"You told me, 'This is Sean. Don’t worry, but Joe got jumped.'"
Around 3 a.m. on May 12, 2013, I made a phone call no one would ever want to make. It was to my friend Joe's parents, Pat and Denise Sharkey. I told them they needed to come to the hospital.
"We were trying to call the hospital, trying to call the police, trying to get some information," Denise said. "It’s a half hour drive, and I kept thinking to myself, 'Jeez, I hope he didn't scratch his face.' You know, because it’s a beautiful face — I mean he’s a handsome boy. Or his poor nose, he’s broken it so many times. And then, I had one second of a flash where I thought, 'Maybe this is worse...'"
I had one second of a flash where I thought, 'Maybe this is worse...'Denise Sharkey
The Early Years
The Sharkeys live in Norwood, Massachusetts. It’s about 30 minutes south of Boston. Their son Joe first fell in love with the game of basketball in his bedroom upstairs.
"You can go see his basket. And it’s still there, Fisher-Price, and a little Nerf ball. And Joe and I would play," Pat said. "I'd be on my knees, and Joe would be doing what he's doing. It would be pretty much every night before he went to sleep he wanted to play basketball."
I didn’t meet Joe Sharkey until long after his Fisher-Price days, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about his earlier years in basketball. As it turns out, Joe was considered quite the phenom.
"You know, fourth, fifth grade, like, wasn’t great," Joe said. "But something about the game just made me want to keep playing. Seventh grade came around, and I got ranked like 20th in the country or something like that. So at the time I was like, 'Wow, this is so cool.' But looking back on it, you know it is cool, but it caused a lot of pressure."
In 2006, the Boston Globe ran a front-page piece on Joe and the trend of making stars out of middle school basketball players. In the article, Pat commented that talented young players are like seeds — you don’t know which ones will blossom.
Pat was proud of the article. But it was more complicated for Joe.
"I've always been a pretty shy person, so I was like, 'Ah, I hate this.' It was kinda cool being recognized for being good at what I love doing, but I became known as Joe Sharkey — basketball -- like, that’s all that accompanies him. And I really didn't like that."
But Joe continued to shine. By the time he was ready for high school, a number of New England prep schools wanted him. He chose Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school 100 miles from home. Everyone just calls it ‘NMH.’ Joe became a standout player for their nationally ranked basketball program, coached by John Carroll.
"As a guard he was a terrific rebounder," Carroll said. "He was a great passer, terrific court vision. He was a guy that understood how to get the hot hand the ball. So he really had a high IQ. A kid who was really a facilitator that other guys love to play with."
A Turning Point
Joe’s success at NMH drew the attention of many Division I programs. He went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. That’s where Joe and I met. It was our first night of college. We were fast friends: I played baseball, and he played basketball. We spent a lot of time at one particular off-campus house shared by members of those two teams. It’s affectionately known as "the mansion.”
"Yeah, I remember just hanging out up in your suite," Joe said. "And then we went up to like Sully's house, right, the mansion. And I do remember walking down the stairs outside the mansion. For some reason, that’s the last — that's the last memory that I have. But it’s so vivid for some reason. That's it."
Let me fill in some of the blanks. We were walking home to our dorm that night. And we came upon an argument unfolding in the street. We recognized some of the people involved. Others, we didn’t. Then things got physical. Joe was standing closer to the guys arguing, and he got hit. One knockout punch sent him to the pavement. His skull was shattered, and he suffered severe brain bleeding. He was rushed to Rhode Island Hospital and eventually placed in a medically induced coma. He didn’t wake up for three weeks.
When Joe’s parents first arrived at the hospital, not everyone expected him to survive.
"Jason, the detective, was given information by the Brown police department and the hospital, in combination, that he was investigating a homicide," Pat said. "I was clueless. We were asked, 'Do you wanna see a social worker?' And I said very quickly, 'Oh, no, I think you have us mixed up with somebody else. We're here to see Joe Sharkey.'''
Two days later, Joe had emergency surgery to reduce intracranial pressure caused by his brain swelling. A segment of his skull was removed and put in a freezer. Doctors would replace it later. In the meantime, Joe’s appearance took on a different look.
"They staple your head with these gigantic — they're as big as the tongs on this fork — to put you back together," Pat said. "And that’s how we saw Joe: with a shunt in the back of his head, with the staples. He's all black and blue and puffy.
When I saw Joe, I barely recognized him. He was on a ventilator and had tubes going in every direction. The staples looked like train tracks that had been laid hastily on top of his head. I was terrified. And his family was scared, too.
"I mean, we had each other," Pat said, "the three of us, and a lot of friends — in the basketball team, the athletic department."
"Unbelievable support everywhere," Denise said.
"Just people that Joe has touched over his life all came forward, all came to visit," Pat said.
