Tom Gallagher is well known for his fierce determination. And he practices what he preaches.
Seated on the sideline for a Chelmsford High practice session last Friday afternoon, with one hand clutching a whistle and the other closely guarding the side of his wheelchair, Gallagher, 43, halted the drill to voice his dissatisfaction with an ill-advised shot. Run the play again, shouted the 14-year varsity head coach.
That is his nature, his identity.
But six months ago, his resolve was tested like never before, his life turned upside down.
Lifting a 2½-pound tray of glasses at his wife’s restaurant, Nennie’s 5 Star Cafe and Catering in New Ipswich, N.H., Gallagher ruptured an undetected herniated disc in his lower back. Three minutes after experiencing a burning sensation from his hips to his kneecaps, he lost feeling in his legs.
He underwent seven hours of surgery, but learned that he would be paralyzed from the waist down for the foreseeable future.
“Since it happened, I said to myself, it’s a gift more than a slap in the face,” said Gallagher, who has also coached football and hockey at Chelmsford.
“This has happened to me because I’m a driven individual anyway, so it gave me a chance to practice what I had preached to the kids on the team and the students in my math classes. And that is to never give, keep working on the problem, and be driven to be the best.”
Gallagher returned to the lacrosse field in March, determined to help the Lions bounce back from their 9-11 season of a year ago.
The Lions entered their Division 1 East preliminary-round matchup at Woburn on Tuesday afternoon at 11-7 overall, a mark that many thought was not possible given last year’s finish, and the challenges that were facing Gallagher.
“We just try to keep everyone focused and understand that we have something to play for,” said captain Slade Forni, one of 10 seniors on the Lions roster.
“The fact that Coach came back so driven is something I expect from him, because he always tell us to do whatever we can to do something to the best of our ability. He’s showing us that he practices what he preaches, firsthand.”
The stepfather of five is more determined than ever to make the most of the cards he has been dealt.
“I was given broad shoulders and a drive beyond anyone else to be an athlete, a coach, and to be able to run through a brick wall if I have to,” said Gallagher.
“I immediately asked myself, ‘What am I supposed to do with this? There’s something I’m supposed to do.’
“But when I was in the hospital,’’ Gallagher said, “one of my friends asked me, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ ”
Matt Whippen — the program’s all-time leading scorer (197 goals, 289 points), who departed in 2010 — is not surprised by his former mentor’s mentality, and his ability to bounce back and take command of the program.
“I knew that wasn’t going to stop him and when I heard he was coming back to coach, I got excited,” said Whippen, who recently completed his sophomore season for the nationally ranked men’s program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“To see him wheeling onto the grass, being lifted out of the assistant coaches’ cars, it’s a lot to handle, but I knew he would find ways to be back.”
Gallagher had never picked up a lacrosse stick before starting the program at Chelmsford. An avid hockey player and coach, he watched videos and studied coaching techniques, absorbing as much information as possible on one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
“One of the main things I’ve ever learned from him is that having a big heart and working hard will take you where you want to go,” said Whippen.
“He always said work 110 percent, 100 percent of the time. He practices what he preaches and will always be someone I look up to.”
Since his accident in December, Gallagher has received overwhelming support from the community. A benefit in his honor was held in February, and there have been other small fund-raisers.
He is also a semifinalist in a national competition sponsored by the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association to win a specially equipped van to help him get to and from practices and games. Currently, Gallagher receives rides from assistant coaches, friends, and family members.
“He’s a very strong-willed person, that’s for sure,” said Scott Moreau, athletic director at Chelmsford High.
“He’s a tough guy and not a lot gets him down. When he sees a challenge, he tries to overcome it and I don’t think just anybody could handle what he had to go through.”
He says he could not have maintained his driven mindset were it not for his biggest supporter, his wife, Annette.
“My wife is my rock and she does so much for me,” said Gallagher. “I look at [my wife and kids] every day and say there’s no way I can give up; I need to keep plugging along.”
Gallagher has no doubts that he will regain his mobility and resume teaching algebra at the McCarthy Middle School next year.
“This has been the greatest form of therapy for me, being around the kids, other coaches, and my coaching staff,” said Gallagher.
“I’m still going to be that red-headed guy with a Yankees hat that everyone looks at and says, ‘What’s his story?’ ”