(Return to the main contest page.)
Category 10: Short-form, Average Joe
Michael Schwass was the toughest man Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita ever met. And that's saying a lot.
Mr. Schwass began playing hockey as a boy. His father, Robert, had been a semi-pro player, and he liked to take Michael and his friends out on the Des Plaines River when it iced over.
The lessons took. By the time he was playing for Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, Mr. Schwass was a blur on the rink. Graceful and quick, he wore No. 21, same as Mikita, the player he idolized.
He was 16 years old, and colleges were scouting him like crazy.
That was 1975.
It was the year Michael Schwass became a quadriplegic.
The year that a freak hockey accident ended many of his dreams.
Somehow, though, he managed to spin new ones.
Mikita, a revered star in the 1960s and 1970s with the Blackhawks, went to visit him. "Stosh" walked in to his hospital room and saw a young man in a special bed that turned like a gyroscope to prevent bedsores.
"He was just a kid," Mikita said. "He had not become a man yet."
He remembers what the teenager told him: "You know," Mr. Schwass said, "I was ready to take your place. I'm almost ready to fit into your jersey."
Mikita replied, "You're welcome to it, pal."
"It was just a pleasure to go visit with him because of the attitude he had," Mikita said. "It became a friendship."
Mr. Schwass will inspire him all of his days, Mikita said, even after Mr. Schwass' Sept. 10 death, from cardiomyopathy, at his office in Des Plaines. He was 51.
"As a man, he was the toughest I've ever met," said the onetime hockey brawler who carried the nickname "Petit Diable" and whose career cost him several teeth, and savaged his head, his back and an earlobe that was temporarily sliced away from his body.
After Mr. Schwass was injured, doctors told him he could expect to survive less than a decade. He lived 35 more years.
He endured 16 surgeries and eventually had enough feeling in his hands to drive a specially outfitted vehicle. He could shave, brush his teeth and write.
He did physical therapy -- sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day -- to retain muscle tone.
He earned a bachelor's degree from DePaul University and a master's degree in mental health from George Williams College.
He co-wrote the book Don't Blame the Game and became a motivational speaker.
In the 1980s, he could walk a few steps if he held on to something.
"He was dragging the feet," said his sister, Mary Schwass, but "he was pretty darn close."
Mr. Schwass grew up in Des Plaines and went to St. Mary grade school. He was a senior at Notre Dame when he got checked too hard one time.
"He just fell on his stomach and slid right into the boards," said Mary Schwass. A helmet saved his life, but "he broke [vertebrae] C4, 5 and 6."
It was nearly a year before he came home from the hospital. His absolute will to one day walk again kept him going.
"He would always look on the good side of things," Mary Schwass said. "It really gave a lot of relief to my parents."
Mr. Schwass used to tell Mikita when he was playing well or badly.
"Every time I'd go visit, and he'd say, 'Stanley, you're slowing down again,' " Mikita said.
He asked Mr. Schwass to talk into a tape recorder during Hawks games to give him feedback about how he played.
He remembers an outing where Mr. Schwass asked everyone for their attention, saying, "I've never done this in public before, but watch me."
"There wasn't a dry eye in the house when he took a few steps," Mikita said.
Mr. Schwass did public speaking at corporate meetings and schools. He'd tell kids nothing in life was too hard to overcome. Afterward, they'd swarm him.
At his wake, people told stories about carrying notes around from Mr. Schwass for years because he had so inspired them.
Things that might have unraveled someone else became his cue to connect. If he dropped his keys, he had to wait for someone to come along and pick them up. "Pretty soon, a conversation would begin," his sister said.
Mr. Schwass is also survived by his sisters Carol Galante, Janet Bruce, Joan Stetter and Peggy Herweg, and a brother James.
"We all have our bad days," Mikita said, but after being with Mr. Schwass, he'd think, "What the hell have you got to be upset about when Michael's laying there, can't move?"
He likes to think his friend is in heaven now, playing hockey with another Blackhawks all-time great, Keith Magnuson.
Mary Schwass likes that. "He hasn't been on skates in 35 years," she said. "He's skating his heart out now."