Josh Sweeney was a high school hockey player and, later, a Marine Corps sergeant who served in combat as a sniper for an advance scout unit similar to a SWAT team. But until he stepped on an improvised explosive device while on patrol in Afghanistan in October 2009 and lost both his legs, he had never heard of the Paralympics. That didn't happen until a friend at the San Antonio rehabilitation facility where Sweeney was recovering took him to see a local sled hockey team, the Rampage.
And Sweeney's life changed unexpectedly. Again.
Having found himself back around things he had wrongly thought were lost forever -- the familiar sound of his skate blades scratching on ice, the wet-leather smell of the rink locker room, the sound of the ref's whistle, the speed of the game and collisions -- Sweeney recalls smiling at his friend and saying, "Yep. This is me."
By March, Sweeney was a forward and co-captain for Team USA, and he scored the winning goal in the Americans' 1-0 victory over Russia in the gold-medal game at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi. On July 16, at the 2014 ESPYS in Los Angeles, Sweeney, 27, will be honored with the inaugural Pat Tillman Service Award for his commitment to helping others find a way to navigate their own paths out of difficulties -- perhaps through sled hockey, or maybe through the sort of perspective shift he went through and actively shares.
"Being disabled, I never thought I'd be able to do something like this," Sweeney said. "Getting a Purple Heart [as Sweeney did] is great and all, but being able to go to the Paralympics and represent my country in a different way is better.
"Both of them mean a lot to me," he continued. "But today, I can honestly say I wouldn't change anything that's happened to me in my life. If anything, I'm trying to help others see that just because you get hurt, just because something happens like what happened to me, it doesn't mean you have to stop living. I feel like I've done more since I was injured than I ever did before."
The Tillman award is being presented at the ESPYS in conjunction with the Pat Tillman Foundation, which invests in military veterans and their spouses through educational scholarships. Tillman died in 2004 at age 27 in action in Afghanistan, after leaving the NFL's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army's elite Rangers unit with his younger brother, Kevin.
Sweeney was a teenager growing up in Arizona at that time. He remembers feeling a sense of wonder when he heard about Tillman's decision to give up his NFL career and the three-year, $3.6 million contract extension the Cardinals offered him. It was shortly after 9/11, and Tillman wanted to join the fight against Osama bin Laden and terrorism.
"That kind of sacrifice is not something you hear about on a regular basis, and I remember thinking I want to be like someone like that -- someone that puts the important things first," Sweeney said. "I mean, everything that comes with an NFL career has to be amazing. And yet, he put it on hold and wanted to be part of something bigger."
Sweeney works hard to make his life into something larger as well.
He's actively involved in helping other athletes (military vets, especially) get acquainted with sled hockey, one of the lesser-known Paralympic sports, compared to wheelchair basketball or swimming. He's close to starting a team in Portland, Oregon, where he moved recently to be closer to his wife's family, and he hopes it will blossom into a regional league stretching all the way to Seattle. The day of the ESPYS, he plans to fly from a USA sled hockey camp in Buffalo, New York, where he's helping out, to L.A. to receive his award, then hop a red-eye hours later to be back in Buffalo in time for morning workouts. If that sounds beyond the call of duty, it shouldn't be surprising: It's the kind of effort that won him the Tillman Award in the first place.
Sweeney is also among the players featured in "Ice Warriors," a PBS documentary about the 2014 U.S. team's run to the gold medal in Sochi.
In the film, many of the players (Sweeney included) describe the personal recalibration they had to navigate due to their disability: What could they still do in life? Who could they become? What part of their old selves could they hold onto if they were able-bodied before? And what new and exciting things lie ahead, if you see things in a certain perspective?
Sweeney says in his case, sled hockey is a reminder of all the things he is still capable of -- not what he lost. He thinks of teammates who were born unable to walk and says, "At least I knew what it was like for part of my life."
"After being injured you think, 'What can I do now?' or 'What are my limitations?'" he said. "Being on the ice helped me feel better about myself. You're part of a unit again. Another thing a lot of us like about the sport is when you're disabled or in a wheelchair, physical contact is not something a lot of people think of participating in. But this game is full-contact, physical and full of excitement. It gives you a chance to get that aggression out. And when people watch it, they get a newfound respect for it."
Laughing now, Sweeney says he was talking to some NHL players at a practice rink one day, "and they told me, 'Hey. We watched your game. You guys get away with murder!'"
If you think about it, it's a radical notion that Sweeney is putting out there, this assertion that you can suffer a catastrophic injury and come out on the other side saying your life or worldview can actually be better.
But take him at his word. Listen to what he's found.
"It's funny, but when I'm out on the ice, the feeling is so awesome, it's almost like I'm back in high school flying around with the puck, laughing with my buddies, being part of a team again," he said. "What I found is hockey's hockey, whether you're playing it standing up or sitting down. Nothing's different between now and then -- I'm just skating a little different. What you find is you almost forget you're disabled for a while."