Former Terrier hockey player now major supporter of spinal cord research
In the video above, Travis Roy reflects on his life 20 years after a paralyzing injury and talks about what he sees for his future. Photo by Jackie Riccardi
When Travis Roy heard he would receive an honorary degree at this year’s Commencement ceremony, he had a question for President Robert A. Brown.
“My first question…was if there was a minimum age requirement, and was he sure I was old enough?” says Roy, 41, who will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at the 143rd Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 15. “Truthfully, I was incredibly surprised. At the same time it gave me perspective on what I had done over the last 20 years, and it made me think that some of my accomplishments were more significant than I had realized.”
In 1995, Roy (COM’00) was recruited to play on BU’s defending national championship men’s hockey team. But just 11 seconds into his first game, the freshman forward crashed headlong into the boards, shattering his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae, severely damaging his spinal cord, and leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. Over the last 20 years, Roy has successfully led the Travis Roy Foundation, which has raised more than $8 million to help those with spinal cord injuries lead independent lives by providing accessibility through wheelchairs, computers, and vehicle lifts. The foundation also funds research with the hope that it will lead to a cure.
Roy says he believes the honorary degree has “as much to do with the people that have supported me and the work of the Travis Roy Foundation as it does for me alone.” In a BU Today story on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the accident last October, Roy said that when he started his foundation, he imagined a medical breakthrough would arrive within 10 years (he still hopes to go out of business one day). So far, the foundation has given $2.1 million to cutting-edge research focused on finding cures for spinal cord injuries.
Today, Roy leads a busy life as a motivational speaker, addressing a wide range of audiences, from Fortune 500 companies to high schools and youth groups. He has also testified before a US Senate hearing for the National Institutes of Health and spoken to the Massachusetts legislature in support of making the commonwealth a “stem cell safe haven.” In 1998, he published his autobiography, Eleven Seconds: A Story of Tragedy, Courage & Triumph (cowritten with Sports Illustrated writer E. M. Swift).
Roy’s hockey number, 24, has been retired by Boston University. At 2011’s Annual Alumni Awards, Roy received two honors, the University’s Young Alumni Award and a Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Communication. He also received the Christopher Reeve Spirit of Courage Award from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation in January 2015, and in October 2015, anonymous donors gave $2.5 million to establish a professorship in his name at BU’s Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences.
While he won’t be speaking on Sunday, Roy still has some advice for graduates.
“Recognize that change is a challenge, and you have to face your challenges no matter what they are, whether you chose the challenge or the challenge chose you,” he says. “Maintain an acute awareness of what makes you happy, and put more focus and energy into those things. Today’s society spins so fast, and it is difficult to not be distracted by things/technology that prevent us from focusing on our happiness. I truly believe a rich life is directly correlated to the quality of people that we surround ourselves with and the emotions that come from those relationships.”
When this year’s honorary degree recipients were announced at the Senior Breakfast, Roy’s name received the loudest round of applause from the audience.
Also receiving honorary degrees are advisor and former chair, CBS Entertainment, and BU trustee Nina Tassler (CFA’79), who will give the Commencement address, Doctor of Humane Letters; Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet (CAS’79), who will be the Baccalaureate speaker, Doctor of Laws; and US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who will address the College of Engineering Undergraduate Convocation, Doctor of Laws.
More information about Commencement can be found here.
By Amy Laskowski