They draped a ribbon over Jim Ennis’s neck Monday night in Worcester, but it wasn’t the kind of honor typically bestowed on ex-athletes. Only some 18 months removed from wearing the “C” as captain of the UMass-Boston hockey team, Ennis officially became a board-certified registered nurse, with that ribbon and shiny new RN pin that he earned from the UMass Medical School to prove it.
“It’s not like it’s an Olympic medal or anything,’’ said Ennis, who was “pinned’’ along with 27 other proud students, including three men, in the campus ceremony at the Albert Sherman Center. “But it’s definitely a huge milestone in my life.’’
Ennis, 25 years old, knew he was headed to a life of medicine and helping others heal nearly a dozen years ago, in the days after a surgical team at Children’s Hospital removed a tumor from deep inside his brain. Until then, he was just a kid from Roslindale with a young hockey player’s dream, hoping one day to go to college and play the game that at that point helped define his life.
But a concussion suffered during a game led to tests, the tests led to the discovery of the tumor (benign), and at first all that the 13-year-old could focus on was returning to the rink. There were games to play, goals to score, an eighth-grader’s life to resume, one framed in shifts and goals, wins and losses.
“Really, that’s all that I was asking the doctors and my parents,’’ Ennis recalled the other day, “ ‘Can I play again?’ Sounds funny, I know, but that’s all I worried about. I didn’t understand the gravity of it.’’
Soon after surgery came a return to Children’s, doctors ordering Ennis to attend a support group for children recovering from brain surgery. It was that one visit, his first and last, that began to outline his career path.
There were older kids and younger kids in the group, but what stood out, recalled Ennis, were the kids who clearly were not enjoying his same clear track back to full health. He was fortunate. His brain would heal. His cognitive and physical abilities would rebound in full. It would take time, months, but he would play hockey again. But as he looked around the room that day, young Jimmy Ennis saw the struggles some of the other kids would face, some for weeks, others for the rest of their lives.
“I saw what could have been that day,’’ he recalled, a memory that to this day chokes him with emotion. “That was hard . . . so hard, I couldn’t go back, actually. That really stuck with me. The people who helped me in my biggest time of need — at the hospital, and my family — I’ll never forget that.
“I look at all that now as a culminating thing in my life. The way I see it, it would be ignorant for me now not to help others. Nursing brings with it a great responsibility, but also the potential for great reward.’’
Ennis, who went on to play hockey throughout his high school years, graduated from Boston Latin School in 2006. He tried to make the Merrimack College hockey team as walk-on, failed to make the cut, then enrolled the following autumn at UMass-Boston as an exercise science major. He also made a call to UMass-Boston hockey coach Peter Belisle. He wanted to make the team.
“Sure, yeah, come on down, fill out the forms, work out with us, and we’ll see what happens,’’ said Belisle, recalling the other day the ample amount of skepticism with which he received Ennis’s initial inquiry. “If they’re enrolled, hey, it’s their right to try out. To be honest, though, we try to discourage it, because we tell them, ‘We recruit all over North America, look for kids all year round.’ So with Jimmy, it was, ‘Hey, if you want to come, be my guest, but’ . . . ’’
And Ennis’s response?
“He was like, ‘OK, Coach, I understand . . . I’ll be there.’ And what can I say, he made it. I didn’t play him a lot at first, but once I got him in there at right wing, well, I couldn’t take him out. And by his senior year, we made him captain. Great kid. One of the best . . . and I mean, talk about a story, right!?’’
While studying and playing, Ennis worked his way through UMass-Boston, compensated for on-campus duties as a gym attendant, and also picked up a regular gig to work the door at The Junction, a bar in South Boston. Nurse Ennis still pulls shifts at The Junction’s front door, which helps him whittle away at his student debt that now approaches $100,000. He passed the state-administered RN test less than two weeks ago, continues to work toward his master’s degree in nursing at UMass Medical, and has been busy sending out resumés to area hospitals.
“Ideally, I want to work in a hospital setting, maybe in acute care or in a trauma unit,’’ he said. “It’s that whole team approach to medicine, nurses and doctors working together, that I find attractive. I think some of being a hockey captain, being on a team, asked to be a leader, plays into all that.
“It’s where I think I can help people most.’’
The 2011-12 UMass-Boston hockey team, captained by Ennis, handed Belisle a plaque at the end of the season. The senior gift is an annual tradition, but the plaque, said Belisle, was a first. It contains a prayer, written by Ennis, a prayer that the team recited before games, and it concludes, “We are a single unit, We are family, We are the University of Massachusetts-Boston.’’
“A very unique kid,’’ said Belisle, about to enter his eighth season as the UMass-Boston coach. “Even games he didn’t play, he would write inspirational things on the board for the guys to see, to think about. Most kids, they just want their points. If they’re not playing, they couldn’t give a crap. So Jimmy’s the captain, and the seniors give me the plaque with the prayer, and he says to me, ‘I want it on the wall forever, Coach.’ That’s pretty unbelievable, but that’s Jimmy.’’
There is no knowing where the games we play may lead. Sometimes to fortune. Sometimes to heartache. Most often they lead to faded clippings and tattered threads of a dream.
For Jim Ennis, they led to a ribbon, a pin, and a career helping others to heal, to play, to live.