The story of Jack Wellman is about the remarkable healing power of sports. A story about healing, though, must begin with some pain.
Jack is a 14-year-old from Newtown, Connecticut. Just last year, he was a three-sport athlete: a lacrosse goalie, a wrestler, and an offensive guard in football.
In August 2012, he was looking forward to another football season. He was small for a football player, weighing only about 115 pounds, but he more than made up for it with his smarts, toughness, and effort. The grueling summer workouts were over, and his team had a Saturday-morning walkthrough practice before the season opener the next day. Coaches called a play. Jack was set to block (or at least get in the way of) a 250-pound teammate. The ball was snapped, and the two collided. Jack crashed to the ground.
His first thought was that he had just had the wind knocked out of him. When he rolled over onto his stomach, though, the pain started shooting up his body, and he rolled onto his back. He was down, and he stayed down for a while. That practice would be the last of his football career.
Jack Wellman is Sports Illustrated Kids magazine’s 2013 SportsKid of the Year because of what he did after he got back up.
A New Role
Jack loved playing sports. But on that day in August, it seemed that all sports were about to be taken away from him. Even though injuries were nothing new for Jack — as a lacrosse goalie, he had twice broken his hand stopping shots — this injury was much more serious. Jack had broken one of the vertebrae in his back, which not only meant a long and painful recovery, but also that he would miss both the football and wrestling seasons. “It was hard,” Jack says. “I was sad.”
The Newtown Youth Wrestling Association (NYWA) has long had a presence in the local community. Jack began wrestling as a sixth-grader. His father, Andy, wrestled in high school and is an assistant coach in the NYWA. Curtis Urbina, one of the NYWA coaches, admired Jack’s tenacity, or drive to keep going, on the wrestling mat. After Jack was injured, Urbina had an idea. He told the Wellmans to bring Jack to practices to help out. “I always said, we have an Xbox right there in the living room,” Jack’s father says. “It was up to him what he wanted to do.”
Jack decided that instead of letting the injury hold him back, he wanted to stay involved with wrestling. After a few days, he realized he wanted to do even more, by coaching. Urbina had Jack spend a few practices watching how he and the other coaches worked with wrestlers. Jack gravitated toward the toughest kids to coach, the little guys (NYWA has wrestlers as young as four years old). Jack was a natural. He kept the kids interested and made it fun for them. He showed patience and persistence. “Making sure they stayed in the room, that was a big part of my job,” Jack jokes. “But I wanted to be able to teach others some of the same lessons that wrestling had taught me. Wrestling’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”
One of the kids Jack coached that season was Stephen Singlak, 4. Stephen’s parents were amazed as they watched Jack work with their son. “Stephen was wrestling kids bigger than him, and I didn’t want him getting discouraged,” says Stephen’s dad. “Jack just started going one-on-one with him. Jack would be on all fours, and Stephen was trying different moves and just having a blast the whole time. Stephen started liking it more and more.”
Stephen had energy, but he wasn’t much of a wrestler when he first joined NYWA. After struggling to win even one match early on, Stephen won about half of his matches in the second half of the season. “It was an incredible feeling knowing that I had played a part in Stephen getting to where he was,” Jack says. “That coaching experience was just awesome. I’m so glad I had an opportunity to help out.”
Helping a Community
Just when things were starting to look up for Jack again, his community was rocked by an unimaginable tragedy on December 14, 2012. The tragedy occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary, the same school where the wrestling team held its practices and which some of the team members attended. One of the wrestlers was among the victims at Sandy Hook. The community of Newtown, as well as the entire country, was devastated by the events.
Dealing with such a difficult and sad situation gave Jack new perspective on his sports injuries. “There was this amazing outpouring of love and support coming from all over the world,” he says. “I felt like I had been sitting around feeling sorry for myself. I realized it was time for me to do something.”
Jack became active with the My Sandy Hook Family Fund, which helps families affected by the tragedy by raising money and providing everyday support for things like yard work, landscaping, and other chores. The Fund was started by Rob and Debora Accomando, a Newtown family with three sons who have all been part of the wrestling program. Jack coached their youngest son. They were impressed by Jack’s big heart and leadership ability. “You never felt like Jack was longing to be in the other room, wrestling with his friends,” Debora says. “He accepted and embraced his [responsibility]. He’s such a good kid.”
Newtown was forever changed last December. But with the help of Jack, wrestling has played a small part in the healing. In January, Newtown tied for first at the Western Connecticut Elementary School Wrestling League championships, the best finish in the program’s history. In a dark period, it was a rare moment of triumph. “Jack’s not a leader because he’s the best athlete,” says Rob Accomando. “It’s because people trust him. When he wants to help, it’s because he genuinely feels compassion.”
After a bad injury altered his life in sports, Jack got back on his feet. And as the days go on, Newtown will do the same.