It’s been 16 months since the first time Vermont and Purdue met on a basketball court, as they will Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Milwaukee. Their only previous meeting, a 107-79 Boilermakers home victory at Mackey Arena on Nov. 15, 2015, should have been an opportunity for Vermont’s Josh Speidel to shine less than two hours from where he starred at Columbus (Ind.) North High. But the nature of his homecoming was altered after Speidel suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident nine months earlier.
Purdue Coach Matt Painter requested that Speidel, who was in a coma for four weeks after the accident, be introduced before the game. The Purdue crowd gave Speidel a standing ovation, during which fans held #JoshStrong signs and Purdue players, led by Speidel’s former AAU teammate, Ryan Cline, exchanged hugs with the former Indiana high school standout. Speidel also received special permission to sit on the Catamounts’ bench during the game.
“It’s hard not to get emotional watching that,” Vermont Coach John Becker said Tuesday. “It’s one of the most touching things I’ve ever been part of. To now have Josh here, part of us, and to go back and play Purdue, it’s not an easy matchup, but it just seems ironic. I just think this is all connected somehow.”
To be clear, the 6-foot-7 Speidel will be on the Catamounts’ bench again Thursday against the Boilermakers, but he still has a long way to go before he realizes his dream of playing in a game for Vermont. Speidel was granted a waiver by the NCAA to practice and travel with the team this season without using a year of his eligibility. He had to relearn to talk and walk after the accident, and while doctors have told him it could be five years before his brain fully heals, he’s made great strides since he was introduced at Mackey Arena.
“Back then, I’m not lying when I say I couldn’t do close to anything, really,” Speidel said. “I was having trouble walking.”
On Tuesday, as his teammates prepared for Vermont’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012, Speidel was working on his jump shot and doing some running off to the side. On Wednesday, he was working on his hops. Speidel’s roommate, Vermont redshirt sophomore Everett Duncan, recently told him his next goal should be to touch the backboard with both hands.
“He’s just a constant reminder of how much we each have, and how much we take for granted,” Becker said. “We all have our good days and bad days, just like Josh does, but he comes in every day and he’s as determined as ever to get better. Imagine how hard it is for this kid, who I thought could be one of the best players to ever play at Vermont, and to have that taken away from him, to never let that get him down. He never stops working and pushing himself. He’s just a really special person and a huge inspiration for us.”
“He’s getting better, but a lot of the reason we do this is for him,” said Duncan, who played two summers of AAU ball with Speidel in Indiana and is the only player on Vermont’s roster who saw firsthand how dominant the Catamounts’ primary source of inspiration was in high school. Speidel was averaging 25.6 points and 9.3 rebounds as a senior at the time of the accident, which happened when he pulled his Honda Accord into the path of an SUV. None of the four other people involved were seriously injured.
A few days later, Becker sat in a hospital room in Indianapolis with Speidel and his parents, Dave and Lisa. He told them Speidel had a spot on his team, whenever he was ready, and that Vermont would honor his scholarship regardless of whether he recovered enough to play again. Nearly a year after the accident, Speidel traveled to Burlington to attend Vermont’s game against Stony Brook. He received a standing ovation from the crowd at Patrick Gym, the place he had fallen in love with during his only official visit to the school in June 2014.
No one would have faulted Speidel for deferring his college experience even longer or enrolling at a school closer to home, but he left Columbus for Burlington last June to officially begin his career as a Catamount. Becker, who succeeded his former Catholic University teammate, Mike Lonergan, as head coach at Vermont in 2011 after Lonergan left to become head coach at George Washington, is happy he did.
“We’re 29-5,” Becker said. “We’ve won two more games than any team in America East history. We’ve won four more games than any team in Vermont history. We’ve won 21 games in a row. We thought we were going to be good, but this season is magical, and I think Josh has something to do with the magic. I don’t know how you quantify it, but there’s something different going on here with this team than any other team I’ve been around. It’s happening for a reason, and I think Josh is a big part of that.”
“I know everyone says I’ve inspired the guys this season, but to be honest, they’ve inspired me tremendously,” Speidel said. “Next year, I want to be with this team and I want to be able to contribute. My goal is definitely to one day put on the green and gold and go out there and play.”
Duncan, who teared up when Speidel was introduced at Purdue 16 months ago and will occupy a spot on the bench a few seats down from Speidel when Vermont looks to continue its magical run on Thursday, is convinced that day will come.
“I honestly really do believe, deep down, that one day we’ll be on the court together again, and it’ll just be like old times,” Duncan said. “We won’t be worried about anything except basketball and it’s going to be a great moment when it happens.”