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Five years after tragedy, support for Nick Malafronte stronger than ever

Jon Lyons/ESPN

In our lives, there are many things that shape us. Where we are from, where we go to school and the time period in which we grow up all have a profound impact on who we, as people, become. The biggest influence over anyone, however, is the bond of family and friends. No group of people influences someone more than family and friends and the love given in both of these circles is unequivocal.

For Abington resident Nick Malafronte, this bond has helped sustain him after surviving a horrific injury, a long and arduous journey to recovery that still is not complete, instill a sense of hope for the future and a golf tournament every July.

July 14, 2011

For Malafronte, that date started off like any other.

“It was a normal day working at The Grove (Island Grove, a park in Abington), lifeguarding," he recalled. "Near the end of the day, I was on the dock and a ball got tossed on the dock. We as lifeguards would always jump in the water once in a while to cool off during the day. So, a ball came up to me on the dock and I remember grabbing it and one of the other lifeguards was walking along the beach and I was planning on throwing it to him.

"I knew how shallow the water was; when I jumped to throw it to him my momentum just took me forward (into the water). I didn’t mean to flip or dive or anything, momentum just took me and I hit my head.”

That hit of the head would change the life of the oldest Malafronte son, and so many others around him. He was paralyzed, at the bottom of a town pool, and fighting for his life.

“I was underwater for probably 10 seconds. I knew that they [fellow lifeguards] would think I was joking so I had to blow bubbles. I blew all the bubbles I could to show that I was [expletive] up, you know. I passed out for maybe one or two seconds, but luckily the lifeguards realized that I was in trouble and came in. When I woke back up I was on my back and they were getting the backboard right under me, which was less than five seconds later. So, luckily, I was on a backboard no more than 30 seconds after it happened.”

The heroic work by his fellow lifeguards in those precious seconds saved Malafronte’s life, but his journey was just beginning.

Upon arrival, EMTs immediately realized the gravity of the situation and called for a med-flight into Boston, which landed just up the road in order to take him in. He was then taken on his first and only helicopter ride of his life, which he described as “kinda cool” and transported to Massachusetts General Hospital for emergency evaluations and procedures.

“I remember doctors coming up to me and asking my name and stuff. Then they gave me some sedatives and painkillers. I remember going into the MRI machine to get an MRI and them telling me I needed surgery. That’s all I remember until I woke up at 2 a.m. on the morning of the next day.”

His dad, Victor Malafronte, remembers the day clearly.

“I remember I was at work and one of my sons (Nick’s brother) called me at The Grove to say Nick had been hurt and I needed to come down,” Vic Malafronte said. “‘Hurt himself?’ I’m thinking it’s a broken arm at the worst. I drove down to the pond and he was laying on the beach all by himself with an ambulance there. I still didn’t really think it was too much.

“I went over to him and I looked him right in the eye, his eyes were all glassy. I asked him what happened and he said, ‘Dad, I broke my neck.’ I said ‘No, no no, that’s not it. It’s a stinger, like playing football.’ And he said, ‘No, dad. I broke my neck. I heard it.’ Things changed right then. From there the ambulance took him and then he was helicoptered into Boston. That was when I really knew how serious it was. The rest is..uh..(voice trails off)...Just horrible. The worst day of my life. The worst day of our all lives.”

When Nick awoke to the sight of his family in his room and knowledge of his friends anxiously waiting down the hallway, he could not speak right away. Due to the nature of his surgery, which forced doctors to operate through the front of his body rather than the back, he would not be able to utter any words for several hours.

“Later that day, I started to really think about it. I think I told people that I was going to walk again when I talked to them," he said. "Pretty much anything you can think of, they’ve been there to help me with.”

One of those friends anxiously waiting for Nick to wake up was Corey Donlan, who had known Nick since childhood. A day that began with his usual shift of caddying at a Boston Golf Club ended with him at Mass General, uncertain of his friend’s fate. In one of the crueler ironies of the entire ordeal, Donlan had prior plans to see Malafronte that evening.

