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, 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 for Green 20, a trap play, with Jack set to block (or at least get in the way of) a 250-pound teammate. The ball was snapped, 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. That practice would be the last of his football career. He was down, and he stayed down for a while.
Jack Wellman is the 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.”
Newtown has never been a traditional wrestling power, but 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.
Wrestling is not an easy sport to pick up — you don’t have any teammates on the mat to help you, and when you’re overmatched, you literally get beaten up physically. Being relatively new to the sport, Jack had a lot of long days wrestling kids who were both older and more experienced. “Some kids really get high strung once they get taken down, or once they’re losing,” says Curtis Urbina, one of the NYWA coaches says. “But Jack always had a smile on this face. He just had this tenacity to keep going.”
After Jack was injured, Urbina had an idea. He told the Wellmans to bring Jack to practices to help out. There are plenty of things that need to be done around a wrestling practice, such as setting up mats, getting water, and helping out with tips here or there. “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: He wanted to coach. “There’s a difference between him asking to help, and him just showing up and lingering around,” says Urbina. “When he came to me that day, I knew he was accepting that responsibility.”
Urbina had Jack spend a few practices taking note of 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, and with coaches spread out instructing the 35 kids who come to each elementary school team practice, the youngest ones provided an almost impossible challenge for the coaching staff. But Jack was a natural as a coach. He kept the kids interested and made it fun for them. He showed the patience and persistence needed to connect with those kids. “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.”
Steve Singlak was never a wrestler. But he had seen an ad for the team and coincidentally met Urbina a few days later. He and his wife, Melissa, signed up their energetic four-year-old son, Stephen. They weren’t sure what to expect, but as they watched Jack work with Stephen, they were amazed.
“Stephen was wrestling kids bigger than him, and I didn’t want him getting discouraged,” says Steve. “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.”
Adds Melissa, “Jack was the first coach to hold his attention.”
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 and maybe make someone else’s winter a little bit better.”
Helping a Community
Just when things were starting to look up for Jack again, his community was rocked by an unimaginable tragedy in December. 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 young wrestlers, Jack Pinto, was among the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. 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 decided to look for ways to help through sports. Days after the tragedy, he emailed the head of Nike asking if the company could donate equipment or make special apparel to support the town’s youth sports teams. While Nike chose not to publicize it, the company performed numerous acts of kindness in Newtown. (The company didn't create any uniforms or gear for the team. But the equipment manufacturer Riddell did.) Meanwhile, the coaches had kept the wrestling program going to give the kids an outlet during the tough time, and Jack was as involved as ever. He also became active with the My Sandy Hook Family Fund, a grassroots organization that raises money for the families of the victims, as well as helping families with 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, Steven. They were impressed by Jack’s big heart and leadership ability, using patience and a gentle touch along with toughness to get the most out of his kids on the wrestling mat. “You never felt like Jack was longing to be in the other room, wrestling with his friends,” Debora says. “He accepted and embraced his charge. 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, or the coolest, or the best in school. It’s because people trust him,” says Rob. “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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Nike created uniforms for the Newtown Youth Football team. That information was incorrect. Riddell, without any contact with Jack Wellman, created and donated uniforms to the team.
Photos: Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated, courtesy of Caren Wellman