This is the start of a story that will finally get told.
On Monday night, the State University of New York Athletic Conference awarded Josh Best of Fredonia with its Award of Valor. Best's distinction: He played four seasons of men's college soccer with one arm.
If you didn't know about the Blue Devils' one-armed player, you're not alone. Unless you attended a game at University Stadium during the past four years, and saw for yourself, it was a story that stayed below the radar. Best preferred to have it that way.
Pictured above, in the middle, is SUNYAC 2014 Award of Valor winner Josh Best, flanked by his parents Mike and Maria.
Photo Courtesy of SUNY?Fredonia
Josh Best, left, crosses the ball at University Stadium, this past men’s soccer season.
Fact is, he never felt what he was doing was anything special. He never saw himself as a role model. That's because he knew no other way of life. He was only 3 years old when he came running out of the family home in suburban Rochester, excited to show his dad something he was carrying. Mike Best was backing a lawnmower with a deck attachment around a tree. He never saw his son coming.
In addition to the injury to the right arm, the lawnmower cut Josh's right leg and tendons in both knees. Mike, a retired U.S. Army Ranger with tours of duty in Central America, used his first-aid training to treat his son's wounds and control the bleeding. An emergency helicopter, in the air and nearby, airlifted Josh to Strong Memorial Hospital for six hours of surgery.
"The arm," Mike Best recalled, "was the least of his worries."
Doctors told the family that due to the damage to his legs, Best might not walk again or at best, with a severe limp. There were also other potential complications. Yet the healing powers of youth prevailed. Two weeks after the accident, Best was sent home from the hospital. And not much longer after that, he was doing all the things he did before - and then some.
His brother, Matt, had started taking karate lessons. Josh asked to take them, too. He also played soccer, basketball and baseball.
"By the time he was 11, he had earned his blackbelt in karate," Mike said proudly. "He didn't just play baseball, he was an all-star at shortstop and first base." Mike's voice was building. "He hit a home run in Little League - with one hand."
After the accident, Josh took all the questions about his arm in stride. Mike said they would come mostly from older people, who would simply walk up and ask what had happened, and from young children. He remembers one boy who was playing with Josh on a Jungle Gym. The curious lad kept trying to get a look at Josh's right side, while Josh kept swinging. Finally, the boy mustered up the courage. "Where's your hand?" he asked.
Josh let go of the bar and raised his left arm. "Right here," he said, and then he resumed his swinging.
Josh said the timing of the accident was all that mattered to him. "I'm glad it happened when it did," he said, making an ultimate turn of a negative into a positive. "I hadn't started doing things right-handed or left-handed yet. Had it happened when I was older, say 10 or 15, I would have had to learn to do things a whole different way."
Before he entered Victor Senior High School, Josh was faced with a decision. While he enjoyed both basketball and baseball, he loved soccer - and he concentrated on the sport. He played in high school and on travel teams, and was good enough to draw college interest. He enrolled at Fredonia to study business, with a concentration in management.
Josh played sparingly his first two seasons behind older teammates and considered quitting after his sophomore year. "I thought to myself," he recalled, "it might be time to just be a normal college student." But the thought of quitting was not part of who he was. He came back for his junior year, determined to make the most of his opportunity to be on a college team. His playing time, in fact, increased, and there was an immediate dividends. The Blue Devils played Otterbein early in the 2012 season during a two-game trip to Colorado College. His brother, Matt, living in Denver, came to the game.
"He was the only (Fredonia fan) there," head coach P.J. Gondek said. "And Josh scored his first goal." It turned out to be Josh's only goal for the Blue Devils, and his brother was a sole witness.
After the 2012 season, it was apparent to Gondek that teammates looked up to Josh so he made the soon-to-be-senior one of the Blue Devils' three captains. It was also at about this time that Fredonia Director of Athletics Greg Prechtl approached Gondek to say he was thinking about nominating Best for the 2014 SUNYAC Award of Valor. "Would you talk to Josh," Prechtl asked Gondek, "and ask him if that's something he would be interested in?"
Gondek said he would - then had second thoughts. He and Josh had never spoke about the missing arm - not during recruiting, or pre-season drills, or games, or even during reflective moments in the off-season.
"I decided," Gondek said, "I was not willing to ask him about it because he had one year to go and it was his senior year and he was a captain, so I did not want to disrupt the process by calling attention to something we had never talked about. It had never been an issue. He had never asked for anything (special) ... not when I had the players doing push-ups in the weight room ... so I never brought it up."
The time finally came to take Prechtl's request forward in January - and only after another accident. Josh slipped on ice and fell, breaking his left wrist, and needed to have surgery. He returned home and had the surgery. Because he would need extra care, he stayed at home with his dad. His mom, Maria, did what she could from her home in California.
One of her concerns was Josh's academics - he had 16 credits to go toward graduation - so she placed a call to Gondek, asking for his help getting in touch with Josh's Fredonia professors. They explained the situation, and Josh was given permission to miss classes and do classwork at home. "That's what I found most refreshing," Gondek said. "Not one of the professors said 'I can't help him.'"
It was during this time Gondek - while dealing with an academic situation, not a soccer-related one - finally felt comfortable enough to bring up Prechtl's question. "Coach Prechtl wants to nominate you for the Award of Valor," Gondek said to Best. "Would that interest you?"
Josh was speechless. "When coach told me," he said, "I don't know how to react. I was really humbled."
The official presentation took place Monday night at a dinner in Syracuse. Everyone had to be seated by 6 p.m., which was also the starting time of the World Cup game between the United States and Ghana. Both player and coach had expressed a bit of disappointment in the timing, and they exchanged texts the day before the game. "Josh wanted to know," Gondek said, "what are we going to do about watching the game?"
Gondek said he would ask Prechtl if it was OK to set up an iPad at the table. "Greg seemed OK with it," he said. "He told me not to make it too noticeable." Yet others in the room noticed - and would stop to watch, too, while moving through the room during dinner.
The game had Gondek's attention when he heard his named called to get up and make some comments about Josh. Gondek stood and told the stories about Josh and him never talking about his missing arm, and then how they finally got around to the subject. He talked about how Josh had been a significant part of the team, always trying, never asking for shortcuts.
"I wanted people to know he played a lot for us," Gondek said. "He was not an all-conference player, but not many guys are. But he played a ton of soccer for us ... He was a pretty valuable member of our team."
Josh's mom was up next. It wasn't until she saw her name on the dinner program that Maria realized she had to speak, so she only had through dinner to prepare. "I could see during dinner," Josh said, "that it was on her mind."
"She started to say something," Gondek said, remembering what happened when Maria got up to talk, "and then she stopped ... and she couldn't talk."
The pause lasted several seconds as Maria fought down her emotion. When she composed herself, she motioned toward her son. "This guy is my hero," she began. "I didn't teach him, he taught me."
"I always knew how she felt," Josh said later of listening to his mom speak to a room full of misty athletic administrators, "but to hear her say it in front of all those people, I was impressed."
When it was his turn to speak, Josh tried to be quick. He thanked his parents for everything, especially all the state-to-state trips for travel soccer games. He thanked Gondek for giving him the chance to play, and he thanked Prechtl for nominating him for the award. When he was finished thanking everyone, he remembered to be short. There was a soccer game to watch.
"I didn't know what else to say," he said, "except 'Go USA!' Maybe that's why we won."