“I was caddying at Boston Golf Club in Hingham and Nick was working at Island Grove. It was kind of ironic, I had applied for a job at Island Grove and didn’t get it, even though I live close to it”, Donlan said. “Ian Campbell, who worked at Eager Beaver Camp (which is at Island Grove) called me and said ‘hey, there’s been an accident and Nick is getting medflighted out of Island Grove.’ I was like ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’ I was standing at the seventh hole of this golf course that I caddie at and I just told them that I had to go because my friend had just got medflighted.

“I got in my car and drove right to the hospital and stayed there and waited to see what was happening and everything. I tried to contact anyone that would be concerned or want to know to see if they could come in. There were a lot of people there waiting to see him.”

Donlan and Malafronte have remained friends and regularly hang out together. But when Donlan first got a chance to see Malafronte after accident, he was stunned.

“I think it was the next day that we could see him. The Women’s World Cup was on and I remember watching that with him and he was just so positive about everything," Donlan admitted. "But still, he couldn’t move and it was so messed up. He was lying there and couldn’t really do anything. It was a totally new thing for me. Now that I think back, it wouldn’t be weird for me now giving him a drink or him lying on the couch, but back then I wasn’t sure what to do. I kept thinking ‘I don’t know if I should do this or what am I doing or should I do this, or am I doing this wrong?’ It was scary in that sense."

After initial surgery and recovery, the attention of the Malafronte family shifted into how to help Nick move forward. That would soon lead to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a facility that specializes in spinal cord injuries. The tireless efforts of his family, his mom, dad, and his brothers Sam and Jack cannot be overstated. His parents essentially moved down to Atlanta with him and his friends kept in close contact, with some making the trip down to visit him.

In addition to Donlan, several lifelong friends have been with Malafronte every step of the way.

“Greg’s (Cronin) always been there. I’ve known him since he was in my second grade class. Then Kristian (LaPointe), Ian and Andrew (Crosta) I’ve been friends with since before and during high school. Andrew and I became closer because freshman year of college we went to Westfield (State University) together and were going to room together sophomore year, until my injury. The girls, too. They help out at the tournament every year and have always been there for me.”

The group that continually surrounds Malafronte goes beyond just these names; he has a group of childhood, high school and college friends that have remained close and number over a dozen people.

While these deep bonds have lasted and persevered through Malafronte’s injury and recovery, not every step of the journey has been a happy one. Lowering the veil of his trademark positivity, Malafronte lamented that his life had changed, and not completely positively.

“The first six months definitely changed some things," Malafronte said. "All my friends and family were wicked helpful. The first two months I couldn’t move my arms at all. Everyone had to get used to that and help do everything for me.

In about the only time speaking that he put his head down and got quiet, he continued, "Mentally I was still the same, cracking jokes and stuff, but it was definitely a change for them. I hate to say it, but they basically took care of me."

Donlan also agreed that while their bond did not waiver, the earlier parts of the process presented some unknown and frightening challenges.

“I kind of thought that it was going to change a lot,” Donlan said. “The way he was talking was that it was going to be more of a temporary thing and I didn’t really know. As a 19 year old kid (at the time), you don’t really know anything about paralysis or anything like that unless it happens to you.

"So you have no clue how long it’s going to take or if he’s going to be able to walk again or if he’s even going to be able to talk or anything like. There’s a lot of stuff that you just don’t know. Obviously I was going to be there for him no matter what, but it was scary to think that we weren’t going to be able to do all of the same things that we had done before.”

He continued, “I determined myself to make sure that (drifting apart) wasn’t going to happen, but when we were talking with his mom about the process of getting him back to where he needed to be, the topic of going to Atlanta and the Shepherd Center came up. That’s far apart and I didn’t know how long he was going to be down there.”

