For The Tribune
Two potential NCAA Tournament teams, including the 13th-ranked basketball team in the country, went head-to-head Wednesday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
But on a night when a vast collection of talent took the hardwood, there appeared to be more interest in a team member who wasn’t even in uniform than any one particular player running up and down the floor. One by one, family, friends, former teammates and even former rehab mates wanted to give the kid in the black pants, black sweater and blue bow tie a big hug.
Story continues below gallery
Josh Speidel, the former Columbus North basketball standout, was back in Indiana for the first time since leaving in August for the fall semester at University of Vermont.
“I needed to see him,” said his aunt, Ella Walker. “Facebook wasn’t cutting it.”
The same could be said for Speidel’s parents, Dave and Lisa, and sisters, Jamie and Micayla. Although Jamie wasn’t able to make it back from Texas for the game, their parents came up from Columbus, and Micayla made it down from IU-Kokomo, where she is a senior.
Dave and Lisa were there to greet Josh when he got off the team bus an hour and a half before the 7 p.m. tipoff. Other family members and well-wishers would follow.
A life-changing event
Two years ago, fans came to see Speidel for a different reason. He was the star basketball player, the all-time leading scorer for Columbus High School and Columbus North. Multiple Division I schools offered scholarships, and he had accepted one from Vermont coach John Becker.But Speidel’s life changed the night of Feb. 1, 2015. With his senior season entering the stretch run, he was involved in a serious car accident near Taylorsville and sustained a traumatic brain injury. Doctors didn’t think he would live.
Becker, however, never wavered on the scholarship offer. After Speidel awoke from his coma, he set a goal of someday getting back on the basketball court and playing for the Catamounts.
“I would say I’m on track,” said Speidel, his speech still a little impeded. “I don’t know what this end goal will be or what the odds (are) of playing at the end of this, so I’m just trying to work and trying to just do what I do and train as hard as I can. God has His plan, and I’m just trying to work hard because I don’t know what this injury is going to do. But what He’s done already, I just have to keep working.”
Speidel’s physical limitations keep him from playing in games — or even practicing with the team. Yet, he works out with trainer Eugene Santos while the rest of the Vermont team is at practice.
Speidel, who was granted a waiver by the NCAA to practice and sit on the bench with the team without it counting against his four years of eligibility, has accompanied the Catamounts on road trips. He says he isn’t with the team — who he calls his “brothers” — 24/7, but it sometimes feels like it.
Becker, whose team lost to Butler 81-69, said Speidel always has a sense of humor and brings levity to a lot of situations.
“He’s a great reminder of what we have. And when we see him working so hard every day, I think it just forces everybody to appreciate a lot more and to work a lot harder,” Becker said.
Making big progress
Several people who saw Speidel on Wednesday for the first time since he left for Vermont in August said he has made great strides.Micayla Speidel said she has talked to him on FaceTime. She said he is always striving to get better, and she noticed that when she saw him at Butler.
Their grandmother, Mary Speidel, still noticed the tremor in Josh’s right arm but said he has come a long way since the accident.
“He still has a little bit of the shaking, but I’m just so proud of him for as much as he has fought to come back,” the Greentown resident said. “I told somebody the other day, ‘It took him 18 years to get to where he was, and this is only going on two years.’”
A few of Dave Speidel’s classmates from Eastern (Greentown) High School came to see the family. Two of them, Donna Garber and Tracey Corich, wore JoshStrong T-shirts.
Longtime friend and Columbus North classmate Devin Mann, who now plays baseball at Louisville, chatted with Speidel before the game.
“It’s great to see all the progress he’s made,” Mann said. “It’s great to see him out here having a good time, enjoying himself and getting back to some sort of normalcy. It’s just great to see him having a smile on his face.”
North coach Paul Ferguson brought most of his Bull Dogs team to see Speidel. When the schedule came out, Cathy King, the mother of a junior varsity and a freshman player, recommended the team go to the game in lieu of having a Christmas party.
Speidel also got to meet former Butler coach and current Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Stevens, whose team was in Indianapolis to play the Pacers on Thursday night, chatted with Speidel for a few minutes Wednesday afternoon.
When Speidel was doing his rehab in 2015 at Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana, two former RHI Patients of the Year would come by to visit and encourage him.Andrea Vellinga and Sarah Walton came to the game to see Speidel and chatted with him afterward. Vellinga, who was injured in the 2011 Indiana State Fairgrounds stage collapse, was surprised Speidel remembered her.
“He has come so far,” Vellinga said. “Oh my gosh. He was not moving when I saw him.”
Norma Harreld was a patient at RHI with Speidel, then did several weeks of outpatient rehab with him. Harreld, who had a grapefruit-sized brain tumor removed, had a big scar with more than 100 staples and only a little bit of hair and figures she scared him when he saw her.
But through their rehab, Harreld got to know Speidel and his parents. The last time she saw Josh was in August 2015, when his father still had to hold Josh’s belt when he walked.
“When I first met him, he was just learning to talk,” Harreld said. “Whenever we left RHI, he promised me, ‘We’re going to get back the way we were.’ I said ‘OK, I’m holding you to it.’ He has a ways to go, but he’s going to do it. He’s tough.”
Harreld’s sister, Carolyn Dornick, took her to and from rehab at RHI. She got to know the Speidel family, as well.
Harreld and Dornick are Butler fans. But Wednesday night, they were Vermont fans.
“It’s two miracles — her and Josh,” Dornick said.
Josh Speidel, who recently finished the fall semester at Vermont, is back in Columbus for a couple of weeks. He will be here until Jan. 9, when he returns for the spring semester.