By: Robert Desimone (@coachdesmn)
When you ask, most people will easily be able to come up with a list of people that had a major impact on their life. But when you dig a little deeper, how many of those people can you say had a major impact the moment you met them? Really, how many people have you ever met that truly had a major impact on your life immediately? It's normal for those relationships and that impact to take place over time, but when you have the rare opportunity to meet someone like Duke Pieper, it reminds you how truly special some people are.
We all face adversity. It's not something quantifiable, and everyone defines it differently, but at the core it's about understanding we all go through it. So the question is: how do we deal with it?
Perhaps the most cliché saying we hear is that we find a person's true character by how he or she handles adversity. It's something we frequently hear in hockey, when teams struggle in a game or are in the midst of a losing streak. For Duke, it's hard to imagine how a teenager worrying about his first high school hockey game changed instantly to overcoming the adversity of having just a five percent chance to live. Unfortunately, that was the sad reality for a 15-year-old on track to becoming a college hockey player – and possibly even a professional hockey player.
But before you feel bad for Duke, or think this is a story to make you feel bad for him, let me stop you in your tracks because when you first meet Duke, or read his book 'I'm Alive: Courage, Hope and a Miracle', you understand why the now 22-year-old student at Bowling Green State University is such a special person.
"The biggest thing that always stands out to me is his attitude," says Duke's co-author, Jim Bruton. "All he cares about is writing this book to help other people. There's never any excuses, he never talks about his physical condition and he's always positive."
It would be easy for someone in his position to seek attention and sympathy, but that couldn't be farther from Duke's agenda.
As a high school freshman, Duke was one of the rare ones to make the varsity hockey team at the prestigious Hill-Murray School in Minnesota, which was even more remarkable after Head Coach Bill Lechner lead them to the State Championship the year before.
"He was a very impressive young man and did a great job [in tryouts]," Coach Lechner recalled. "Kids loved him around school and he was very well thought of by the teachers."
With his future seemingly on track, nobody could prepare for the derailment shortly ahead.
In warm-ups for his first game Duke left the ice not feeling well, not knowing that would be the last time he laced up his skates for a game.
The doctors diagnosed Duke with cavernous angioma, a blood vessel disorder in the brain and spine that required immediate surgery and left him with a five percent chance to live.
So as Duke's high school years passed him by with surgery after surgery, clinging to life, fighting through paralysis for months, and trying to survive, how did he make it through?
"My mental side of things and how I looked at everything."
It's easy in the current climate of youth sports to think about the negative side of injuries, or the focus on winning and becoming the best player to get a college scholarship. Often lost are the core values that sports, like hockey, can teach.
"It came back to what hockey taught me – work hard, get through it. If you don't like how you feel, what are you going to do about it? You won't complain in the corner because that's not going to get you anywhere, you're going to do something about it. Those are the things I mention in my book to try and help people."
But Duke's insistence on helping other people is unique, and it doesn't just come from what hockey taught him. With Duke, there is an even deeper level of where his core values come from.
"I remember the first time I met Duke, and I'll never forget it," said Bowling Green Head Coach Chris Bergeron. "I met Duke with his dad and in a 10-minute conversation there was some emotion, and it wasn't Duke, it was his dad and me."
In that moment, one father talking to another about an unthinkably tragic situation, a glimpse for Coach Bergeron of what he would learn about Duke's family.
"You talk to his mom and spend some time with his dad and you know exactly where this kid's character and personality come from," Coach Bergeron said. "It's a loving family, his dad is a very emotional, personality driven guy who cares about people and it's not surprising Duke is the same way."
And in that first meeting with Coach Bergeron, you might be wondering about Duke. But Duke wasn't worried about what had happened to him, he was focused on realizing his dream of going to college out of state. When you begin to break it down, it's just one of his dreams he has been able to check off his list so far.
