As Sack begins long recovery, Millis community unites

May, 17, 2013
5/17/13
8:28
AM ET
They made the decision earlier in the week to spend the day on the slopes at Wachusett Mountain. This was nothing out of the ordinary; it was a trip that they had made almost every weekend during the winter. Standing at the summit, everything felt perfect. It was another great day with friends, the perfect way to end February vacation.

As the six friends began their descent and veered left towards the black diamond Smith Walton trail, Taylor Sack, Millis High junior and recently installed 2013 Mohawks football captain, had no idea that this day would be very different from the countless others that he had spent on the mountain.

He had no idea that, this time, his life would be irrevocably changed.

"We were going down, not really messing around, but a little bit near the side, and it was really icy on the edge. I got too close to the side and I ended up going down on my back on the side of the trail," remembers Taylor.

"I was thinking that if I hit something now, it will not be good…the next thing I knew, I was basically wrapped around a tree."

Taylor sat at the table with his parents, Clay and Stacy, slowly relating the details of that day and trying to recall exactly how he felt at that moment.

It has been a long two months since he was injured, but Taylor can still remember the smallest details: how his friends rushed to his side, how his skis went flying down the hill, and how his first instinct was to just get up.

"It felt like I had the wind knocked out of me. It hurt and I thought, okay I need to get up...it’s the weirdest feeling to not be able to move at all."

Taylor’s girlfriend, April O’Connell, rushed to his side and tried to comfort him. His friends knew there was a possible back injury and did not try to move him as they waited for the Snow Patrol. At this point in the retelling, Taylor smiled and shook his head. He remarked, "I just remember being cold because I had forgotten my jacket that day and all I had on was a sweatshirt. Apparently, it’s good for a spinal cord injury to be on ice, but I just remember complaining about my back being cold."

Even as he winds his way through the story of that day and the events that followed, his trademark sense of humor and contagious smile are never far from the surface.

“Normally when you’re skiing and you see someone going down on one of those boards [that are used for skiers injured on the trail], you think that looks fun, like a sled,” says Taylor with a rueful smile.

“But, you feel every little bump. It was a lot more painful than you would expect.”

A phone call every parent dreads

Clay Sack was working on his car in the driveway when April called. She frantically explained that there had been an accident and Taylor was being transported to the UMass Medical Center in Worcester. Most of the details were confused, except for one -Taylor was not moving.

Fearing the worst, the Sack family (Clay, his wife Stacy, and Taylor’s older brother Steve) made the trip to Worcester. Upon arriving at the hospital, they were met by a team of doctors, who confirmed that Taylor had broken five vertebrae. The doctors also confirmed that paralysis was a distinct possibility.

"That was the worst part," said Clay. "He asked if he could speak in front of everyone and said that Taylor’s condition was serious and that he may never walk again. That was when it started setting in."

Doctors worked quickly to stabilize Taylor, who was then moved to the Boston Medical Center for surgery. A rod and several screws were placed in his back to stabilize his bruised spinal cord and repairs were made to the vertebrae. Despite what was described as a successful surgery, doctors did not change the initial prognosis.

Wanting to quickly get Taylor into a rehabilitation program, Clay and his wife Stacy searched out the best facilities in the country. The choice came down to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston or the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga. While they understood that it would be stressful having Taylor so far from home, the Sacks still made the choice to fly Taylor to the Georgia facility.

"You don’t get a do-over on this. You have to do it right the first time," said Clay.

Taylor has little memory of those days after the surgery. He spent 10 days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and the doctors made sure he had plenty of morphine during his initial recovery period. However, it did not take more than a couple of days in Atlanta for Taylor to accept his situation and, as he put it, "get to work."

He shrugs, "I just don’t see the point in getting depressed; it doesn’t help anything."

Millis gets involved to support one of its own

Millis-Hopedale football coach Dale Olmsted also learned of the tragic news through a phone call. He was overseeing a typical early-morning, off-season workout at the St. Cyr Academy in Franklin the day after the accident. When the phone rang, he assumed that Taylor was going to tell him that he had overslept or some other benign reason that teenagers use when missing a weekend workout.

Instead, it was Taylor calling from the hospital.

"He said that he had hit a tree and broke his collarbone and then he said that he hit his back and can’t feel his legs," said Olmsted. "When Stacy went out into the hallway...that’s when she broke down and explained that he broke his back."

[+] EnlargeTaylor Sack
Andre Bourque/ESPNTaylor Sack (No. 11) was paralyzed in a skiiing accident last February, but remains a captain and vocal leader in Millis' offseason training program.
Olmsted went back into the gym and spent several minutes just watching the players go through their workouts. He had dealt with a difficult situation with a player while in Walpole, but experience does not make it easier to look players in the eye and say one of their own is hurt. After a few minutes to regain his composure, Olmsted gathered his players and explained the situation. Five players immediately joined him to visit Taylor in the hospital.

