Jack Jablonski Is Finding a New Normal

A freak accident during a high-school hockey game left Jack Jablonksi in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Now at USC, he's trying to move on from his injury while staying involved in the sport he still loves.

by Devon Heinen
Feb 16 2016, 3:34pm

On a Wednesday night in early December, a muted television flashed as it sat on the dresser next to a stack of books in Jack Jablonski's tidy college apartment bedroom. The 20-year-old sat in his red-and-black power chair next to his adjustable bed. He had just got back from his last music class on The Beatles for the semester and was laying low before heading out to meet up with friends.

It has been four years, and Jack still hasn't seen any video of the hit that put him in this chair. Despite his efforts, closure continues to elude him. Instead, his mind wanders back to the accident, especially when he's alone. Could he have done anything differently on the ice in those moments beforehand? Could he have worked out harder, avoided being in that situation? Would it have mattered?

"You hate to move on, and it always haunts me, but you have to," he says. "It is what it is."

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Jack learned to skate when he was about three years old. Organized hockey came a year later. Soon, a hockey practice here and a game there evolved into around-the-clock training, playing and watching the sport.

He was getting pretty good by the time he was about to start playing high school hockey for Benilde-St. Margaret's, a private school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. The year prior, the 5-foot-9 right wing scored 50 goals in his final bantam season.

Jack Jablonski in high school. Courtesy Leslie Jablonski

On December 30, 2011, Jack was on the ice against Wayzata High in the championship game of a holiday tournament in St. Louis Park. In the third period, the 16-year-old dug for the puck in his offensive zone when a player from the other team came into the corner and checked him. A second Wayzata skater followed, coming up from behind and sending Jack into the boards.

"I can still see him down on the ground," his mother, Leslie Jablonski, says. "You're thinking, 'Get up. C'mon, Jack, get up.' He always got up. Always."

This time, he didn't.

"I think I was the last person in the rink to realize what really happened," Leslie says.

Her son's spinal was completely severed between the C5 and C6 vertebrae. In mere moments, a freak accident turned Jack into a quadriplegic.

Jack spent the next couple of weeks in the hospital before being released to Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, which he then called home for a handful of months. The eventual transition to finally moving back in with his family would be hard. Early on, the teenager became severely depressed. Learning to live trapped inside his own body was tough. Going from around-the-clock professional care to depending on caretakers as well as family learning how to meet his needs almost on the fly made things tougher.

He wasn't the only person adjusting to a new life. Leslie quit her job as a PR consultant in order to nurse her son. Raising a teenager is hard enough; now she had to become his hands and feet, as well, and be ready to spring to action for any medical or personal need—going to the bathroom, changing clothes. It took at least half a year for her to get used to her new, dual role.

Jack during his senior year. Courtesy Leslie Jablonski

As physical therapy continued to restore Jack's strength, he and his family grew more optimistic about the future. One of the first things Jack set out to do was make up lost ground and graduate on time from high school. Another was return to hockey.

Jack calls the sport a lifestyle, one he couldn't envision not living. He met with his varsity coach after the injury, and it was decided he'd finish the season as part of the team once he was ready. Jack found his way onto the coaching staff the following season during his junior year as an assistant working on the power play. Senior year, Jack's responsibilities expanded to helping with the team's forwards.

At the same time, the story of Jack's injury and his determined recovery was spreading. He made national headlines in 2013 when the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League drafted Jack and made him an honorary member of its organization.

Jack also started working in radio. A local morning show started calling him to talk hockey while he was still in the hospital; after his release, Jack graduated to doing weekly in-studio segments. Then came a weekly podcast. Then a gig hosting his own drive-time show on Wednesdays at a different station. Along the way, he used his microphone to find a date to prom: ESPN SportsNation co-host Michelle Beadle. The two have since become friends.

"You look back and it's surreal to really realize what you've been able to conquer as a teenager," he says. "Wow, what an opportunity."

