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Globe South High School Hockey

After injury, athlete’s spirit prevails

Norwood teen sees progress

Matt Brown cheered his teammates at a playoff game between Norwood and Marshfield last week. Matt Brown cheered his teammates at a playoff game between Norwood and Marshfield last week. (George Rizer for The Boston Globe)
By Michael Mancinelli
March 10, 2011

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BROCKTON — At first he could only rotate his left arm and wrist. Then he could wiggle two toes on his right foot and move a couple of fingers on his right hand. Now, with good movement in both hands and his shoulders, Matt Brown can lean forward and back when his parents dress him for his classes at Norwood High.

Brown’s life changed on Jan. 23, 2010, at Pilgrim Rink in Hingham, when he crashed into the boards in a hockey game against Bay State Conference rival Weymouth, breaking the fourth and fifth vertebrae in his neck, and leaving him paralyzed.

A little more than 13 months have passed, and the 16-year-old Brown is still in a wheelchair. But slowly, he’s making progress.

Three times a week, he spends two hours in assisted physical therapy at Journey Forward, working to rebuild bone density and help fire muscle signals toward his ultimate goal — to walk again. The Canton-based nonprofit specializes in treating spinal cord injuries with intensive exercise.

“Journey Forward kicks my butt,’’ said an upbeat Brown, positioned along the boards, watching his Mustang teammates take on Marshfield in a Division 1 South quarterfinal tournament game Saturday night at Asiaf Rink in Brockton.

“But I’m a hockey player, so I’m an athlete, so the fight inside me is still there. So they wear me out, but the outcome at the end of the day is awesome. While we laugh a lot [during the sessions], we get a lot of work done.’’

He attends classes daily at the high school and he has put weight back on after the removal of his feeding and tracheotomy tubes. His father, said that the recovery has been as good as the family could have expected.

“To the folks on the outside, you look at a couple of toes move or a finger move, it doesn’t look like a big thing,’’ said Mike Brown. “But for us, it’s huge. That shows that there’s a signal getting through the damaged area, that he can control that movement. It’s not involuntary. He can move it on command when he wants to and stop it when he wants to.’’

Therapists have felt movement in the teen’s chest. Mike Brown and his wife, Sue, have seen activity in their son’s left thigh when he tries to move his left leg. Eternally positive, Brown loves the therapy sessions.

“He loves it from a mental standpoint, the interaction with the therapist, the talk, the chatter,’’ said father. “Being an athlete, he looks at it as going to the gym and having a couple of hours for a workout.’’

Brown was a staple at Norwood boys’ games this season. He attended all but two, cheering on his teammates and providing inspiration, including at the 4-0 loss to Marshfield. He was surrounded by a number of girls, including his sister, Kelley.

“It’s been tough’’ attending the games, Brown admitted. “Game one, I went in and had a speech, I came out of the locker room in tears because I wanted to be on that ice so bad with them. People ask if I shy away from it — I don’t. Because once a hockey player, always a hockey player.’’

Norwood coach Bill Clifford made Brown an assistant coach this year. Between periods, Brown tells Clifford what he sees on the ice and more often than not, the coach agrees with him.

Brown’s injury has put wins and losses in perspective for the Mustangs, who wear his No. 3 on their left shoulders.

“It’s just a game; that’s real life,’’ said Clifford, after Norwood finished its season 9-8-5. “It absolutely does put it in perspective. He has a great attitude, he works hard. The kids love him and love to have him around. It’s a positive influence on everyone.’’

Brown has also been to several Norwood girls’ hockey games this year. On their way to the best season in program history, and winning the BSC’s Herget Division title, the Mustangs honored their classmate with a Matt Brown Night for a game against Dedham last month.

Matt and his father dropped the puck before the game and his aunt, Stonehill women’s basketball coach Trish Brown, delivered a pregame speech.

“He’s such a big part of Norwood,’’ said Emily Kelly, a forward for the Mustangs. “It’s good to have him here.’’

Brown was on hand to watch Norwood (19-1-2) eliminate Sandwich, 4-1, in the Division 2 quarterfinals on Sunday.

“Matt’s been a great supporter for us,’’ said Norwood girls’ hockey coach Bill O’Donnell. “It’s a very inspirational story.’’

Brown has attended a number of games and events in the past year. And made countless new friends, including Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins’ assistant captain.

But he has developed his closest bond with Tyler Piacentini, a star forward at Weymouth High who was battling Brown for the puck last January when he was injured.

“Tyler’s become one of my best friends,’’ said Brown. “He’s having one hell of a hockey year, one hell of a year,’’ with 31 goals and 32 assists.

Earlier this season, the Weymouth and Norwood hockey teams shared a pasta dinner. On Saturday afternoon, Brown made the trip to North Andover to watch Piacentini and his teammates play Hingham in a first round Super 8 game.

“When he got hurt that was tough, but ever since then we have a very special relationship, a special friendship’’ said Piacentini, a dynamic 5-foot-5 senior forward.

“Every time I hear good news about him, it’s the best thing in the world.’’

After graduation, Brown says he wants to attend college close to home, but not too close.

In the meantime, Brown and his parents can be seen as extras in the Farrelly brothers’ current film, “Hall Pass.’’ The Browns were introduced to Bobby and Peter Farrelly last spring while Matt underwent treatment at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

Mike Brown said he has run out of superlatives to describe the support his family has received. More than 42,000 people follow Matt’s Facebook page, “Pray For Matt Brown,’’ and his website, www.mattbrownnumber3.org, still draws over 2,000 hits per month.

“The greatest thing was you’d get a card from a family and they’d tell you their 6-year-old had emptied his piggy bank and found $3.78 and sent it to Matt,’’ said Mike Brown. “The stuff like that is really touching, but it’s an important part of the whole equation to make sure that we have the financial means to support him for however long it takes.

“[When it first happened] one of the doctors at Children’s Hospital described it as you’re about to start running a marathon. You’ve never run one before, you don’t really know the route and you don’t know how long it’s going to take you to run it but you’re going to start running it anyway. So you go to really taking life now and truly living one day at a time.’’

Michael Mancinelli can be reached at mmancinelli@globe.com.

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