"He has got a heart bigger than a school bus," said Clay. "Dale sat in the waiting room from eight in the morning to seven at night, before getting to see Taylor. He’s emotionally invested in this."

Olmsted acknowledged that this hit him very hard. He remarked, "I’m a parent of three...you just hate to get that phone call. People feel helpless and they want to do what they can to provide resources."

Taylor’s teammates sprang into action immediately after hearing about the accident. Along with their head coach and Katie O’Connell, April’s mother, the students began developing ideas for fundraisers and getting word to classmates that Taylor needed help.

From bowling nights at Ryan Amusements in Millis to a trivia night to a Walk for Taylor to a fundraiser in neighboring Medfield, the Mohawks were constantly finding ways to fight for their teammate. Obviously, the money raised was important, but it was the support of his friends and knowing that they were working on his behalf that meant the most to Taylor as he battled through his rehab in Atlanta.

In addition to fundraisers, the Millis community has found numerous other ways to support the Sack family.

One of the first nights that Taylor spent in the hospital, the Sacks’ boiler broke. A friend went to the house and fixed it for free. While she was staying at the hospital with Taylor, Stacy’s car needed to be fixed. Clay handed the mechanic $200 and asked if he could be billed for the rest, as he also had to drive into Boston that night. The mechanic refused payment and the car was fixed and sitting in the driveway the following day.

While Clay and Stacy spent time in Atlanta, Olmsted’s family and the family of Mohawks captain Jon Baker made sure to keep Taylor’s older brother Steven fed. Baker and several of Taylor’s other teammates are also working with a local contractor, who Clay says that he had never met prior to Taylor’s accident, to build a ramp and deck on the back of the Sacks’ home.

Clay’s voice faltered as he described the generosity of the Millis community and what it meant to the family. The exhaustion of the preceding weeks, and a just completed drive from Millis to Atlanta, were evident, but his sincere gratitude broke through. He had trouble putting into words the thanks that he felt to the Millis community.

"I get tears in my eyes watching these people help out," said Clay. "I don’t know where we would be without them."

"Enormous is not a big enough word for it," he continues. "I have never seen anything like it. Everywhere I’ve turned, people have been there."

When he is asked about whether or not he felt the support of Millis while in Georgia, Taylor starts laughing.

"I had an entire dresser full of food and I’m not going to be able to eat half of it," he says. "My entire wall was covered in cards and pictures. That helps when you’re having a bad day."

He adds, "Even people I don’t know have been so supportive and awesome."

The support of his teammates should come as no surprise to anyone that knows about Millis and Millis High athletics. It is a small, blue-collar town with a tradition of hard work and standing up for one of its own in need. The term family is thrown around quite a bit when discussing high school sports, but at Millis High it is a concept that resonates. In 2009, the girls’ soccer team took home a Division 3 state title spurred on by the emotion of supporting a teammate whose mother had passed away during the season.

As Clay described, "Millis is different."

The football team under Dale Olmsted has been built in the image of the community. Through adversity the players have learned to rely on each other. Only four years ago, the administration held a meeting with Olmsted to discuss whether football would even continue to be a varsity sport. Not only did the program survive, this past fall, the Mohawks won their second straight Tri-Valley League title and made a second consecutive trip to the playoffs.

The team’s success was built through hard work and defined by the bond that formed between the members of the team. Through long, grueling workout sessions at St. Cyr or the Spartan weight room at Millis High, the players formed an identity and found common ground. They became a family.

"It’s just a huge part of that program," said Clay. "These boys, Taylor and his teammates, have a bond that will last a lifetime."

It is not only Millis that has come to Taylor’s aid. Surrounding towns such as Holliston, Medway, Walpole, and Medfield have all supported the events and donated to the cause. In fact, Medfield High showed up with 80 runners at the Walk for Taylor in March. It was such an impressive display that the volunteers at the registration table were brought to tears as wave after wave of light blue shirts signed up to run.

Another instance came from Abington High, which had beaten Millis-Hopedale in the playoffs in December. Four captains from the team skipped a celebration being held in their honor to come to Millis and take part in a strongman fundraiser on St. Patrick’s Day.

Clay had been unaware of the gesture from the Abington players. When he heard the story, he was at a loss for words. After a deep breath, he simply said, "Amazing."

Taylor, who was able to “attend” the fundraisers thanks to Facetime and Skype, was humbled by the display of support that all of the communities have shown.

"I can’t even believe that this many people came out for one person," he marvels. "Even when I was back in Millis, I went to the gym and there are posters for Fight Night for Taylor [see sidebar] and you’re looking at them thinking -- that’s for me. That’s pretty cool."

Grueling rehab prepared Taylor for return to the real world

The Sacks are unanimous that the decision to send Taylor to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta was the correct one. The facility’s energy and ability to connect with younger patients was crucial to Taylor’s rehabilitation. The therapists were able to push him to relearn many of the mundane tasks of daily life and to keep his independence and not sink into self-pity.

