We All Got Angels, We All Got Demons

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I love the penalty kill.

For every second of those two minutes, the odds are stacked against you. The other team is supposed to score.

You’ve got to have complete belief in the three teammates working with you out there. You need to know when the other forward follows the guy with the puck, because you have to rotate to the open space. You need to know whether to go down to block a shot, or let your goalie see it all the way.

And, when it comes down to it, you’ve also gotta have a little faith.


On January 4th, 2014, I was doing what I love: killing penalties.

My high school team, the Monroe Township (N.J.) Falcons, was winning. I had already scored a goal and had two assists. I was full of confidence.

One of my teammates chipped the puck out of our zone, and I took off. I got in behind the defense pretty quick, and I was right around the top of the right circle, near the boards when I got checked from behind.

I remember everything.

The kid who hit me fell on top of me, and we slid toward the boards. It wasn’t in slow motion or anything like that, but I do remember really analyzing what was happening. I knew it wasn’t going to be good. I was thinking, Man, not my head. I can’t have a concussion. I don’t want to be out.

I hit the boards headfirst, and I didn’t really feel anything. My best friend, Pete, skated over to me.

 It wasn’t in slow motion or anything like that, but I do remember really analyzing what was happening. I knew it wasn’t going to be good.

“Yo, Mikey, you good?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I just can’t move.”

I tried to get up, but I just couldn’t move — nothing was working. I wasn’t in pain. My neck didn’t hurt enough to stop playing. I just couldn’t move.

People were waiting for me to get up, but I couldn’t. My dad jumped over the boards to check on me. I was lying on my back, just staring into the rafters.

I remember him looking down at me. Usually he’s fearless, brave, unshakeable. I could see something was wrong. He asked me if I was O.K.

“I can’t feel anything,” I said.

He asked me to squeeze his hand. I tried and tried, but … nothing. I looked into his eyes. I could tell he was scared.

I could see my teammates were kneeling around me. There were parents leaning over the glass, trying to see if I was all right. A few people were on their phones trying to call for help. But what I remember most is this:

The silence.

All I could hear was my dad’s voice and the sound of my own breathing. Everything else was just … lost noise.

“Dad, I was the best player on the ice tonight.”

“Yeah, buddy, you were … you definitely were.”

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He laid his jacket over me because, for whatever reason, I was freezing cold all of a sudden. The EMT’s put me on a stretcher and took me to the dressing room. I remember them telling me that they wanted to cut through my pads to get them off. I was like, “No, no, no! There’s straps on the back, don’t ruin them!” Those pads were expensive, man. I worked hard for those things. The least they could was use the straps, right?

They ruined them anyway.

We were only in the back room for about 15 minutes before they called for a helicopter to airlift me to the hospital.

To be honest, when I heard that I was going to be airlifted … I was kind of stoked. I had never been on a helicopter before.

So they strapped me in and they put me on the chopper. Not only was the ride really cool, but there was this beautiful EMT on board. I mean, if I hadn’t known better I would have thought that this was my ride to heaven, and that this angel was leading the way.

On the helicopter, I kept losing consciousness. I would wake up and then pass out again … and I was also apparently flirting with the beautiful EMT. Can you imagine what she must have been thinking? Here’s a kid — 30 minutes after going headfirst into the boards — trying to flirt with her every time he comes to.

 To be honest, when I heard that I was going to be airlifted … I was kind of stoked. I had never been on a helicopter before.

Hilarious.

I arrived at the emergency room, and I remember seeing my mom, who drove there to meet me. After that, everything is completely black. Ask anyone who has been through something similar and they’ll tell you the same thing: You don’t remember your first couple of days in the hospital.

But when I finally woke up for good, I met one of the most important people in my life:

Eric LeGrand.

Mikey Nichols and Eric LeGrand at Mickey's house in Monroe, New Jersey on October 10, 2016.(Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune)

Eric

I saw Mikey a week after he got hurt. I heard about his injury on the news, and because he was at a hospital in New Jersey, not too far from where both of us live, I knew I could make it out to see him. When I first got there, he was completely out of it. All the medication and stuff …  it reminded me of my first week in the hospital.

Mikey

Dude, this piece is about me ….

Eric

Alright, bruh. You go shine.

Mikey

When I first woke up after getting injured, it was a shock, like nothing you’ve ever experienced — mental, physical … it all sort of hits you in the face. I just remember people explaining my injury to me over and over again, telling me how I probably wouldn’t be able to walk again.

I kept thinking, Paralyzed? Nah … not me.

I mean, how do you even respond to something like that?

Huh? Come on. Of course I’m going to walk again. I’ve felt that way since Day One, and I still feel that way.

Eric

That week after his injury, I came in and we started talking football. I mentioned I was a Broncos fan, and he said he was a Jets fan. He came right at me with the trash talk. I was like, This boy must be out his damn mind. Hahaha. But for real, we hit it off right away.