However, even as the group has battled through some low points, Malafronte’s spirit has been a beacon for everyone. Regardless of whether you ask his family, friends, doctors or anyone else that knows him, Malafronte’s positivity has been a symbol of who he is.

Growing up, Malafronte was known as outgoing, funny and loquacious. The type of the kid that was popular among classmates but gave his teachers the occasional headache. This gregariousness has benefitted him since the injury. Doctors told him he may never have use of his arms again and virtually no overall mobility, but he didn’t take no for answer.

After years of grueling rehab that consists of several hours-long sessions per week, he has use of his arms and continues to get stronger. His rehab at Journey Forward has continued to show encouraging signs and Malafronte’s belief that he will walk again has not receded.

When asked for examples about how the bond with his high school classmates and teammates has evolved over the last five years, Malafronte emphasized that it was just their relationship as friends that he has valued most.

“My parents take care of me most of the time, but if my parents want to go out for a night my friends are always there to help. They aren’t afraid to empty my bag or doing anything I need. And it’s not just taking care of me; it’s just them being my friends. Whether we are out at a bar or whatever, they act like nothing’s different. We go out every weekend together.”

Why don’t we just do this for Nick?

As things settled down in the months following his injury, friends and family alike wanted to know what they could do to help curtail the massive financial cost that an injury of this ilk would place on the Malafronte family.

His aunts, Jean Leary and Michele Cummings, helped organize an initial fundraiser at the Abington VFW for him. The “Night for Nick” helped bring people from across the town of Abington together in support of Malafronte. It was also the night that he was introduced to Dan Cummings (no relation), the founder of Journey Forward. Not long after, Malafronte began rehabbing there.

For Leary, the motivation for the event and later, for the golf tournament, was twofold.

“I think it just speaks to the closeness of our family,” Leary said. “I live in the same town as they do, right around the corner. I have two boys, my sister (Nick’s mom) has three and they are all right around the same age. The boys are all close. And the long term prognosis is that this could be lifelong care. Eventually, what if Di and Vic (Nick’s parents) aren’t there.

"We really need to be forward thinking and be prepared for being able to help him for the rest of his life. Our goal is that he’ll be able to get full use of his hands and then his legs, but if that doesn’t happen you have to have a plan B.”

In the wake of the “Night for Nick”, his friends helped organize a 3 on 3 basketball tournament along with his brother Jack and Malafronte’s aunts. They began, however, to ponder a way to organize an event that could continually help Malafronte throughout his recovery. The idea struck Donlan first.

“I played in a charity golf tournament and thought to myself ‘why don’t we just do this for Nick?’”, Donlan remembered. “I took it upon myself to look around and talk to people and try to get it going. I called around and got River Bend Country Club to latch on to it. They were really helpful in me getting things rolling. But I was still only a 20 year old kid doing it and I think people weren’t taking it as seriously. I made posters and flyers and hung them up everywhere in Abington. Anywhere that someone would go they would see things about this tournament.”

“This is the fourth year of the tournament, with my five year anniversary (of the accident) on July 14th,” Malafronte said. “It was almost a year after the accident that it started. There was a big one-time fundraiser at the VFW, which was awesome. Then Corey, he’s all about golf as a former captain of the golf team, he wanted to do a golf tournament and a yearly fundraiser. He talked to me and I said it was a great idea.”

While the idea was agreed upon, the planning for the first tournament was a bit rocky, that is until Malafronte’s aunt stepped in to help.

“People started to sign up but things still weren’t fully there and we still needed help organizing it. Then I got into contact with his aunt Jan, who was able to really help us get the ball rolling and get some great raffle prizes. I’m more of the face of the organization of it, but behind the scenes she is at the center of everything. She organizes everything and gets the prizes and signs and everything. She doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, but behind the scenes she’s there for all of it,” Donlan said.

