December 24, 1999

He can’t wait to go to Las Vegas. Adam Sargent just loves Vegas.

“Disney World for adults,” says Sargent, counting the days until he and his brother, Matt, take their sojourn to Sin City on Jan. 6.

Maybe it’s the bright lights that invite you in 24 hours a day. Maybe it’s the way you can order prime rib at a casino restaurant for $3.95. Maybe it’s the way people passionately pursue life’s big payoff, long odds be damned.

Because long odds do not faze Adam Sargent.

They really haven’t since a car accident in May 1997 separated his neck at the C-7 vertebrae and paralyzed the former Notre Dame lacrosse player from the chest down.

On his vacation next month, Sargent could spin into any casino on The Strip in his wheelchair, sit next to the biggest winner on the longest roll at the most expensive craps table, and still be the surest bet in the house.

His character is low-risk, his personality high-reward. To those who know and work with the University of Notre Dame’s student-athlete counselor at Brownson Hall, Sargent’s chance for happiness in life is a better gamble than any roll of the dice.

“It’s funny, I was just talking to one of my assistant coaches when we saw Adam the other night at a hockey game and we both were like, `He’s unbelievable,'” said Notre Dame lacrosse coach Kevin Corrigan, one of Sargent’s closest supporters. “I’ve been with Adam since within an hour of the accident up until now and you know what? I’ve never heard him complain.”

Not that Sargent hasn’t privately in times of weakness. He has dark hours. Who wouldn’t?

Occasionally, he will attend an Irish hockey game and the musty smell reminds him how much he misses skating. Sargent loved hockey. He also loved to ski, which he misses when winter drops a fresh blanket of snow. He misses a lot.

“I still have sad days, but I’m not the type of person who is riding in a car, hears a song, and says ` Oh, yeah, that remind me of whatever.’ I’m not one to have too many bad memories,” Sargent said. “You know what I mean?”

This is what Sargent means: He cannot change what happened, so he plans to change what he can, as often as he can.

Sargent sits in his office and listens to the 160 Notre Dame student-athletes under his domain. Listens to them plan their class schedules around practice times and sleeping habits. Listens to them vent about their roommates. Listens to them grope for answers through a bout with homesickness or after a death in the family.

Any sensation Sargent lost in his legs he obviously gained in his ears.

“I’ve always been personable and good with people, but maybe since the accident, maybe with hard things, I like to think my sensitivities are heightened,” Sargent said. “I’m not arrogant enough to think I know everything. I’ve done well with coping with adversity and keeping a healthy outlook on life. One thing I’m good at is listening in a non-judgmental sort of way.”

How ironic that a young man able to feel only half his body probably understands feelings better than most of us.

“If somebody had told me we could have Adam (as a counselor) for the next 20 years, that would be fine with me,” said Notre Dame women’s swimming coach Bailey Weathers, one of three coaches whose teams report to Sargent. “He is really genuine and sincere with all the girls on the team. We had our best semester yet this semester, grade-wise, and a large part of that is because of Adam. We owe him a lot.”

A large part of Adam believes he should be the only one writing personal IOUs.

Without mentor Rev. Al D’Alonzo, Sargent doubts he would have found the strength to return to campus and graduate from Notre Dame last spring.

Without Corrigan starting a fund he calls “the most heartening thing I’ve seen in 12 years at Notre Dame” that has raised $210,000, Sargent’s wonder is he could afford a gray Dodge Caravan that is wheelchair accessible with hand controls. Or his customized Mishawaka apartment.

Without the Notre Dame family, Sargent wonders if he would be hosting his own family for Christmas.

“I’m real proud of what I’ve done — I had a hard hand dealt to me, but you have to look at the people who have done things for me,” Sargent said. “If I was stuck at a VA hospital, I can promise you I wouldn’t be this positive.

“After the accident, there’s no way I get through it without the support of Notre Dame, my family and my (former) girlfriend Carrie.”

Of all the end-of-the-millennium lists release recently, none would be longer than one ranking athletes with unfulfilled potential.

You may wonder if all that bothers Sargent. You may wonder if it upsets him to look around campus or on ESPN and hear about another able body who took his health and his future for granted.

It doesn’t. Somehow, Sargent has dressed up a curse to look like a blessing, forming hope out of despair with his own hands and his own heart.

Here is a 23-year old vibrant former athlete who converted what some would consider a lifetime sentence in a wheelchair into a lifetime of opportunity.

Who was it who said, that what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger?

“Look at Rwanda, look at Kosovo, look at Chechnya, stuff happens every day, atrocities happen every day,” Sargent began. “It’s real. I don’t think people here take it to heart because it’s someone else somewhere else. Then when it happens to them, when someone dies, it’s how could this happen to me? They’re passive. They think things like that happen somewhere else. But it’s real.

“My accident’s bad. But turn on the TV (news) for 15 minutes and look at what’s going on. You’re vulnerable. You’re human.”

But you have to be comfortable in you own skin, he adds. You have to like your own life. Or else it becomes impossible to worry about anybody else’s.

“The most important thing is that I love who I am,” Sargent added. “After the accident, I was horribly sad. Horribly. But because I liked who I was, and that helped. That’s not always what people lie in bed at night and evaluate… I’ve had a great life. I just approach it now like that book, `Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff — and It’s All Small Stuff.'”

Small stuff like the dilemma whether to return to Notre Dame next year again or pursue an advanced degree in educational counseling at the University of Virginia. Small stuff like what to stock in the refrigerator and stick in the microwave, where most of his meals originate. Small stuff like the daily physical therapy Sargent sweats through on the hand cycle in his apartment.

It’s all small stuff, like he said, except the one thing that everyone wants to know.

The one thing everybody who knows Sargent hopes for. Prays for.

There is no change in his diagnosis. There is also no change in his plans.

“I’m counting on it,” Sargent answered when asked if he plans to walk again. “But it’s like winning the lottery. If you’re a miserable person and win the lottery, you’re probably still going to be a miserable person. See, I was real happy before (the accident), I’m real happy now, and I don’t have to win the lottery to be real happy.”

In many ways, Sargent already has hit the personal jackpot that eludes so many people.

No matter how much he brings home from Vegas.

by David Haugh,
reprinted with permission from The South Bend Tribune
December 24, 1999