Mikey

Yeah! It was perfect, because it was right after the Broncos got their butts whooped by the Seahawks in the Meadowlands. I made sure Eric didn’t forget that.

Eric

Wait, hey, didn’t we say we were going to talk about you here? No need to bring up that game.

mikey

I kept thinking, Paralyzed? Nah … not me. I mean, how do you even respond to something like that?

Mikey Nichols

Mikey

Hahaha. Those first couple of days though … they were tough.

I was told I had suffered damage to the C-5 vertebrae in my spinal cord. C-5 damage can mean a few things, but in a sense, I was lucky. Unlike Eric, who is paralyzed from the neck down, I was able to breathe on my own, and I have relative control over my upper body. He doesn’t have any movement in his upper body, so there are some differences in our recovery, but a few similarities as well. We both had these ventilators in our mouth. They are awful. They basically pry open your lips to get air into you and essentially help you breathe. It’s one of the most unpleasant feelings you can wake up to.

Eric

The ventilators! Those are brutal. I remember waking up after my injury, and my mouth was wide open, with these two tubes prying open my lips. It was so painful. I eventually used my tongue to push them out of my mouth.

Mikey

For me, the worst part was just the constant setbacks. I had a stroke and a bad yeast infection on my lower back during the first couple weeks. It felt like I was in and out of surgery every few days. But as hard as it was physically, the mental toll was exhausting.

Eric

When did you get to Kessler?

Mikey

Yeah, for those who don’t know, Kessler is the institution for rehabilitation in New Jersey. I, like Eric, was taken there once I had recovered a bit in the hospital. It’s where  you work toward taking your first steps after the injury.

Eric

Kessler was a really important part of my recovery. The doctors there helped me transition back to “normal” life. It’s nice to have that bridge between the hospital and going back home.

Mikey

I got to Kessler on Valentine’s Day, 2014, almost six weeks after my injury. My body wasn’t ready to be there yet, honestly. I fainted three times in my first seven days. It was a combination of stress, dehydration and complications from my injury. I had to go back to the hospital for a few days, then back to Kessler.

Eric

It’s one thing to go back and forth when you’re healthy, but people don’t get how much stress our bodies are put under when we have to move that much.

Mikey

Back at the hospital I flatlined. My heart actually stopped beating.

It was … surreal.

Because you can’t move on your own, the nurses have to come and “turn” you — basically just shift you a bit so you’re not in the same position for too long. It can be uncomfortable. One of those times, the pain and the stress caused my heart to stop. I don’t remember much from it, but I do remember “waking up” from it and seeing my mom sobbing in my dad’s arms.

I looked right at her and said, “Ma, I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Mikey Nichols and Eric LeGrand at Mickey's house in Monroe, New Jersey on October 10, 2016.(Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune)

Eric

Damn … that’s a moment. So, you almost died, then you were off to prom?

Mikey

Not quite that fast, but it was pretty soon after. I got back to Kessler for good on St. Patrick’s Day. I remember all these dates because of the holidays. I was there until June 5th, and my prom was on June 6th. I really just had an eye on Senior Week down in Wildwood, which was a few days after prom. My parents told if I wanted to go to that, I had to be able to attend prom. At that point, I was pretty confident in my chair, and my control over my upper body was improving. I was ready for prom.

Eric

What did you wear?

 Damn … that’s a moment. So, you almost died, then you were off to prom?

Mikey

A white tux.

Eric

Get out.

Mikey

For real. Like this was the first time everyone was seeing me since the accident, so I had to turn up. Some friends had come to see me while I was in Kessler and at the hospital, but now I was going to see my entire class. That’s a big deal. I was going to do me, you know what I mean?

Eric

I’m surprised you did all that stuff straight out of Kessler.

Mikey

I told my doctor at Kessler I was going to prom, and that she was just going to have to deal with it and make sure I was ready. She wasn’t happy, but she really helped me.

Eric

When I left Kessler, I could barely leave my room. Being at home is scary. Like, it’s nice to be home again for sure, but you also don’t have the comfort of knowing that no matter what, someone can come help you immediately. Being paralyzed leaves you needing help from a lot of people, especially when you’re adjusting to life at home again.

Mikey

Did you miss your call-bell?

Eric

Ha! That thing was so hit and miss. So basically you just pressed this button when you needed assistance, but some nights it would take a while to get help. One night at the hospital I had a bad fever, and I rang the call bell at 2 a.m. The nurse didn’t get to me until 2:45. My body can’t sweat, so there’s nowhere for all the heat to go. I felt very, very close to death that night.

Mikey Nichols and Eric LeGrand at Mickey's house in Monroe, New Jersey on October 10, 2016.(Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune)

That’s the first thing I noticed about Mikey — this boy is a fighter.

Eric LeGrand

Mikey

That feeling of being alone in your pain … I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Coming home with injuries like Eric and I have, it’s very important to have good people around you. We’re both very fortunate to have the support that we have. His mom and my mom are close, and without them our lives would be much more difficult.