In Taylor, the therapists also had a patient that was accustomed to working hard and that has an almost unsinkable resilience.

"I’m going to do everything I can to walk," he says only a few days after returning from Atlanta. "I’m going to work as hard as I can, but if I can’t then I will just live my life like I’m just sitting down like a normal person. I’m not going to be depressed about it, I’m just going to keep my head up and live my life as normal as possible."

Taylor continues, “There are certain moments when it sucks because every single thing that you’re doing takes a lot more effort, but after a short time, the things that you practice get easier.”

If Taylor needed to get dressed, he was given a pair of shorts and told that the therapist would be back in a little while to check on him. No matter how tired he was, he had to pull his legs onto the bed or get a pillow to elevate them. Clay and Stacy helped push Taylor’s chair up a steep hill and the therapists were adamant that he needed to be left alone. He needed to learn to deal with these situations on his own. That attitude has stayed with Taylor on his return to Millis.

During his stay at the Shepherd Center, the staff and fellow patients utilized gallows humor to help stay positive through the hard work. One of Taylor’s biggest concerns as he prepares to return to school and be back with his friends is being able to keep things light.

He explains, "When I asked my doctor if I would ever walk again he told me to ask [another patient, who was from Tyngsborough, Mass.]. So, I asked him and he said, ‘No, definitely not.’ So, I told him, 'Good, I hope you never walk again either'. When you come back and say that to someone that you don’t know that well, they don’t know how to take it."

His re-introduction to school (described as “seamless” by Chuck Grant, Millis High's Director of Student Services) was made easier by Taylor’s ability to stay in contact with his classmates throughout his time in Atlanta. He attended classes and assemblies virtually and stayed in touch through social media, which has also allowed him to be a leader to his teammates while being far away.

"Taylor is the captain still," said Olmsted. "He’s a leader and he continues to be an inspiration for the guys."

"He’s the first one to send them an email to get to weightlifting," said Grant. "We have all fed off of his enthusiasm."

With a wry smile, Taylor relates, "Jon Baker texted me that only about eight people showed up at St. Cyr. So, I went to the Facebook group and left a not-so-nice message. I was like, I’m down here working hard every day just to get out of bed and you guys can’t even take an hour out of your week to work out."

After a quick laugh and a short pause, he continues, "I just think that people take it for granted what they have and what they can do. I did too."

Olmsted related, "I went to give him the gifts [from his teammates and the fundraisers] and I was worried that he was going to breakdown. He said to me, ‘Football was all I wanted to do, but right now it’s not important at all.’ He’s focused all his energy on getting better."

Taylor’s will to succeed, which helped drive the Mohawks to success on the field, is now being redirected to simply getting back on his feet. Even his family marvels at his endless determination.

"I felt that he was strong, but he has really shown us how strong,” said Clay. “I am amazed by his getting up in the morning to face the day. He’s been an inspiration and kept me straight."

Back at school, and focused on the journey forward

While construction was being finished on their house, the Sacks were staying at a hotel in nearby Franklin. Taylor had been back in Massachusetts for only three days and the agenda was packed with finding a gym, making sure that specialized equipment was being delivered, and finding the right time for his return to Millis High.

In the midst of all that, he also needed to make time to get fitted for a tuxedo. After all, Junior Prom is just around the corner.

On the first Monday morning that Taylor was back in Massachusetts, the Sacks received an automated call from Millis High to let them know that he was not at school. Clay got a good laugh at the enthusiasm of the school to get Taylor back.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Sack
Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.comTaylor Sack with fellow Millis co-captain Jon Baker at the recent Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association combine at Gillette Stadium.
It was a feeling that was shared by the majority of his classmates, who were all eagerly awaiting Taylor’s return. He rejoined his friends on Monday, May 6 – the same day that his therapist came to Millis High to address the school. He has been back into the daily routine of attending classes, doing homework, and dealing with his friends in the hallways.

He wants to go back and be a normal high school junior again. He wants it to be as though he never left.

"I just want to go back and not have everyone come up to me, people I’ve never even talked to before this, and say that they feel bad for me," Taylor says.

“I feel pretty lucky; I wasn’t wearing a helmet or anything when I was skiing and if I had hit my head, I may not even be here. I feel pretty fortunate. I still have my head, I can still use my arms...I just can’t use my legs.”

It was this attitude that made Taylor Sack a captain for the Mohawks. His focus, strength of character, and his ability to inspire others made him a natural leader on and off the field. Even in the face of adversity, he has not changed.

Sitting at the table in a crowded restaurant, adjusting himself in his wheelchair, and recounting the turmoil of the past two months, Taylor looks to his future with confidence.

“When I see people I just want to have a good attitude and let them know that I’m still happy," he says. "This didn’t ruin my life. I’m still the same person.”

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