But last month, shortly before the surgery, when we met for what would be the last time, at his Vermont home overlooking Lake Champlain, he didn’t want to talk about that.
He didn’t want people to worry about him. Not the paralyzed people and their families whom he had counseled and helped. Not the young hockey players, boys and girls, who had met and been inspired by him.
After so many years in a wheelchair, getting through and healing from such surgery posed many serious risks to his health. He wanted to engage in this fight with only his family and closest friends knowing of the threat it posed to his life.
He never had the luxury of dealing with his hockey injury privately. His was the most public of catastrophes, witnessed by thousands of fans at the Walter Brown Arena at Boston University. His was a story that would eventually be known by millions.
What happened when he was just 20 years old, only 11 seconds into his first shift as a Boston University Terrier, fulfilling a dream that he pursued with singular determination since he first laced up skates as a boy in North Yarmouth, Maine, was a sobering reminder of how fragile life is, of how vulnerable even elite athletes are.
The random cruelty that befell him touched so many. So many people, especially in New England, felt it vicariously.
What was truly extraordinary and inspirational was how Travis responded to his catastrophic injury. Within a year, he returned to BU.
Rather than concentrate fully on his own rehabilitation, which on its own was overwhelming, he began thinking of ways to help others in similar circumstances. In a culture that is notably self-absorbed, his reaction was to use his own tragic situation to create opportunities for those in similar circumstances with less support and resources.
He was just 21 years old, still trying to figure out how to negotiate a wheelchair around the BU campus, when he started a foundation to help fund research and buy adaptive equipment for others who are paralyzed.
Travis raised millions for the foundation, but just as important he raised spirits, of people living with paralysis and their families, and awareness, so that others who knew nothing about paralysis might be moved to act.
Anyone who heard him speak will know what I mean when I say he was awe-inspiring in the most understated way. Just by telling his story, Travis provided one of life’s greatest gifts: perspective.
In his moments of despair, and given the hand that life dealt him they were remarkably rare, Travis worried about being a burden.
During our last conversation, he talked of especially not wanting to be a burden to his parents, Lee and Brenda Roy, as they aged.
Of course, Lee and Brenda never saw it that way. There was nothing that they wouldn’t or didn’t do for their son. Theirs was an unconditional love.
On Tuesday, the worst fears about last month’s surgery were realized. Travis was rushed to the University of Vermont Medical Center for emergency surgery due to complications from the previous surgery. When he died Thursday afternoon, his parents and sister Tobi were at his side.
An hour after Travis died at age 45, his brother-in-law, Keith VanOrden, was thinking about “Travis Roy’s 10 Rules of Life,” an essay Travis wrote as a senior at Tabor Academy and read out to a morning assembly at the school. It betrayed an early maturity, a list of things that might not come so readily to a young man on the cusp of adulthood. The rules included being yourself, never taking anything for granted, setting goals, resisting peer pressure, respecting others. The eighth rule was appreciating the importance of family.
“Rule number eight is the only lesson I didn’t have to learn,” Travis wrote. “Family is the one thing I’ve always known about.”
There was an extended family, too. The hockey community, not just in Boston or Massachusetts but throughout New England, his alma maters, Tabor and BU, remained a big part of his life.
Jack Parker, his coach at BU, was at his side after Travis fell, and he was never far away after that. Parker and his wife, Jackie, lived in the same building on Commonwealth Avenue where Travis had an apartment.
Travis’s nephew Grady honored his uncle by enrolling at BU this year.
“Travis was a constant gift,” Keith VanOrden said. “He was everybody’s brother.”
It’s true. Travis Roy was never a burden. He wasn’t heavy. He was our brother.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]