Albany lets Vermont player who overcame car crash, coma score first career points on senior night
The story of UVM's Josh Speidel is powerful, and the scene in Vermont on Tuesday night was unforgettably incredible
Josh Speidel was set to be one of the best players in Vermont basketball history.
A nearly fatal car accident on Feb. 1, 2015, took that all away.
But what transpired inside Patrick Gymnasium in Burlington, Vermont, on Tuesday night ensures Speidel will go down as one of the most beloved and memorable players to ever wear a Catamounts uniform.
At 17, Speidel was a skilled and brawny big man out of Indiana, the type of guy Vermont has no business landing to play basketball.
"I thought he was the best player I had ever recruited here," Vermont coach John Becker, who has been with the program since 2006, told CBS Sports.
Speidel's basketball-playing future ended the second his car was obliterated on the night of the Super Bowl in 2015. He drove out of a KFC parking lot, crossing to get over on a four-lane main road. The driver's side of his car was T-boned by an oncoming car. No one else was seriously hurt in the accident, but for Speidel the crash was so violent, the car spinning so fast, his head viciously swung back and forth.
"The wiring in his brain became unhinged and he had a traumatic brain injury," Becker said. "He was in a coma and I just remember there was a horrible snowstorm on the East Coast and it cook a couple days to finally get out and see him. He was in a coma for a couple months, a month at least, and bounced around from hospital to hospital. The next time I went out he had gone to another hospital and was in a third rehab hospital and literally was learning how to talk again, how to walk, he couldn't really do any of that. It was horrific to see just how weak he had gotten. To think about where he is now ... "
Where he is now -- where Speidel was on Tuesday night -- is at the center of one of the most inspirational stories college basketball has provided in recent memory. Vermont's home finale on Tuesday came against Albany, and with it, an arrangement at the start of the game that allowed Speidel to not only play in the first game of his college career, but to also score Vermont's first points.
Becker and Albany coach Will Brown agreed in recent days to allow for Speidel to get his moment, which was at once emotional and triumphant. He was in the starting lineup on senior night in what was his first and likely only appearance with the Catamounts.
Here's how the best story in sports you'll see all week played out.
"It's been a long journey for him," Becker told me. "He is just a really an inspiration to us all, and I don't think it's a coincidence we've had arguably the four best years in program history since he's been here with us. There's something so inspirational, magical about his recovery and his determination and will to get back. It almost seems impossible, thinking back to being by his bedside three days after the accident."
Vermont (23-7) rates as the best team in the America East for the fourth straight season, and if it wins the conference's automatic bid, would be in the NCAAs for the third time in four years.
Speidel played on the grassroots circuit with the Duncan brothers, Ernie and Everett, both of whom went to Vermont and played for Becker; Ernie graduated in 2019, Everett was celebrated on his senior night on Tuesday alongside Speidel and one of the best players in program history, Anthony Lamb. When Becker saw Speidel as a 16-year-old, he looked like a fledgling Luke Harangody-type.
"Buzz cut, chubby, not super vertical but just caught my eye immediately," he said.
Speidel got even better going into his senior season of high school, playing on the grassroots circuit alongside two guys who would go on to be drafted in 2019: Kyle Guy and Dylan Windler. (Windler was Speidel's backup.) The night before the car accident that would change his life, Speidel had 33 points and 18 rebounds. He was 6-foot-8, closing in on 250 pounds and getting stronger by the month.
"That's really what saved him, the fact he was in such good shape and so strong," Becker said. "He was having a Mr. Basketball type of year. He would've been an all-time Vermont player."
Speidel still battles occasional tremors on the left side of his body. He can run, but with a hitch in his gait. For years now, every day at practice, he's worked out to the side with a trainer. Balancing drills, planks, core workouts, lifting. The progress has been inspirational for his teammates and everyone connected to Vermont's basketball program. And Vermont's support network has been huge, Becker said. The fact he played alongside the Duncan brothers, was recruited in the same class as Ernie and will graduate alongside Everett, has made it all the more special.
Speidel's story has been so inspirational that longtime Vermont senator Patrick Leahy took to the floor of the United States Senate on Monday to share its power, its energy, its capacity for optimism. He submitted, for the congressional record, a superb feature piece on Speidel that was published in the Burlington Free Press.
Speidel has "a 3.40 grade point average through an individually-designed major in the College of Education and Social Services," according to the school. Vermont has been an NCAA Tournament darling before and could well be that again in 2020. But don't call Speidel a Cinderella story. His fight and determination is made from the stuff that makes sports so irresistible and college sports so incredible.
The toughest player on the court Tuesday night in college basketball was 1 for 1 from the floor, scored two points and played 21 seconds. The perfect start to a perfect ending of a one-of-a-kind UVM career.
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