Jack practices writing at therapy. Courtesy Leslie Jablonski

The next step to normalcy for Jack—and the next hurdle—was college. From a medical standpoint, the Jablonksis were best off considering colleges in warm climates, and the University of Southern California and its Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism topped Jack's list. Getting into the prestigious university was an accomplishment in itself, but the work was just beginning for Jack and his family.

Back home, Jack had a well-established support system. Caretakers, family members and therapists had gelled together over time to provide relatively seamless around-the-clock support. Moving to California for college meant rebuilding that system from scratch, so that Jack could start classes in January 2015. This more or less became a full-time job for the Jablonskis. There was networking to do. Appointments with doctors, caretakers and therapists. Coordinating with USC's Disability Services and Programs.

Dr. Kate Crowley, an instructor in the Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at USC, set up a system in which other students go to classes with Jack in case he needs any physical assistance.

"Accessibility is always a challenge," Crowley says. "Crowded classrooms are hard, so making sure he gets comfortably in the class, to make sure he's seated in a place where he can hear and see the professors, and to assist him with both note-taking and making sure he got the whole class, and, just in case anything should happen, there's somebody there who could help him get out."

Jack can take notes and write papers like his peers–it just takes a little longer and requires a lot more effort. He types on his MacBook Air by using the knuckle of his right pinky finger. A lot of the time, though, Jack opts for a quicker method. He's become a fast texter by using his thumb, a device for his right wrist that allows him to move the wrist up and down, and gravity. So, he types things out on his phone and then sends everything to his laptop.

He also has a system in place for his current season-long internship with the Los Angeles Kings Communications Department. Although Jack doesn't like to use it because it isn't always accurate, the dictation program on his laptop can come in handy when he's responsible for getting quotes from players and coaches.

Like many college freshmen, he also had to figure out his roommate situation.

"Does Jack want to be living with a 45-year-old Filipino man on a college campus? No," Leslie says. "But he knows he needs it and he knows he's in good hands."

That's Danny Antonio, who as Jack's live-in caretaker forms a foundational piece of his support system at school: he gets Jack into and out of the shower, dressed, fed and out the door for classes.

"We got very, very lucky," Leslie says in regard to finding the perfect caretaker, "because I can't tell ya how many other parents have actually had to go live with their kids and take care of them because they didn't have that caretaker."

Antonio is also independently certified, which is key in California. Unlike in Minnesota, state law mandates that more invasive assistance, like bowel programs, cannot be performed by agency caretakers, but must be done by independently certified caretakers or nurses. This meant that during Jack's first semester, when the Jablonskis scrambled to find the right stand-in for Antonio on his days off (he gets 24 hours of leave each week) and wound up using an agency, they then also needed a nurse. While trying to get everything in place, Leslie worried that she'd have to hop on a plane to take care of her son herself, after all.

Leslie and Jack at physical therapy. Courtesy Leslie Jablonski

Things were a lot smoother this past fall for Jack's second semester. Leslie felt she finally assembled the right team to take care of her son when Antonio was off the clock, and Jack switched from going to therapy sessions off campus—which meant snaking through an hour's worth of traffic each way—to working with two therapists who come to USC three days a week.

Leslie still worries about her son, but her two primary concerns are more or less the same as any parent whose kid is off at college: Is Jack keeping up with his studies? Is he safe on his school's urban campus?

The question of Jack's social life loomed particularly large for Leslie as her son settled into his new life on campus. He was popular back home in Minnesota, but what was going to happen now in a completely new community? That fear was laid to rest, at least in part, when Jack rushed USC's chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon this past fall. Pledging the fraternity was a "God-send," according to Leslie—a brotherhood of friends in addition to an extra support system if needed.

On a late weekend this past October, Leslie and the rest of the family got a first-hand look at Jack in his West Coast surroundings during USC's Family weekend. There was a welcome party hosted by TKE. A football game against the University of Utah. The 40th birthday party for Michelle Beadle at Beadle's house in nearby Studio City. To cap the weekend off, Jablonski turned 20.

"It was just one of those weekends where we are all just beaming," Leslie recalls. "We had smiles on our faces, and life was good and you could just tell that Jack is really, really happy and content and doing great out there."

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