Two Columbus athletes are sharing a journey of recovering from a traumatic brain injury and finding their way back to a sport they love.

Their bond grew even closer Wednesday when Columbus Christian High School’s Levi Sallee received the first Josh Speidel Spirit Award. The award was named for Speidel, the former Columbus North basketball standout, to honor an athlete who has overcome great odds while demonstrating high character, integrity, sportsmanship, academic excellence and selflessness while also being active in the community.

A committee of The Republic editors, writers and executives selected Sallee as the Speidel Spirit Award winner.

The Speidel family was on hand to present the award to Sallee at The Republic’s Bartholomew County Athlete of the Year Gala, an inaugural high school sports banquet at The Commons.

About 250 people gathered to also honor The Republic’s female and male athletes of the year. Following honors for Cortney VanLiew and Mitchell Burton, Publisher Chuck Wells asked the Speidel family to present the first Josh Speidel Spirit Award.

Josh Speidel went to the microphone first, saying he was standing before the crowd through God’s mercy.

Telling the audience he had often heard the words about working hard and doing his best from family members, teachers and coaches, he said he now heard those words differently because “sometimes life throws you a curve ball.”

When Josh’s mother, Lisa Speidel, announced Sallee as the award winner, there were tears, not only as she talked about her son and the meaning of perseverance, but also of Levi Sallee and the path both young basketball players have walked, and lately begun to run, while recovering from their brain injuries.

In the audience, Levi’s mother, Michelle Sallee, was also teary-eyed as Lisa Speidel paused to collect herself as she spoke of Levi’s courage in his recovery and what those who had nominated Levi had said about perseverance demonstrated in his recovery.

Levi Sallee received a standing ovation as he walked to the podium and he and Josh Speidel embraced as photos were taken — and the ovation continued as Sallee returned to his table in the audience.

He described himself as “speechless” when he heard his name called, saying he was honored to receive an award named after his friend Josh.

After the ceremony, Lisa Speidel said the tears shed Wednesday night came from being so close to the continuing recovery of both young athletes — but they were not tears of sadness.

“I don’t cry sad tears anymore,” she said.

Josh Speidel said he and his family felt compelled to get involved and support the Sallee family — to help out and be there, he said.

When told that prayers were continuing for his family too, Josh Speidel said he was thankful for every one that has been offered for him.

“Because they’re being answered,” he said.

A parallel path

The two young men’s stories follow a parallel path. Both suffered severe head injuries in car accidents, and it was initially uncertain what futures the teens would face.

Sallee, who was critically injured in a single-car accident Sept. 2, 2016 near the Bartholomew County-Jennings County line, began his journey toward recovery from severe head injuries more than a year after Speidel was severely injured in a car accident.

But both had found their way back to basketball by the end of 2016.

Speidel, critically injured in a car accident Feb. 1, 2015 near Taylorsville, is now attending college at the University of Vermont and participating in the university’s basketball program.

Sallee’s accident happened on the Friday before Labor Day weekend in 2016, when he had just finished soccer practice and was heading home with a classmate who was driving. About eight minutes from home, on County Road 1000N, the car in which he was riding flipped five times, broke a telephone pole in half and hit a tree, landing upside down, his family said.

Sallee suffered a fractured skull, head laceration, a brain contusion, lacerated liver, collapsed lung, two bruised lungs and two broken ribs, the family said.

He was flown to Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital by medical helicopter. When the Sallee family arrived, they found a crowd of teammates and friends already in the waiting room praying for him. Sallee was later transferred to Riley Hospital for Children’s patient rehabilitation center and spent 55 days in total in the hospital for his recovery.

After being released from the hospital, Sallee began three-times-a-week visits for rehabilitation in Indianapolis while also taking classes at Columbus Christian. He is continuing to work on his short-term memory and processing, and took on a full class load this spring. This summer, he is taking physics, anatomy, U.S. history and Spanish to catch up with his classmates for his upcoming senior year.

While the 6-foot, 2-inch, 185-pound basketball player dressed in uniform for Columbus Christian games this past season and supported his teammates from the sidelines, Sallee’s condition did not allow him to play. That did not impede his determination, however.

Driven to succeed

Describing Sallee as a hard-working, caring and persevering student, Columbus Christian Athletic Director Kevin Roth nominated him for the Speidel award.

“I believe both Josh and Levi met their many challenges from their injuries with determination, strength, dignity and a strong faith in God,” Roth wrote.

Sallee is an honor student with a 3.43 grade point average, and is a multi-faceted individual. While he loves basketball and has been a multiple-sport athlete at Columbus Christian, he also participates in school drama productions and has worked as a junior leader at Ceraland Kids Camp.

Principal Kendall Wildey said Sallee has supported his fellow teammates in basketball and baseball, and he played the Grinch in the school’s spring play this year. He also attended Columbus Christian’s prom this spring.

In earlier high school days, he has participated in soccer as well.

“Levi is the kind of young man you immediately connect with,” said Roth, his athletic director. “His strong work ethic and lighthearted joking proved him to be a friend and leader among his peers. His teachable attitude and determination have made him a quick learner on and off the basketball court.”

Roth said the experience of recovering from a traumatic brain injury has resulted in Sallee becoming even more intentional in encouraging his teammates to be appreciative of life and to look for ways to serve and care for others. His basketball teammates wore Sallee’s number 44 on their jerseys as their teammate continued his recovery during the season.

In another nomination letter, Columbus Christian administrator and teacher Pam Warren said she has watched Sallee learn and grow since she first met him in her sixth-grade class.

“It has been an even greater blessing to watch his journey this past year,” she said in her nomination letter. “He has not only had to fight for his life, but he also has had to battle to regain skills and abilities once taken for granted.”

Warren described Sallee as a well-rounded student and a caring young man who has a tenacious spirit.

Sallee hopes to one day become a physical therapist and plans to work toward a doctorate to achieve that, a seven- to eight-year process.

“Levi has amazed all the therapists who have been working with him because he has worked so diligently to make progress,” Warren wrote. “He has never complained about having to go through this painstaking process. His tenacious spirit has been an impetus for him to keep striving, and it has been a tremendous example for all his peers.”

Levi Sallee

School: Columbus Christian

Year: Senior

Parents: Tom and Michelle Sallee

Sports: Basketball, soccer, baseball

School activities: Drama productions, choir

Community service: Mission trips through school, Kids Camp at Ceraland, Boy Scouts, currently working at Hilltop Christian Camp

Honors: National Honor Society

Future plans: Attend college to become a physical therapist

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.