CGA lacrosse welcomes 13-year-old Joe Kolashuk as its newest teammate
New London — Coast Guard Academy men's lacrosse coach Ray LaForte talks to his team about grit on a daily basis. LaForte refers to both the straight-up definition of grit: courage and resolve, strength of character. He also refers to GRIT as an acronym standing for greatness, respect, intensity and team.
And then Wednesday afternoon, 13-year-old Joe Kolashuk of Oakdale walked into the Otto Graham Hall of Excellence on the Coast Guard campus, embodying the whole spirit of LaForte's message.
Kolashuk, involved in a bicycle accident last March 5 that left him in a coma, hospitalized for 98 days at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford, signed a "contract" Wednesday which made him a part of the Coast Guard men's lacrosse team for the next three years.
Sitting in front of a bust of Football Hall of Famer Otto Graham, once a coach at the academy, Kolashuk — grinning broadly throughout — took part in a press conference along with LaForte and Bears captain Blaise Curtis.
Before an audience consisting of the men's lacrosse team, men's intramural basketball participants who stopped practicing to gather around, a few of LaForte's fellow Coast Guard coaches, local media members and his own friends and family, Kolashuk received jersey No. 1 and a spot on the Bears' roster sheet.
He ended the ceremony by joining the players for a rendition of "Sweet Caroline," Coast Guard's anthem following victories, LaForte said.
Kolashuk, a sixth-grader at Saint Patrick Cathedral School in Norwich, was paired with the Coast Guard team through an organization called Team IMPACT.
"I think my team needs to interact with Joe as much as he needs them," LaForte said. "Cadets sometimes get locked inside the gates (at the academy) a little bit. Our cadets have so many fantastic qualities ... the quality of compassion is big. I think the grit thing; if we can grab on to some of Joe's grit ... I think we're going to get a lot out of it."
Kolashuk was riding his bike between his grandparents' house and his own home, just a few doors away on Route 163 in Montville, when he was struck by a truck on the morning of March 5, 2016.
According to his dad, Michael, Kolashuk broke his jaw in two places, cracked his shoulder, broke his collarbone and several ribs, broke two bones in his leg, punctured a lung and received several other injuries. He remained in a coma for several weeks until one day he could stick out his tongue when commanded by doctors.
Kolashuk returned home in June, but was paralyzed on his right side, requiring that he learn to swallow, talk, eat, walk, run and write all over again.
Kolashuk, with help from tutors and his family members, returned to school with his regular classmates this fall. His mother, Danielle, attends school with him each day to act as her son's teacher's aide. He has undergone 10 surgeries and has two more on the horizon.
"It's a long process. Each day it was pretty emotional," Danielle Kolashuk said Wednesday afternoon from a conference room inside the Coast Guard football offices. "His father taught him how to run again. He started as soon as he came home and he works out with his father. He never rests.
"(School) is extremely hard for me. You have to be stern and put your parenting figure aside. It's challenging for Joe because of his memory. ... He started (at Coast Guard) at the end of November. Blaise takes him to the weight room, they've played badminton with him. They're very welcoming to him."
Kolashuk, who also played basketball before his accident, previously played lacrosse along with brothers Mathew (a member of the team last year at Norwich Free Academy) and Jack.
Among the questions he answered from the audience Wednesday:
What are you looking forward to the most this season? "Probably lacrosse."
Who's your favorite athlete? "Muhammad Ali."
What's your favorite food. "Noodles."
If you could be anyone in the world, who would it be? "Muhammad Ali."
And what do your classmates think of you being a part of the Coast Guard lacrosse team? "Most of them are not really that excited."
Kolashuk received a huge ovation for each answer.
The "contract" he signed, also endorsed by LaForte and Curtis, includes clauses which include, "I will practice good sportsmanship before, during and after games. I will appreciate the good play of our opponents and remain humble during my shining moments," and "I will work hard when no one is watching. My work ethic is based on the hard work I put in during games and practices as well as at home."
LaForte said he was nervous throughout the day Wednesday because he wanted Kolashuk's event to be "great." LaForte asked Kolashuk if he wanted to have his association with Coast Guard be low-key or not-so-low-key.
"He texted me back and said, 'Coach LaForte, let's go big,'" LaForte said with a smile. "I was like, 'OK. I can throw a party.' ... I don't know Joe pre-accident, but a quality of a good coach and a good team is you adjust. (Joe) is finding his new day."
"Every day he gets better and better," Michael Kolashuk said of his son. "Before we called him Social Joe. He talks to everybody. That hasn't changed. It's good for him to be around different people, good people."
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