Our boy keeps getting stronger. Again, Joe had a zillion visitors today. A few of his close friends from NMH made the trip to see him. My mom loved chatting with them about the hell all of the cavemen raised at boarding school with Joe. Boys will be boys. Still no movement with his eyes or mouth, unfortunately, he just responds to our presence by moving his right hand. But, hey, I’ll take it. He’s doing great, and we’re just a week out. His heart, mind, body, and soul are all joining together to overcome this. And that he will.
Sam seemed pretty confident, but not everyone shared her optimism.
"It wasn't until I saw him in the hospital where I understood that this was really a life and death situation," John Carroll said. "Like, it was just a really heavy scene to walk into. And then seeing the guy that I really care about, you know, who we’ve grown very close to, a person that I love and to see him in that position was really overwhelming."
Joe's Condition Improves
Thankfully, that grim scene didn’t last forever. Joe’s condition began to improve and he was slowly weaned off the machines that sustained his life. He woke up from the coma after about a month. Joe was moved to the brain injury ward of Spaulding Rehab Center in Boston.
"When I saw him in rehab, when I saw him in the hospital, he only had up days," Carroll said." And the fact that they were saying, 'He wasn’t gonna do this, he wasn’t gonna do that' — you know, you could see the conviction and the resiliency in Joe that he was gonna do it."
"He literally had to learn how to first sip, then eat mush," said Pat, "then learn how to chew, learn how to swallow. He had to learn how to speak."
"When I got hurt,"Joe said, "I was 100 and — I don't know — I wanna say 196 pounds. Like, in the best shape I’ve been in in my life. And when I got out of the hospital, I was 140 pounds. That’s when I, I don't know, I started to think about basketball and just like totally stressing, like, just losing my mind about how I was never gonna be able to play again, all this stuff."
Back On The Court
Joe did play again. In May of 2014, after doctors lifted some of his physical restrictions, Joe played in the annual alumni game back at NMH. The school has graduates all over Division I and professional basketball. But that year, Joe was the star.
"I mean, it was really storybook," Carroll said. "He gets a pass, he shoots it — the very first shot — goes in. It's a three-pointer. The place went crazy because everyone in the audience knew what was happening. And the fact that that kid, just over a year ago, I mean, maybe a year and two weeks, was in the situation he was in, and now here he is. I mean it was really an unbelievably inspiring moment for everybody who saw it."
He wasn’t yet 100 percent, but he was looking more like the Joe we all remembered. Over this past summer, he joined the Brown basketball team for their off-season workouts. Joe was hoping to earn a starting spot this fall.
"For some reason, I felt like my comeback wouldn’t be complete, like wouldn’t be a real comeback, or a successful comeback, unless I actually made it back onto the court playing competitive Division I basketball," Joe said. "Like, it was a cool goal for me to set for myself, but I’ve realized that I made that too much of a focus. And school still has to stay number one."
The Ball Stops
Joe decided to become a non-playing member of the team so he could focus on other things. His high school coach thinks it’s the right call.
"So many athletes have to make that transition when the ball stops anyway," Carroll said. "And watching Joe having to go through it a little bit earlier, I think there is silver lining there. And he’s making an unbelievable adjustment to life without basketball. So, yeah, it’s heroic what he’s done. His comeback has been complete. The fact that he’s not dressing for Brown is, you know, that’s not even a consideration for me."
But there’s a bit more to it for Joe’s dad.
"I would love to see him step out on the court again and to play," Pat said. "I used to love watching Joe play basketball because he played a different game. He played an elegant game, but...he's happy."
"He's happy," Denise repeated.
"I’m happy, yeah," Joe said. "I’m just really content. Like more content than I’ve ever been. There’s only so many chances that, I feel, where somebody actually sees that, like, they’re loved. And you can see it so clearly, and that’s an amazing feeling."
Joe’s also developed new passions in his life. He even dropped the major of choice among athletes at Brown, economics. He switched to philosophy. Joe says that in many ways, he’s better off now than he was prior to the injury.
But what about the rest of his family?
Denise: "No, I am definitely not."
Sam: "Yeah, I agree."
"Took 10 years off my life," Denise said. "Some of the peace that we expected in our lives as our kids got older was taken from us."
"And it may never return," Pat said.
Even so, the Sharkeys are finding ways to stay positive.
"It almost feels like he can endure anything now," Denise said. "I feel that about him. I feel like — he’s been through the worst! He’s broken down to nothing again, and he built himself back up."
"He's a very strong tree in progress," Pat added. "He's blossomed, but you don’t know where the end is gonna be. None of us do."
Don't ask Joe what his future holds. He doesn't know either.
"No. I don’t, honestly. I just feel comfortable with how I’m living, where I’m going. I’m not ready to define myself totally yet. We got a long, long time to go before I do that."
For now, Joe’s sights are set on graduating from Brown University in May. He’s just one year behind his original class. If you ask me, that’s what I’d call a comeback.
This segment aired on December 19, 2015.