NORWOOD - When Michael Brown looked back at his son, Matt was asleep. He had drifted off perhaps 20 minutes into the 1 1/2-hour ride home, the mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion of the 26.2 windy, frigid miles of the Hyannis Marathon having taken its toll.
Matt not long before had been beaming with pride as he crossed the finish line of his first marathon in 4 hours 13 minutes. It was, by all accounts, something Matt never in a million years thought he would do. That was partially because he hated running. But it was also partially because of the accident that changed everything.
On Jan. 23, 2010, the Norwood High School hockey player crashed into the boards and broke his third and fourth cervical vertebrae, which left him paralyzed from the chest down.
And, still, he crossed that finish line, inches ahead of former Army Ranger Lucas Carr, who swept into the lives of the Brown family after Matt’s accident and became a friend. Carr had approached Michael four months ago with the idea to push Matt in a marathon, first Hyannis Feb. 26 and then the Boston Marathon. They would take a page from the Hoyts, the father-son duo who have become famous for racing together through decades of Boston Marathons.
Michael wasn’t sure about the idea. There were concerns about pressure on Matt’s body over that time and distance, about skin breakdowns, about his health.
Matt wasn’t sure either. But he agreed. Why not?
And after watching his son compete, Michael was sure they had made the right choice.
“You feel great for him, to find that enjoyment of experiencing something, like I just completed a marathon,’’ Michael said. “He might not have been running, but he completed that. So as a father, watching your son do that, to see the joy and the happiness that he experienced, you can’t ever find anything better than that.’’
They had received the racing wheelchair - built specifically to fit both Matt and Carr - just days before the Hyannis Marathon, the race that would qualify them for Boston. Carr pushed Matt 4 miles on Thursday, 4 more on Friday, and 26.2 on Saturday.
“I had no clue how it was going to work, what we were going to need,’’ said Matt, who turned 18 last week. “But then, as the months started to get closer and closer to the time when we got the chair, there was a lot of running around, and that’s when my competitive juices started to flow again.’’
That competitive spirit had been dormant the past two years, ever since the accident. It had come out in subtle ways, at physical therapy, with doctors, the ability to force himself into doing just one more repetition when his rehab required it. It had flowered when Matt worked with his high school hockey team, helping to coach, throwing out ideas.
But he hadn’t been able to participate, not in the same way. And for someone used to a life that revolved around playing hockey, baseball, and golf, that was devastating. Now, as Carr said, “Matt’s getting his athlete mode back.’’
He’s gotten the feeling of speed back, the feeling he used to get when skating or roller blading, the feeling of being an athlete. He’s also trying to give back.
The pair are raising money for the Bruins Foundation as part of their Marathon experience - $7,352 as of Sunday, with a goal of $10,000 - soliciting donations through the MB3 website (mattbrownnumber3.org), named for Matt’s hockey number. The Foundation, after all, has given so much to Matt.
“The way he’s gone about things and put his chin up and just plowed through some of these challenges, it’s really awe-inspiring,’’ Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference said.
“So I’m not surprised that he would think of helping out others and not making it about himself and being a bit of a flag-bearer for other people that are going through challenging times as well. He’s a perfect example of what somebody carrying a torch should be like.’’
Matt and Lucas train together when they can, once or twice a week. The duo has tried parts of the Boston Marathon course already, attempting to get a sense of the turns and the grades, the strategy needed when pushing 200 pounds uphill.
“As we’re at the top of Heartbreak Hill after we started training, he just looked at me with this grin and goes, ‘Hey, we crushed that hill, huh?’ ’’ Carr said. “Oh yeah. We did.’’
When Matt’s schedule doesn’t allow them to train together, Carr loads concrete bags into the chair, about 210 pounds - 60 more than Matt weighs - in addition to the 50 pounds of chair.
“It’s much easier training with Matt than it is with the concrete bags,’’ Carr said. “They don’t even say anything. They don’t talk back.’’
It was a marvel to watch the two together, the jokes, the easy communication, as they sat in Matt’s room a week ago. It’s a relationship that has blossomed since Carr first showed up at Children’s Hospital after Matt’s accident.
He had met the family nearly 15 years ago when taking down a tree in Matt’s grandparents’ yard. He returned after hearing the news of Matt’s accident, giving rise to an odd-couple friendship.
“They zig and zag very well together,’’ said Sue Brown, Matt’s mother. “What caught Luke’s eye about Matt’s accident, I don’t know. But he blew into Children’s Hospital that day, and I’ve been calling him ‘Crazy Luke’ ever since.’’
In preparation for Boston, the pair has run other races, a 4-miler in Norwood and a 5K in South Boston in addition to Hyannis. And there are more to come - the Run to Home Base at Fenway Park, Boston’s Run to Remember, perhaps even the New York Marathon.
Carr already has run nine marathons, including Boston three times, the most recent just after he lost one of his best friends, Corporal Jessy Pollard, in Iraq.
He knows the route, the crowd, the sensation of crossing the finish line. He’s eager to share that with Matt, who never has seen the Boston Marathon in person. He’s watched on TV, but that hardly gives an accurate picture of the embrace conveyed by the million spectators lining the course from Hopkinton to Boston.
“Everywhere you ran people were cheering you on, it was great,’’ Matt said of the Hyannis race. “I can’t imagine what the Boston Marathon is going to be. It’s going to be insane. Boston, I’m sure, is going to be 26.2 miles of a great standing ovation.’’
It has been more than two years since the accident, and there has been progress. Never enough for Matt, never fast enough, but he knows that the ability to move some of his toes, the ability to feel pain, means they’re going forward.
“I’m very proud of the improvement that he’s been getting in the past couple of years,’’ said Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, whose jersey has hung above Matt’s bed at home, at Children’s Hospital, at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where Matt was sent for rehabilitation. “He’s such a great example.
“Every time I see him, he’s always in great spirits, always positive, always wanting to improve and fight and get better. He’s a huge example for a lot of people.’’
The family keeps close tabs on studies being done, on stem cell research, on potential innovations in spinal cord injuries. There is hope in Louisville, at the Frazier Rehab Institute, hope in a paralyzed man standing.
“I’ve just really got to stay healthy until hopefully it’s my turn,’’ Matt said.
The goal for Boston is to finish in “four hours and low change,’’ Carr said. They want to beat at least half the field in the race, something they consider realistic. Carr doesn’t want to disappoint his teammate.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to get the best time, but that is what we’re ultimately out there to do,’’ Carr said. “But obviously out there just to show people that we’re in this together for the long run.’’
Added Matt, “And there’s nothing that can hold you back.’’