travis introduced me to in the backyard of our house and in dirveways at every family get-together. In 2016 my boss Steve Wilk and I launched an independent hockey scouting service, Neutral Zone, LLC. We had a very ambitious dream to become the go-to-source for rankings and player evaluations in the industry. Travis was very influential during that period, he believed in what we were trying to do and was someone I turned to for advice and counsel with each new idea for the company.

Before Travis went in for surgery a fews back I wrote him a note and while the note is personal; I wanted to share the closing paragraph.

I have shaped, molded and built my life around your example, I have followed your lead in every way that I could and I might not be a “success story” the way Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is but all the good things in my life have come from trying to be you; every success or accomplishment has been inspired by you. Today I am very happy, I am living my dream and I am so thankful and grateful for the role you played in that whether you knew it or not.

Wishing you all the best in the days and weeks and months and years to come; I wish, as we all do, that we could do for you what you have done for us but that debt will never be paid in full.

In closing I am reminded of the movie Forest Gump; one of the greatest films of all time. Travis and I loved movies and we’d pick a movie at least once a week when I worked for him to watch at night before bed. One night we couldn’t decide on a new movie so we watched Forest Gump together for the 100th time. For those who live under a rock and never seen the movie Forest lives an incredible life ranging from learning how to dance from Elvis Presley to playing football at Alabama under famous coach Bear Bryant to going to Vietnam and winning the Congressional Medal of Honor to starting a shrimp business and being an early investor in Apple Computers. Jenny, his love interest, was abused by her father as a child and went on to embrace the free-spirit lifestyle of the 60’s and 70’s and lived a shallow life of drugs, sex and rock & roll. At the end of the movie she is sick and on her death bed and listens to Forest tell her about some of the amazing things he had seen in his travels all over the world. In a somber feeling of regret Jenny says “I wish I could have been there with you.” Forest, without hesitation, responds “you were.” She was with him in spirit everywhere he went and, in many ways, she was his purpose, his guiding light, his reason for doing the things he did.

Although the accident left Travis motionless for the remainder of his life and there were so many things he probably wished he could have done and been there for; he was. He was there with us in every step of our own journeys and will continue to be.