NORWOOD (CBS) – It may not look like much to watch Joe Sharkey shoot hoops in his parents’ Norwood driveway. But for a guy who had to relearn how to walk, how to talk, and how to chew his food just a couple of years ago, it’s actually sort of amazing.
“It’s been a slow process but over time I’ve just had patience with myself,” Sharkey explained in an exclusive interview with WBZ.
On Mother’s Day, 2013, the Brown University basketball player was with some friends just off campus when they spotted a fight down the street. Without warning – and though Joe wasn’t involved in the fight – someone sucker-punched him in the back of the head, sending him crashing to the sidewalk and putting him in a coma. He spent three weeks at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence and almost a month at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.
“You can’t even fathom what that’s like,” Joe’s mother Denise Sharkey said. “You go through a period of mourning because you lose, you feel like you’ve lost who he was. And he’s back, I mean, he’s Joe.”
But it hasn’t been without work, including months and months months of therapy. The Ivy League athlete had to relearn addition and subtraction, among other basic skills.
“It all started with speech therapy, and occupational therapy, and, well, physical therapy came first,” the 24-year-old said. “I first had to learn how to be able stand up, be able to drink water. It was bizarre because I knew that it was very easy but at the same time, it was so frustrating because I knew that and I just couldn’t do it.”
And Sharkey had to make a tough call not to play again for the Brown basketball team.
“I tried to make a comeback,” he said. “For the past three years it’s just been a million-pound weight on my shoulders, you know, just trying to come back. Because it was always something that was a huge part of my life.”
But ultimately he decided to focus more on his studies, even though the team has kept him on as a non-playing member. Sharkey has since returned to Brown and is ready to graduate in May, only a year behind schedule. He had a few seizures during his first few months of recuperation, but is now medicated and hopes to stay seizure-free.
Through it all, the family has had the shadow of Sharkey’s attacker looming large. This September, a Rhode Island judge found 27-year-old Tory Lussier guilty of the unprovoked attack that nearly killed Sharkey. Then came the issue of Lussier’s punishment.
“At first I had wanted an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth kind of thing,” Mrs. Sharkey admits.
But something changed during the trial, she said. In court, sitting across from Lussier day after day, the family realized prison wouldn’t solve anything. They came up with a better punishment: 1000 hours of community service working with victims of traumatic brain injuries. The judge went for it, along with seven years’ probation.
“I think through this option he’s going to see firsthand what he did to me,” Joe Sharkey said.
His mom says Joe stayed upbeat and determined throughout his recovery. It’s an optimism Joe still displays.
“I feel better off than I ever have in my life,” the Brown senior said. “I say that and people are amazed, like, how is that possible?”