When the University of Vermont tipped off at its home basketball opener on Nov. 19, one of its prized recruits — 6-foot-7 freshman forward Josh Speidel — was on the court.
But the Columbus North standout was in street clothes instead of basketball gear.
Speidel has made significant progress during his recovery and rehabilitation from a severe brain injury that resulted from a Feb. 1, 2015, auto accident near Taylorsville.
With many accomplishments already checked off on his recovery to-do list, being ready to play for a major college basketball program is just one more challenge Speidel must work to overcome.
Speidel won’t play in Vermont games this year, but he was granted a special waiver by the NCAA to participate with the basketball program without losing one of his four years of athletics eligibility.
“Obviously, I have a long way to go, but I’m a lot closer than what I was,” Speidel said.
Speidel’s story is well-known in the area, where he became North’s all-time leading scorer in boys basketball before the late-season accident during his senior year left him hospitalized and his future in doubt.
The communities in Bartholomew and Jackson rallied on his behalf, and Speidel physically rallied himself — released from medical centers in time to graduate with his senior class that June.
In the fall of the 2015-16 school year, Seymour Superintendent Rob Hooker and the school board approved hiring Speidel to work as a classroom instruction assistant at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School.
His mother, Lisa Speidel, is the assistant principal at Brown, while his father, David Speidel, works for Frontier Communications in Seymour.
He worked with students individually and in groups, he helped them with class lessons and talked about life in general.
That was the beginning of his climb back to normal activities.
Keeping his commitment
Vermont coach John Becker flew to Indianapolis after hearing of Speidel’s car accident, and spent time with him and his family during his early days of hospitalization in Indianapolis when the teen’s prognosis was uncertain.Becker made it clear that the university would honor its scholarship offer — no matter whether Speidel would ever play on the team.
Due to hard work and dedication, Speidel was able to enroll in college at Vermont this summer and now attends practices and travels with the Vermont team, which has stuck with him every step of the way during the past 21 months.
You can spot Speidel in the team photo on the Catamounts’ basketball website. And you can click on his bio, just like you can with all of the other Vermont players.
But unlike the other players, Speidel still has much to do before he can return to the court in game conditions.
Trainers and the team physician take him to medical appointments and go to therapy appointments with him. The therapist comes to the gym and designs physical therapy workouts for Speidel to do on the basketball court.
Becker said at the start of the summer and fall semesters, staff would help Speidel get to the right buses and find his way around campus to his classes.
Becker said Speidel has made great progression since he arrived there in June and has become completely independent.
“Basketball-wise and school-wise, it’s going as good as I think it could be,” Speidel said. “I’d say my biggest struggle is keeping that good attitude. It’s going to take awhile, but I’m on this journey.”
After spending most of last year as a classroom instructional assistant at Brown Elementary in Seymour, where his mother Lisa is assistant principal, Speidel is back taking classes himself.
Speidel took six hours this summer at Vermont, earning B’s in both an online class, Geology, and a lecture class, History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
This fall, Speidel is taking 10 hours. His classes include English, statistics, a healthy brain class and a student-athlete success class.
“It’s been tough, but a good attitude through this is going to work out in the end,” he said. “When I think of what I want the end result to be, that just makes me work hard.”
After a year of rehabilitation at home, his family concluded that he was ready to live on his own 1,000 miles away.
While it was once a struggle to complete everyday activities such as dressing himself or brushing his teeth, those days are behind him.
Speidel continues to work toward his goal of one day playing basketball for the Catamounts.
And he gets to talk basketball every day with his roommate and and teammate, Evansville native Everett Duncan.
“We are just continually blown away by Josh’s continued progress,” Lisa Speidel said. “His recovery, his healing — he continues to defy all the odds. His overall demeanor, his attitude, his spirit is ‘I’m beating this. I’m going to do what I love.’ There are times he has every right to have a terrible attitude and be mad at the world, and that’s not what he decides to do.”
Driving is one thing Speidel cannot yet do on his own, but freshmen at Vermont can’t have cars on campus anyway.
Speidel has an academics coach who helps him get things organized, lay out his week in advance and lets him know what he needs to focus on and study. Tutors also are available.
“I love class now,” Speidel said. “Having taken a year off, you sort of miss homework and teachers and learning. I hadn’t been in an actual class for about a year. Vermont is great — just meeting the professors and new people and new friends.”
Back to basketball
While he was recovering at home last year, Speidel would shoot baskets in his driveway. His father Dave would rebound for him.Since arriving at Vermont, Speidel has been working on dribbling, shot form and other basics with athletics trainer Eugene Santos.
Although he still experiences tremors on his left side, Speidel now can dribble the basketball up to 50 times with his left hand. Dave Speidel said his son was able to dribble only about three or four times with his left hand before he left for college.
Speidel also has started to walk backwards while dribbling. Santos has him doing drills where Speidel will throw the ball off the wall and catch it with one hand.
“Just from a physical and a mental standpoint, he continues to get better,” Becker said. “It’s really encouraging. He still has a long way to go, but he’s battling and working to continue to get better.”
It hasn’t been uncommon for Becker to come into his office at 6 a.m. and find Speidel already in the gym shooting by himself.
Because he still is dealing with the tremor and some physical limitations, Speidel hasn’t been able to actively scrimmage with the team.
Becker said Speidel continues to strengthen his left side and left hand and do some fundamental work to get his dexterity back.
“Josh has been a joy to have around,” Becker said. “He’s such and inspiration to all of us. Every day, he continues to amaze with his determination and his ability to keep pushing forward. Everyone is taking to him, and it’s been really fun to see.”
Lisa Speidel said she and her husband usually talk with their son about three times a week. They have made a couple trips to Vermont, including a surprise visit for the Catamounts’ exhibition opener.
Lisa Speidel said the family continues to be pleased with how well her son is doing at Vermont.
“There are times when he sits back and says, ‘I want to be out there playing,’” she said. “But he doesn’t let it get him down. He uses it as motivation.”
With a goal of someday playing basketball again, Dave Speidel said the Vermont coaches continue to push his son with that outcome in mind.
“It’s amazing what he’s done so far,” he said. “God keeps blessing him, and we’ll see where this story ends.”