Broken Dream

updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

GATHERED FOR THEIR DAILY VIGIL at Boston University Medical Center Hospital, Travis Roy's family prayed for a miracle. Sadly, one is very much needed. Roy, a 20-year-old B.U. freshman injured in a college hockey game three weeks ago, remains paralyzed from the neck down in the hospital's intensive care unit. He is not expected to walk again.

In the violent world of contact sports, paralyzing injuries are so common that the story seems sickeningly familiar. Yet there is a special poignancy in what happened to Travis Roy, whose life's ambition was to play big-time college hockey and whose greatest desire became a reality only seconds before it ended in tragedy.

Roy had come off the bench at B.U.'s Walter Brown Arena on Oct. 20 in the second minute of his team's first game of the season, against the University of North Dakota. Playing left wing, he had been on the ice only 11 seconds when, after throwing a hard body check near the rink's sideboards, he glanced off an opponent and crashed into the boards headfirst. When he didn't get up, a hush fell over the capacity crowd of 3,806. Sprawled facedown on the ice, Roy was able to glance sideways at his father, Lee, 50, who had rushed to his son's side. Recalls Lee: "He said, 'Dad, I'm in big trouble.' "

The force of the collision, said.doctors at B.U. Medical Center, had crushed Travis's fourth vertebra and badly damaged his spinal cord. "He was rendered immediately without sensation from the neck down," said Dr. James Reed, one of a team of surgeons who operated Oct. 23 to remove bone fragments and stabilize the spine. While family members were initially buoyed by reports that Travis might regain some motor function after swelling subsided, the final prognosis from chief of orthopedic surgery Dr. Isadore Yablon left little room for encouragement. "Unfortunately," he announced later in the week, "Travis is not anticipated to regain useful function of his limbs."

For Roy, who learned to skate when he was still in diapers, the announcement was shattering. Born in Yarmouth, Maine, where his father teaches skating and manages a local ice rink, and his mother, Brenda, 48, is an assistant high school principal, Travis grew up figure skating with his sister Tobi and playing in junior hockey leagues. "It was such fun going to all the tournaments," said Brenda shortly after his injury. "We did it as a family, from the time Travis was 3 until last Friday night."

While Travis was also an avid soccer and tennis player, it is hockey, says Tobi, that has been "his love, his passion, always." After serving as a stick boy for the American Hockey League's Maine Mariners from age 7, Travis announced to his parents at 15 that he was determined to play for a top college team and maybe even turn pro. "He was 15 going on 30," says Jack O'Brien, Travis's hockey coach at North Yarmouth High School. "The older players looked up to him because he was so savvy about the game. He was the best I've ever seen."

Among the nation's top high school prospects, Travis accepted a full scholarship to B.U., which last spring won its first national hockey championship since 1978, and moved to Boston in June to prepare for the season. "When I first met him, I thought, 'He can't be a hockey player,' " says Scott King, his roommate at college. "He's too nice." "Travis," says teammate Mike Grier, 20, "was one of those guys you like to see when you come to the rink. He always was happy. He always had a joke."

Boston, a passionate hockey town, seemed stricken by Roy's injury. "People were crying in the halls," says King, and other B.U. students comforted one another at a candlelight prayer vigil. Well-wishers filled Travis's room with cards and flowers, and a week after the accident Vice President Al Gore, in town to give a speech, visited Travis at his bedside. At B.U.'s first game after the accident—on Oct. 28, against Vermont—Travis's teammates wore his initials on their sleeves and draped his No. 24 jersey behind the team bench.

Now, in a voice husky with emotion, Brenda Roy remembers the terrible moment at Brown Arena: "When Travis first fell, I thought, 'Oh, my God. He's hurt his shoulder or his arm. What if he has to miss the next game?' You quickly find where your priorities lie when you realize there won't be another game."

Travis's sister Tobi, a nurse who moved from South Carolina to Boston last summer to be closer to her family, remains, like her parents, numb with grief. "I promised Travis I'd be there for his first NCAA game," she says, her voice trailing off. "And now ..."

As for Travis, he "is in relatively good spirits," says Dr. Reed. In fact, even as he was lying motionless on the ice, he displayed a stubborn courage that may serve him well. "I can't feel anything in my legs, and my neck hurts. But...I made it," he told his father. "And he did," says Lee. "He made his goal"—to play for the best college team in the country.

SUE AVERY BROWN and TOM DUFFY in Boston and NED ZEMAN in Burlington, Vt.

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