Josh Speidel was nine months removed from a car accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury when he decided to go see his future college basketball team play.
The Vermont Catamounts had a game at Purdue, just a two-hour drive from Speidel’s home in Columbus. The Columbus North basketball standout had signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Vermont before his Feb. 1, 2015 accident in Taylorsville, and Catamounts coach John Becker continued to honor the scholarship offer.
Speidel stayed in Columbus to rehab during the 2015-16 school year. Early in that basketball season, Speidel’s parents Dave and Lisa took him to Vermont’s game at Purdue. While Speidel was still unable to walk on his own at that point, he was granted a special waiver by the NCAA to sit on the Catamounts’ bench.
Much to the injured athlete’s surprise, the Boilermakers’ public address announcer recognized him along with the starting lineups before the game. Speidel received a standing ovation.
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“That was one of the most special things that I’ve ever been a part of, (Purdue) coach (Matt) Painter and the guys coming over to talk to him,” Becker said. “I’ve always been a huge fan of them. They’re a class act. I can’t say enough about Purdue and their fans and the team and the reception they gave us.”
Thursday night, Vermont and Purdue will meet again, this time with a lot more on the line. They’ll face off in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament at 7:27 p.m. in Milwaukee.
Like the last meeting, Speidel will be on the Vermont bench as a redshirt freshman, who will get another year of eligibility since he has been unable to play in games this year. But the condition he is in today is light years ahead of where he was that Saturday afternoon in November 2015.
“It’s coming,” Speidel said of his progress. “In my mind, it’s coming slowly. But when I see Mom and Dad and people from home, they’re like, ‘Wow, it’s so quick.'”
Since Christmas, Speidel has started running and jumping. He runs sprints with the team, although he has a little trouble keeping up with the rest of the players.
He expects that to change in the near future.
“I’m still working on speed,” Speidel said.
And while he hasn’t always been a big fan of running, Speidel said it’s a welcome opportunity now after being sidelined more than two years.
Although he is not yet playing in five-on-five situations, Speidel has been doing some one-on-one work on the side and has worked on post moves against Vermont team trainer Eugene Santos.
During games, Speidel sits near the coaches and offers encouragement to the players.
Like everyone else, Speidel has a role on the team, Becker said.
Saturday, his Vermont team followed an unbeaten America East Conference regular season by winning the conference tournament and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“That was the goal from the first day we got here,” he said.
The Catamounts found out their opponent and their destination about 6 p.m. Sunday during the NCAA Tournament Selection Show.
Speidel said that even though the team knew it had clinched a berth in the tournament, that didn’t take away from the excitement of seeing the Vermont name appear on the TV monitor.
“Just being able to watch the seeding and seeing our name pop up, I just had so many emotions running through my head,” he said.
Speidel said it would have been nice for Vermont to have been placed in the Indianapolis field for this weekend’s first-and second-round games.
But with Milwaukee five hours away by car, his parents will make the trip for Thursday night’s game against Purdue.
Becker said Speidel, who posted a 3.0 grade point average the first semester, continues to give his team perspective and serve an an inspiration.
“He just continues to amaze,” Becker said. “His determination and his positive attitude, he’s a joy to have around. I think our guys appreciate how hard he works every day. It keeps us humble and makes us appreciate the things we have. It’s been great having him along for the ride.”
7:27 p.m.: Purdue (25-7) vs. Vermont (29-5), TruTV
9:57 p.m.: Iowa State (23-10) vs. Nevada (28-6), TruTV
TBA: Purdue-Vermont winner vs. Iowa State-Nevada winner