Saying goodbye to my friend Nick Springer, a Paralympic legend

Nick Springer plays against Japan en route to a U.S. victory in the bronze-medal match of mixed wheelchair rugby at the 2012 Paralympic Games. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

This article contains sensitive content involving infection and amputations.

WHEN NICK SPRINGER was in a coma, doctors told his parents that he was going to live and that he would wake up soon. Gary and Nancy Springer rejoiced for a moment, then began to dread the conversation they were going to have with him: The hockey-loving teen was about to see he had no arms and no legs.

He'd contracted bacterial meningitis a week earlier, a deadly infection that sweeps in like a tornado and can kill in less than 24 hours. He never knew what had hit him until afterward. He'd been at a summer camp one day, feeling bad the next morning, in a coma later that day.

His doctor told his parents to just tell him they loved him and don't mention the amputations. "Let him come to it himself," he said.

So when Nick's eyes finally opened a week after contracting meningitis, his mom and dad rejoiced, cried, hugged him, hugged him again. They didn't say anything about his body.

Within a minute or so the woozy boy looked at Gary and said, "Dad, I don't think I have any fingers."

His dad nodded his head and struggled not to cry.

"And I think something happened to my legs, too," Nick said.

Both parents cried at that point, and Gary said, "Yes, the doctors had to take your legs."

Nick lay in the hospital bed for a few seconds, and then he said, "OK."

"You're still Nick. Just a little less of him," his dad said, a phrase Nick would carry with him.

But this was a life-altering devastation. The 14-year-old's life would never be the same, he was told, and the toll of the disease probably meant he shouldn't expect a normal lifespan. The body goes into shutdown mode after contracting the illness to preserve essential organs, then the bacteria works its way rapidly in from the limbs. Survivors can face an unknown price. Nick took in all this information and still said he was OK, and so everybody else could be OK, too.

Turns out, OK was an incredible understatement.

Nick Springer died suddenly last week at age 35 while swimming in a friend's pool. Nick had recently been concerned about his chest and had begun to see a cardiologist, his dad says. But they don't know yet a cause of death. "No distress," Gary says now. "He was just gone."

Nick had become a Paralympic rugby legend, the MVP for the 2008 U.S. gold-medal-winning team. He won five world championships in total, and his Phoenix club rugby team would often play -- and beat -- national teams from Canada and elsewhere. He was nicknamed The Tank for his power and ferociousness, and in recent years, he advocated for bacterial meningitis education and vaccination with the same level of ferocity.

That's how we first met -- I am an advocate for bacterial meningitis vaccination, too. I was in college in 1999 when I contracted the disease. I spent a week in a coma, woke up and realized I was going to need to have the ends of both feet amputated. I tried to get to OK, too. It took Nick Springer 20 minutes to get there; it's been 20 years, and I still struggle to accept the hellscape of the disease.

I knew Nick for about three years. He was an incredible speaker who enraptured audiences. He could weave in and out of tonal shifts in a way that very few people can. He could have you riveted and then sad and then uplifted and then laughing in the same 60 seconds. Every time we spoke to the same group, I always hoped to go before him, because he was a closer. For our message, that by getting vaccinated you might be able to prevent what we went through, he was the exclamation point.

I'd seen him last summer, one of a few in-person get-togethers I have done in over a year, and he mentioned having those health concerns and pointed toward his chest. I remember telling him that day that maybe the problem was just that Nick Springer had more damn heart than any human body should.

A FEW WEEKS after that hospital conversation with his parents, Springer met a Paralympic sled hockey player named Victor Calise. Springer's illness had gotten quite a bit of publicity in the New York City area, and Calise came to wish him well, and also to tell him not to forget about sports. Springer loved hockey and had had a goal of getting to the NHL someday.

Calise explained to him how sled hockey worked, and Springer was intrigued. His body was months, maybe years, away from being medically cleared for any sports, though. He'd have to heal up the massive wounds still on the ends of all four limbs, rehab for a while and then maybe consider meeting up with Calise.

Yeah, that wasn't quite going to work for Nick Springer. He asked his parents to get the hospital to let him leave for an hour or two every day to "get lunch." In reality, they smuggled him across town to an indoor rink, where Calise met them and taught Nick how to play sled hockey. They put big athletic socks over his residual limbs and duct-taped hockey sticks to the ends of his arms.

Remember: Nick Springer was 14, and this wasn't a torn ACL. His injuries were forever. There was no realistic surgery or pill or transplant that would allow him to walk again. It can be a suffocating life sentence, and so many people buckle under that weight. He didn't.

Springer loved sled hockey, even though it was a struggle to play the sport because he'd lost about half of each arm. Calise recommended he try wheelchair rugby, and eventually Nick did. Almost immediately, he was a prodigy, with an ability to weave in and out of traffic and streak to the outside, even against much older competition. "I think I could be really good at this," he told his dad after the first practice.

He considered himself a defense-first player because he could get back so fast. But he also was so physical that he often ended up with the ball, streaking back the other way and scoring. Even as a teenager, Springer was already playing with adults, some of whom were on the national team.

"The minute Nick woke up from his coma, he was an adult," Gary Springer says. "He had that part of his life where he'd get together with his other teenager friends and hang out. But he had another part of his life where he was meeting with pain-management doctors, having amputations, going to therapy, figuring out long-term health goals ... real adult stuff. He could do the kid stuff, but he wasn't a kid anymore."