"You have to dream big, right?" A simple question Duke posed to me, and one that I love. That's what I was always told by my parents, and something I firmly believe in. Unfortunately I've learned over the years this isn't a concept many young people believe in, which made it even more refreshing to hear it from Duke.
The part that struck me most, though, is that seemingly simple things most young people take for granted became dreams for Duke. But…graduate with his high school class? Check. Get a driver's license? Check. Go to school out of state? Check. Write a book? Maybe not something most young people think about, but you can check that off too.
So Duke headed off to Bowling Green State University to study Sports Management and Entrepreneurship. Trying to live a normal life, Duke quickly acclimated himself to the University and joined the hockey team as a student assistant coach.
"I knew Duke did not want charity, or for people to like him because what he went through. He wanted people to like him because he's Duke and he's a freshman in college going through what other college students are going through," Coach Bergeron said.
And perhaps the best part for Coach Bergeron, in the midst of taking his program from a rebuild to a premier college hockey program in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, is how Duke was a perfect fit for his culture.
"He just wants to be a guy that helps teach us that your attitude every day and having a positive attitude is a decision and something you can decide," Coach Bergeron added. "We're trying to teach these kids to be the best version of themselves on a daily basis and we wanted Duke to be a part of that."
But while the focus remains on the team and development of the players, the underlying importance of Duke's attitude is how he helps Coach Bergeron.
"I'm a dad myself and Duke keeps things in perspective for me, and I know that's not what he wants or what his role is, but for someone my age to be learning from somebody his age…I try to remind myself I'm human too, and a father with two kids trying to be the best dad, and when we talk about the best version of everybody, I'm not excluded from the conversation. I have to be the best version of me."
"We did an event at Lexus of Maplewood and at the end a guy around 65-70, there with his wife, stood up in front of everyone and said 'I just want to thank you for doing this because this night changed my life,'" Bruton recalled. "You could hear a pin drop in the room and he was talking about the speech Duke gave. Here's a guy that really gets it, that is 65-70 years old, and says a 22-year-old just changed his life, but Duke has the ability to do that."
And as Duke's personality and outlook on life continues to impact seemingly every person he meets, one constant remains: He just continues to be Duke.
But as I listen to Duke's words about his desire to live a normal life it makes me pause…because he isn't normal, and for all the right reasons.
"The best thing from the time I've spent with him is he's got a great heart, he's got such a big heart," Bruton said. "He had a horrible thing happen and he wants to take that and make a platform to help others, not to help himself and make himself rich, but to help other people and it's amazing. He deserves everything he gets. I would just do anything for him."
It's a wonderful and constant narrative that still trickles back to the high school where it all started.
"You learn from the kids, you start thinking about stuff from a family aspect, and those kids have a big impact in reverse," Coach Lechner added.
"What used to be more important is still important, because it represents what you did, but it represents so much more. What kind of kid, what kind of value, what kind of team. I can tell you what years we won the State Championship and all that, but the biggest thing as I'm getting older are the guys that show up later, we play golf in the summer, they come to the lake and go water skiing, that's the stuff you really remember."
Jimmy Valvano, the former North Carolina State Head Basketball Coach who died of cancer in 1993, once said, "If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special."
Unfortunately 'Jimmy V' lost his battle, but Duke didn't, and he has something special. Perhaps it was fate for me that I was fortunate enough to have met Duke shortly before my wife and I faced our own level of unquantifiable adversity. I'm thankful that I met him and read his book, and while I know he doesn't want me to say this, thank you Duke.
But don't just take my word for it, if you want to reach your dreams and be the best version of yourself every day, as Coach Bergeron describes, Duke is there to help. He's already helped and inspired many, and to think that a 22-year-old young man made that his mission in life, well that's pretty special to me.
For more information on I'm Alive: Courage, Hope and a Miracle by Duke Pieper (with Jim Bruton), visit: http://www.amazon.com/Im-Alive-Courage-Hope-Miracle/dp/1629371351