Mike Rigitano, the head coach of the Saint Ignatius Varsity Maroon Team, is celebrating Thanksgiving with his fiancé Becky and her family on Sunday, November 12. They will have all the traditional fair, from turkey to pumpkin pie.
And an abundance of thanks, reasons to be grateful.
One year ago, to the day, when Rigitano was the head coach for the school’s JV team, the team bus was involved in a horrific traffic accident while returning to their hotel in Warsaw, Ind., after playing the first of two nonconference games at Culver Military Academy.
A semitruck ran a red light and plowed into their bus, filled with 23 students, two coaches and the driver. All were injured, three students were taken in critical condition to Fort Wayne Lutheran Hospital.
“Sunday’s Thanksgiving will be very special … I’m getting emotional just talking about it. I’m getting chills just thinking about it,” Rigitano said. “One year ago, everything changed – for all of us.
“This Sunday is truly a blessing, especially since everyone is back on the ice, playing the game that they love. The smiles are back; the excitement is back. (The teammates on the bus) are back being high school kids again. Everyone is back to their normal routine.”
But no one has forgotten the horror of that Saturday night, as the JV teammates from a year ago are now spread among the three Ignatius hockey teams. Rigitano will be in contact with last year’s players on Sunday and the team is planning a special social media message to remember and reflect.
As Rigitano said, “You can’t take anything for granted; you always have to be prepared, no matter the circumstances. Expect the unexpected. Be thankful and take every day for what it is: learn, grow and hug the ones you love; be a kind person. Things can change in a second.”
Jack Rogers, a 16-year-old sophomore, was seated in the last row of the bus, with teammates on either side of him. He was asleep on impact and, when he awoke, he was in the hospital and it was loud. That’s all he remembers.
“When I woke up, it was all white and blurry, and was in a ton of pain,” Rogers said.
Rogers suffered a broken right pelvis, a lacerated liver, a concussion and more. He spent five nights in an Indiana hospital.
“It’s been a wild ride,” over the past year, Rogers said. “When it happened, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play again, or not.
“Once discharged (from the hospital), it was a very long and painful ride home. I mostly just sat on the couch for winter break and then, in January, physical therapy started. Early on, it was mostly stretching, especially my lower body. I had treatment on my ankles, knees, calves and hip. As PT continued, it included (many) lower body exercises, then walking and running on a treadmill.
“As we moved on (with PT), it got harder and harder.”
Rogers said his right hip was very painful. Same for his knees, feet, ankles and ribs.
He doesn’t remember much of his five nights in the hospital, mostly just that he doesn’t recall eating any meals, just water, some snacks and lots of sleep.
Rogers and teammates Owen Huffman and LJ Walsh were the most seriously injured.
“Hockey was (my) motivation,” said Rogers, who lives in Downers Grove. “Getting back on the ice was the main thing I talked about.” At every checkup, he’d ask, “When can I come back, when can I skate?”
He was in a wheelchair for more than a month after returning home, then on crutches for another month-plus, his first-time ever needing crutches which, he said, “was challenging.”
Support for all impacted came fast, far and wide. The overflow of support from the hockey community was unmatched. Ignatius foes became Ignatius friends.
AHAI stood behind the Wolfpack, as did clubs across the state and around the world.
The terror on the Ignatius bus was told on ESPN, the NHL Network and countless other mainstream media outlets. Matthew Tkachuk, for instance, tweeted his support for the team, which Rogers said, “was incredible to see.” Anson Carter talked about the Ignatius accident during a broadcast of NHL on TNT.
There were countless videos from the Chicago Blackhawks in support of Ignatius too, from past and present players. Saint Ignatius varsity head coach Spencer Montgomery received an email in support from Brendan Shanahan, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Humboldt Broncos, the most successful team in Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) history, was involved in their own horrific bus accident in 2018 – with 16 fatalities, including 10 players, 2 coaches and 4 others. They sent a Broncos jersey to the Wolfpack to show their support.
“It was so special, knowing how many people cared about us. Rivals and people who knew nothing of Ignatius,” Rogers said. “The three of us, I guess we were the unlucky ones, (enduring the most severe injuries). But I know the three of us would agree, the main thing we wanted was to get back on the ice. We knew we had to be strong; we knew we had to push through. We just wanted to get back on the ice.”
Rogers had extra motivation at home. His dad (Jeff), for one, is an assistant coach for the Ignatius varsity team. Plus, every winter the Rogers family puts up a rink in their backyard around Thanksgiving. They were debating whether to put it up in 2022.
They did build it and the young Rogers would go outside in his wheelchair or on crutches. “I’d look at the ice and just think I wanted to get out there as soon as I could,” he said.
The JV Team missed two months of games last season but practiced at times and healed as a group. Rogers and others attended team events as often as they could.
Rogers skated in late-season practices, with no contact.
Huffman was a regular at games and practices. He resumed skating this past summer.
Walsh also skated again this past summer.
Rogers is the captain of the JV this season; Huffman is the JV assistant captain.
Walsh skates on the school’s second varsity team.
“I’m blessed that I was able to come back as quick as I did,” said Rogers. “Going to the team’s games last year was challenging. Watching my team play, knowing there was nothing that I could do, was frustrating.”
He watched games from near the bench and was sort of a team manager.
“It was, though, nice and I was happy to be able to go to the games or practices, to support everyone. It was nice to be there with everyone.
“Tryouts (for this season) were surreal. I remember thinking, I can’t believe I was out (on the ice), but I was behind (other players) and wasn’t truly recovered … until the season started.”
Rogers and others endured close to nine months of physical and emotional pain.
“I am so thankful; I know it could have been way, way worse,” said Rogers, who recalls the painful ride home from the hospital last November, when he sat in the front seat, could never get comfortable, wasn’t able to sleep and was hot. “All I wanted to do was get out of the car; I was very nauseous, too.”
Rigitano said the sadness of a year ago is consoled by the smiles on Ignatius players’ faces this season. Wins are treasured even more and losses, well, it’s just a game.
“The growth and resiliency that the kids have from this accident … it brings a smile to your face, makes you emotional,” Rigitano said.
Added Montgomery: “Everyone is back on the ice, playing the sport that they love. What a blessing it is. We are so gratitude to the first responders and the community of Warsaw, Indiana, the hospital workers, and so many others.
“This Sunday, we are going to treat it like another day. We want to help the kids heal and move on.
“This really was a miracle.”