When Rick Hoyt was born in 1962, he was strangled by the umbilical cord during birth, and that incident left him unable to walk or talk.
The doctors advised Rick’s parents, Dick and Judy Hoyt, to institutionalize him because they thought that he would be a vegetable. However, the Hoyts thought that was terrible advice, and discarded it altogether. They soon realized that the doctors were dead wrong!
“When Rick got his eyes opened, they were following mine and my wife’s,” said Dick Hoyt, in a recent phone interview. “He was looking at us. His eyes were unbelievable. If you talked or made noises, he reacted. He paid attention.”
They decided to treat Rick just like their fully able-bodied children. For example, when Rick’s brothers played hockey in the neighborhood, Rick was included. Hoyt remembered: “We took him on the ice in his wheelchair and we’d push him around. We put a hockey stick on his chair. We used to skate around with him, so he could use the puck and not play goalie all the time.”
According to Rick’s father, the neighborhood children included Rick in a lot of activities. “They treated him like everyone else because they saw that we did.”
His parents were also as strict with him as they were with their other children.
“A lot of families spoil their disabled children,” said Hoyt. “We never did. We were hard and firm with Rick like we were with our other kids. One time we were in a restaurant and Rick was acting up, so I told him that if he didn’t stop, I’d put him in the van by himself. He kept acting up, so I put him in the van and went back in the restaurant. He couldn’t believe I did that. We never let him get away with anything.”
The Hoyts had high expectations of Rick and saw no reason why he shouldn’t go to public school. However, the area school district administrators objected. Hoyt said: “They told us ‘he doesn’t understand, he won’t be able to learn.’ So we took him to Tufts University (in 1973) and met some engineers. They said the same thing, so we told them to tell Rick a joke. They did and Rick cracked up laughing. They said ‘maybe there is something there. If you raise five thousand dollars, we’ll build a communicating device for Rick.’ We raised the money.”
The Tuft engineers built an interactive computer that allowed Rick to write out his thoughts using the slight head-movements that he could manage. A cursor would move across a screen filled with rows of letters, and when the cursor highlighted a letter that Rick wanted, he would click a switch with the side of his head.
Rick’s first words were not ‘Hi Mom, hi Dad, Thank you, I love you’. They were ‘Go Bruins!’ It turned out that Rick was a big Boston Bruin (ice hockey) fan, just like his brothers.
By 1975, the public school administrators saw that Rick could communicate and comprehend everything, so they finally admitted him.
Two years later, Rick made an unselfish gesture, which would ultimately enhance his quality of life.
An area lacrosse athlete was badly injured, so Rick’s local community organized a 5-mile run to defray the medical costs. Rick told his overweight, out of shape father that he wanted to participate, and asked him to push him in the wheelchair. His father obliged.
Rick’s desire to help someone in need, a person far less disabled than himself, didn’t surprise his father. “We raised Rick to think of other people.”
After they finished the race, Rick wrote on his computer that it was the first time it felt as if his disability had disappeared.
“He can’t use his arms or legs, then to say his disability disappears, that’s powerful,” said Hoyt.
Rick and his father entered a series of road races, and never felt discouraged. Even in the beginning — when they knew the race directors, the other runners and the wheelchair entrants didn’t want them competing — they pressed on. “They all snubbed us,” said Hoyt, “but that didn’t matter. Every time we raced, Rick had a huge smile on his face, his arms were up in the air, he was so happy. He called himself free-bird, because he never felt so free before.”
Eventually, the officials and all the race entrants warmed up to the Hoyt Team.
“They could see that Rick had quite a personality and a great sense of humor.”
The only people who objected were able-bodied people who had relatives with disabilities. “They used to call me and send me letters asking, ‘what are you doing dragging your disabled son through all these races? You’re looking for glory for yourself!’ They didn’t realize that Rick was dragging his father through all these races. I did these races because Rick wanted to. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been out there.”
Dick Hoyt said that thanks to Rick, he became incredibly fit. Dick’s good conditioning helped him survive a heart attack four years ago. “The doctors told me that if I were out of shape, I’d be a goner. Rick saved my life.”
For over 25 years, Team Hoyt have competed in over 940 events, including a couple dozen Boston Marathons. In addition, they also competed in the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii.
No matter what events they compete in, fellow athletes tell them that they’ve been a true inspiration.
“As long as Rick and I keep having fun, we’re going to keep at it,” Dick Hoyt concluded.
For more information about Team Hoyt, log on to www.teamhoyt.com.