Jablonski, now 18, has pushed himself to do a lot of things he’d never imagined. Now he's looking forward to college in California
Jack Jablonski rolled up to his usual spot in front of the microphone on a recent Wednesday evening and waited for his cue: “It is Hockey Night Minnesota with Jack Jablonski on Sports Radio 105 The Ticket,” the announcer’s voice boomed, launching the weekly drive-time show.
Jablonski had never envisioned sitting inside a radio studio, broadcasting his hockey knowledge over airwaves instead of showing his prowess on the ice. He’d always felt a little uneasy speaking in public. But after a paralyzing accident in the rink 2 ½ years ago, Jablonski, now 18, has pushed himself to do a lot of things he’d never imagined.
Life, Jablonski has learned, is all about adapting.
Friday, as he dons a cap and gown for his high school graduation, Jablonski will find himself at the cusp of a new life once again. He will leave the secure embrace of the Benilde-St. Margaret’s high school community that helped carry him through the trauma. He will trade his local celebrity status to become one of 40,000 students at the University of Southern California. A whole new set of obstacles. A whole new challenge to adapt.
His mom, in particular, is worried. Here, her son is surrounded by people who know his story, give him opportunities and greet him with enthusiasm, Leslie Jablonski said. There, she worries, “he’s going be just another guy in a chair.”
Jack understands the magnitude of it all.
“I’ve obviously been very fortunate, and I’m so thankful,” he said. “I understand the consequences of leaving here and going there. … It’ll be tough, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Grief and gratitude
From the moment he was wheeled into the hospital after suffering a hit from behind on Dec. 30, 2011, Jablonski remained mostly upbeat. While he lay in a hospital bed, his neck stiff in a brace, his classmates started fundraising and support campaigns through social media. Friends packed his room. A swirl of media covered his story. Professional athletes visited and sent him autographed jerseys.
Jablonski spoke kindly to them all, making jokes and smiling even after doctors gave him a grim prognosis: permanent paralysis from the chest down.
Quietly, friends worried: When the attention died down and he settled back into normal routines from a wheelchair, would he crash emotionally?
“Everyone has their ups and downs,” he said recently, sitting in his Minneapolis home. “It’s more up and down for me, a little bit more severe when it comes to the ups and the downs.”
The hardest emotional adjustment, he said, has been watching friends reach milestones that he couldn’t: passing driver’s license tests, competing on the ice. He watched some leave to pursue their hockey dreams in juniors programs in other states.
Those same friends carried him through it by continuing to include him in their lives. They drove his accessible van to local restaurants. They gathered in his accessible basement to watch sports.
Through them and his family, Jablonski said, he’s learned to focus on the good.
The outside attention never completely died down, either. Jack developed relationships with some professional athletes. He was invited to Wild games as a guest of the team. His school voted him homecoming king. He took an ESPN personality, Michelle Beadle, to prom.
On bad days, Jablonski tells himself to remember how lucky he is compared to so many others with injuries. He forces himself to think about what he can still do.
“There’s always someone out there that’s worse off than you are,” he said. “It definitely makes you realize how fortunate you are.”