When he says that, it hits me. Hard. I had never thought of my own life that way. There's no good age to have a coma and then start having body parts cut off as you reckon with the fragility of your life, but I can tell you that 14 years old and 22 years old are less than ideal moments to wrestle with those concepts.

Nick's new dream became being a Paralympian rugby player at the Beijing Games in 2008, and he did it -- he was one of the best players in the world at that point. But in the run-up to the Games, Nancy Springer found out she had liver cancer. Nick initially opted not to go with the team, especially as her health deteriorated. "We all knew she was going to die," Gary says now.

But Nick didn't get his relentlessness from thin air. Nancy was insistent that he had to go, and had her doctors assure him, "She'll be here when you get back."

Nick began to view the trip as a tribute to her. He decided to go -- and win. And that's exactly what the U.S. team did. In the gold-medal match, the American team edged past perennial power Australia, mostly because Springer -- the MVP -- shut down Aussie superstar Ryley Batt.

Before the gold-medal match, Gary, who also went to Beijing, had gotten the call he dreaded: Nancy was not going to be there when they got back. She was dying, soon. He couldn't tell Nick before the game, and he let his son celebrate with his teammates for an hour and a half after the finale. Then he approached Nick cautiously, but he didn't have to say anything. Nick and I used to talk about how you develop a sixth sense with loved ones who help you overcome what we went through -- it's almost like the kind of inexplicable telepathy that twins develop. You can't just read each other; you helped write each other.

As Gary approached, Nick interrupted before his dad even opened his mouth. "It's happening, isn't it?" Nick asked.

Gary nodded, and they packed their stuff and tried to get back to the U.S. in time. They arrived in the States at 5 p.m. the next day. Nancy had died at 4.

Nick was heartbroken but wearing his gold medal, an impossible-to-process one-two punch of the ultimate personal comeback story alongside a terrible loss. They went to the hospital and cried together, a father and a son, and family members told them an incredible story.

In the last few hours of her life, more than 10 people crowded around her bed. Nancy was unconscious and would never wake up, but she still had a pulse. So hospital employees and family members had multiple screens tuned to the gold-medal game, and every time the announcer erupted and yelled, "The Tank strikes again!" everybody in the room would cheer and look over at the life-support machine, where Nancy's blood pressure and vitals would spike, then recede. A few minutes later, after another big Tank play, her vitals would spike again. She didn't see her son's proudest moment, but she sure did hear it.

THE LAST TIME I saw Nick, he was in Connecticut visiting family in August. He told me to pick a place to eat outdoors and maybe we could get together. He liked Mexican food, so I gave him the address of an awesome place near my house.

On the drive there, I passed an SUV waiting at a stop sign, and I saw that it was Nick driving. I got to the restaurant and stood outside and watched him pull into the parking lot. I walked over to the car because I'd always wanted to see his setup. He crawled through the inside of the car and popped the back hatch, and I said hello and asked if he needed any help. He shook his head no -- he was used to waving people off and doing it himself. He didn't want the help, and he didn't need the help, and he certainly didn't want to need the help.

By himself, he lowered his wheelchair down and hopped in. He rolled and pivoted his body gracefully so it landed square in the chair. He was a living, breathing reminder to me of how much can be gained from loss.

We spent the next two hours talking and laughing, and a lot of our conversation was about our bodies. He goofed on me a bit because I get cold, even in obscenely hot weather. Doctors saved my damaged hands from amputation, but I have scars all over my fingers, and the scarred areas never get warm, no matter the temperature. "Well, I guess I'd rather have wimpy cold hands than none at all," he said, and he waved his limbs in the air.

I saw our server in the background coming over to refill our waters, and her eyes got really big over her mask as Nick waved. She spun and darted back into the restaurant with the pitcher. I told Nick; he thought it was the funniest thing ever. "My flippers freak some people out," he said, and he gave another wild arm wave.

He asked me a lot that day about stand-up comedy. I'd been doing it since 2018, and he thought maybe he could be good at it. (He would have been, for the record.) He started working some bits on me to see if they'd work, and most revolved around poking fun at his disability. I was howling, but I told him I'd often bombed when I talked about my amputations and everything that came with it. Most people hurt for your hurts when you talk about them. They don't think it's OK to laugh, especially in a crowd. That disappointed him -- he wanted people to laugh along with him. "Hey, maybe I could come and round up all of my toeless friends," I told him, and we both had a good chuckle.

Pretty soon, our server arrived with the check, and Nick waved once more, exaggerating a little more than he needed to. This time, the server seemed fine. People tended to fall for Nick Springer pretty quickly. I begged him to let me pay, and he let me, and I am so glad he did.

I walked alongside my friend as he loaded himself into the car, sweating and grunting and pulling himself into the back. I knew better than to ask if he wanted help. He drove the car past me, and I waved. It was the last time I saw him, and it crushes me to have to write that.

But I feel so blessed to have had those two hours with him. There's that thing that humans always say when someone dies -- "Damn, I wish could have one more time to hang out with him." I got that last chance. And I witnessed him moving big crowds of people over the years with the story of his life. So I'm one of the thousands who have been lucky enough to find themselves in the path of The Tank.