Eric

You see a lot of kids go through similar injuries, and if they don’t have the right people around them, it’s hell. Even a seemingly simple thing — like getting the right size chair — is very important. It can be expensive, but you’re literally in it all the time. If that thing’s too big or too small, your skin can break down due to discomfort and you can suffer from pressure sores. We need chairs that have fine adjustments. If we’re uncomfortable, we don’t even know it, because we can’t feel it. If we keep adjusting ourselves, it gives us the best chance to stay out of an uncomfortable position.

Mikey

There’s so much to spinal cord injuries — people have no idea. No two injuries are alike. It all depends on what part of your spine you damage, and how badly. Everyone progresses differently. It’s what makes each individual recovery process so unique.

 If we’re uncomfortable, we don’t even know it, because we can’t feel it.

All the things I went through in the hospital have helped me to put other, more common challenges into perspective. Like a couple months back I had to get my wisdom teeth out. The dentist told me I’d need to go to the hospital and get anesthesia.

Hospital? Uh, yeah, no way I’m going back there, I thought. 

I just took some laughing gas and novocaine, put my headphones on and was awake the whole time. Once you go through flatlining, you can pretty much do anything.

Eric

Man, you crazy.

Mikey

It was kind of like when I got my tattoo.

Eric

You were so nervous about that.

Mikey

O.K. … I was little nervous. I thought it would hurt way more than it did. Like I mentioned, I still have some feeling in my arms, but for the most part I couldn’t feel it.

Eric

What did you get done again?

Mikey

“We all got angels, we all got demons.” It’s from a J. Cole song. I want to have an entire sleeve one day, done by Eric’s tattoo artist.

Eric

She’s the woman that tattooed C.C. Sabathia.

Mikey

Big C.C.! You definitely make some interesting connections when you’re injured like this. It’s a small community, but it’s one people care deeply about.

Mikey Nichols and Eric LeGrand at Mickey's house in Monroe, New Jersey on October 10, 2016.(Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune)

Once you go through flatlining, you can pretty much do anything.

Mikey Nichols

Eric

I would say that it feels like a small community, but it’s actually pretty large. Around 5.7 million people in the U.S. suffer from paralysis.  I’ve heard that every 45 minutes someone around the world suffers a spinal cord injury, which sounds like a lot, but like you said, no two injuries are the same.

Mikey

Definitely, but regardless of the specifics of the damage, people rally around spinal cord injuries, and their support means the world to us. I remember Gordie Howe sent me a photo of himself from when he was in the hospital. It was right around the time he’d had those strokes, and on the photo he wrote, “Mikey, this is for you. Whatever you do, don’t give up.” A good family friend of Mr. Howe’s said that the first thing he did when he left the hospital was ask how I was. Gordie Howe asked about me … I mean, that’s crazy. He was Wayne Gretzky before Wayne Gretzky!

Eric

There’s a brotherhood among injured people, just like you said. The spinal-cord-injury community is tight-knit, because anybody can be in the chair. This could happen to anyone. Spinal cords don’t discriminate. I’ve met CEOs, celebrities, gang members, athletes — it doesn’t matter what you do, if you experience an accident that impacts your body the wrong way, you become close with those who are in the same boat.

Once you’re in the chair, we’re brothers and sisters.

Mikey

That’s right. Absolutely. The hockey community has been with me every step of the way, too, and that’s really been a blessing. I went on the Boomer & Carton radio show right around the time the Big Idea launched. The Big Idea is a campaign launched by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation aimed toward paralysis research. It’s a great cause, and one Eric and I are very proud to be a part of. 

So, I was on the Boomer & Carton show talking about myself and my relationship with the cause, and in between segments they asked me if I just wanted to stay on the air and talk other sports. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, and we hit it off right away. They said they were going to do this hockey game for me to raise awareness and funds for the Reeve Foundation, as well as my family’s trust. That’s when I realized how many people were behind me.

Mikey Nichols and Eric LeGrand at Mickey's house in Monroe, New Jersey on October 10, 2016.(Photo by Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune)

Eric

There were so many people out to support you at the hockey game. It was amazing. I had obviously heard a lot about your story in the news … but holy s***.

Mikey

It was one of the coolest days of my life. Rick DiPietro was in net, Glenn Anderson was there, Bruce Driver, Grant Marshall, Adam Graves … I can’t even remember all of them. I was honored. It’s days like those that make you realize you’re never really alone.

All the people around me help inspire me everyday. They’re the reason I’m a fighter. I’m going to recover from this, and when I do, I’m going back to that rink and I’m going to stand on that ice.

Eric

I believe it.

Maybe it’s not a community that you necessarily want to be a part of, but we take care of our own. The Reeve Foundation and the Big Idea give people like you and me hope that there’s light on the horizon, but for now, we rely on each other a lot.

Mikey

You’re my brother. I don’t know what I would have done without your support, and that of my family. Thanks for lookin’ out, bro.

Eric

We all got angels, man.

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