“When it happened they (Nick and his friends) were kids just into college. So, I think (me) being a little older and having more experience helped. I had helped run the big fundraiser for him (Night for Nick) and I’m involved in a lot of things in our town. I just knew that it needed to be organized and done right so that people wanted to come and wanted to partake in something that would support him year after year,” Leary said.

Malafronte agreed, adding: “We had no idea how to run a golf tournament. The first year was a little tough, but we had my aunt help us, she’s helps with the raffles and everything. He wanted to make it a yearly thing and we did. We get all my friends plus other adults to play in it, it’s awesome.”

That first year, no one knew what to expect. There were fears that the attendance would be sparse or that things would be rocky during play or at the ensuing luncheon. Those fears dissolved once the day began and the support for Nick became evident.

“I remember the day of the first tournament came and we didn’t fully know what to expect and there were 152 golfers there,” Donlan said. “It was incredible. I was blown away at how much support Nick has.”

The lead up to the tournament is an undertaking that requires months of planning. River Bend Country Club in West Bridgewater hosts the tournament every year. Prior to the day, the organizers are responsible for signing up the over 150 golfers, gathering raffle prizes and planning out the day.

“Leading up to it is busy. You gotta get the raffles, the silent auction and all of that stuff squared away. Corey and my aunt help a lot getting it organized. Erin Hollander (another lifelong friend) helps a lot. Then we have to get whole sponsors and everything else needed, which is a lot of work. It’s a real busy lead up,” Malafronte said.

The day begins with registration at 7:30 am, but much earlier for the Malafronte clan. Leary and Cummings are there virtually at dawn and are followed not long after by Donlan, other organizers and Malafronte himself. A shotgun start at 9 am begins a day filled with golf that brings together over 150 golfers and friends of Malafronte. At the conclusion of the golfing, a luncheon is served and raffle prizes and a silent auction takes place. The day raises thousands of dollars for Malafronte’s recovery fund each year, which he is committed to using to not only help himself, but others.

Donlan, for his part, counts himself lucky that he is able to play in the tournament he helps plan.

“The day of I’ll wake up at 5:30 or 6 and drive to River Bend and Jan will already be there ready to go with Nick’s other aunts and relatives. They deserve all the credit. I show up, greet people, show them where to go and then get ready to golf. I’m very lucky that I get to play in it. There are other people that come to help like Melissa Dicarli and Erin Hollander and Kristen Reynolds. Then after I golf there’s the lunch which is awesome. I get to play golf and hangout with my friends, so it’s a pretty good day for me,” Donlan said.

After greeting the participants, Malafronte hangs out at the tenth hole and speaks with anyone and everyone who comes by, his outgoing personality bubbling over. At the luncheon, he mingles with guests who dine on the dinner provided and, in the signature moment of the day, makes a speech at the conclusion of the luncheon.

In 2016, over 170 golfers participated in the tournament and nearly 200 people attended the luncheon. That number is the highest it has been since the inception of the tournament. It was also the highest attended tournament in the history of River Bend. Despite the day being centered around Nick, everyone involved enjoys the event.

“Stay Strong NMAL. You see it all over town. It’s more of a town commitment to the Malafronte family, which says great things about them and the town. It’s a great town, that’s why everybody is here,” said Paul Doyle, an Abington resident and tournament participant.

Emily Lyons, another one of Malafronte’s close friends, volunteers at the event. She is continually blown away by turnout.

“It’s heartwarming. I don’t even have words for it. It’s overwhelming to see how many people come out year after year and how many people do as much as they can to help him. It’s overwhelming and it’s awesome,” Lyons said.

Taking in the day, Vic Malafronte couldn’t help but reflect on the support his family and his son Nick have gotten over the last five years.

“Honest to God, it touches my heart. Every day since he got hurt, people have been there. I have so much thankfulness for everyone. They’ve done so much. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I could sit here for an hour and tell you everything that everybody has done for Nick. My wife and I are so appreciative of everything. We just love everybody. Life rolls on, that’s it.”