Step by step: Athletes aid struggling stranger
By JAMES BIGGAM
Staff Writer | August 26,2013
University of Vermont Photo
UVM soccer players help a man along the trail to Bingham Falls in Stowe recently. The players, including Jack Shea, ran into the unidentified man, who was struggling along the trail. The man said he had multiple sclerosis and wanted to see the falls before he couldn’t make the trek again. The players picked him up and helped him to the falls.
STOWE — A lot of jocks live up to stereotypes as dim-witted, self-centered bullies. Not Jack Shea.
The 2011 Times Argus Soccer Player of the Year was training with the University of Vermont men’s team last week when a chance encounter on a hiking trail unfolded in a way that transcended sport and ego altogether. The U-32 graduate was headed to Bingham Falls in Stowe after a training session to the top of Mount Mansfield, and during the trek toward the water, he came across a man struggling on the side of the path.
As it turned out, the stranger had multiple sclerosis but was determined to visit the falls at least one more time.
Shea and fellow UVM sophomore Teddy Gula slipped into action, supporting the man on opposite sides and leading him toward the popular swimming hole.
“He was down on the ground and he was pretty exhausted, and I just asked him if he was OK,” Shea said Friday. “He informed me he had MS, and we asked if we could help in any way. He said he was just hoping to see the falls, and it sounded like he might not have too many more chances to get out and do something like that. Me and Teddy thought we could help, so we helped him up and walked him to the falls. We went slow, just letting him take small steps. We weren’t trying to do too much — just helping however we could.”
The roughly half-mile access trail includes steep sections that can be challenging even for experienced hikers. But with 6-foot-2-inch Shea and 5-foot-10-inch Gula guiding the way, the trio made the trek, bit by bit.
“He had tons of stories to tell, so it was a great experience for me, and he still had so much life in him,” Shea said. “He said in 2009 he had passed the Navy Seals fitness test and then about six months later he could barely get out of bed. I had never experienced that firsthand before. I had never met someone with MS, so it was new to me.”
After delicately navigating past wet rocks at the bottom of the trail, Shea and Gula led their new acquaintance to the falls and then joined the rest of their team for a cold dip.
Neither player ever found out the man’s name.
“He knew that we were Catamounts — he knew about UVM,” Shea said. “I’m pretty sure he was from Vermont, but we didn’t actually get his name. He was so talkative about his experiences, we didn’t get to budge in.”
On Thursday, UVM posted a photo of Shea and Gula assisting the man on Facebook, prompting reactions like “The world needs more people like this!” and “Their parents raised them well.” According to Jim Shea, Jack’s father, the image was far more meaningful than any of the buzzer-beating 3-pointers his son was famous for making on the basketball court.
“This is so much better than just having him score goals or starting. I was so much more proud of him because of this,” he said. “And what’s really amazing is that the coach had just made the team run up Mount Mansfield, which is over 4,000 feet. The guys were exhausted, and Jack has an injured hamstring, so it’s painful for him just to walk. I know Jack must have been tired, but his heart is so big. He inherited that combination of strength and deep concern for others from his mother.”
The elevation of Vermont’s highest peak is 4,393 feet, and UVM assistant coach Ryan Horan decided to bring the Cats up the punishing Hell Brook Trail. Jack Shea compared sections of the 1.5-mile trip to “legitimate rock-climbing,” which was precisely what UVM head coach Jesse Cormier wanted to hear.
“It was a little team bonding, and it was physically taxing,” Cormier said. “I told the guys in training camp that we have a young group of guys coming in this year and we wanted to challenge them by doing things they’re not comfortable with. It was tough for some of the guys because they hadn’t hiked before, but it was good. They helped each other out and got to the top.”
While the rest of the team sped ahead to cool down at Bingham Falls, Shea and Gula lagged behind with an athletic trainer. When Cormier spotted his two injured players assisting the stranger, he pulled out his phone and snapped a photo.
“It was pretty emotional, actually,” Cormier said. “Here’s a guy who has MS, he couldn’t get down to Bingham Falls, and the guys carried him. It was very impressive, and I shared that story at a team meeting two days later. I said, ‘This is what it’s all about.’ It goes beyond soccer. It’s about humanity and being a good person. It’s a great lesson for the rest of the team.”
Shea was a midfield wizard for U-32, racking up 24 goals and 17 assists while leading his team to three championship appearances. He helped the Raiders win the basketball title as a junior and lofted in the game-winning goal as a freshman during the soccer championship.
He’s now listed as a fullback for UVM.