Josh Best (center), with Coach Gondek (left) and Director of Athletics Greg Prechtl.
In mid-June, the State University of New York Athletic Conference awarded Josh Best of Fredonia with its 2014 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. Best preferred it that way. He never felt what he was doing was anything special. He never saw himself as a role model. That was an underestimation on his part.
Best was 3 years old when he ran from the family home in suburban Rochester, N.Y., excited to show his dad something he was carrying. Mike Best was backing a lawn mower with a deck attachment around a tree. He never saw his son coming.
In addition to the arm injury, Josh sustained cuts to his right leg and damage to 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, already in the air and nearby, airlifted Josh to Strong Memorial Hospital for six hours of surgery.
“The arm,” Mike recalled, “was the least of his worries.”
Doctors told Mike and his wife, Maria, that Josh might not walk again…or at best, with a severe limp. Yet the healing powers of youth prevailed. Two weeks later, Josh was discharged from the hospital. Before long, he was as active as ever. In fact, Josh was like any kid growing up. When his older brother, Matt, started taking karate lessons, Josh took them, too. He also played soccer, basketball and baseball.
“By the time he was 11, he had earned his black belt 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.”
Josh said the timing of the accident made a difference 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 starting 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.”
And when people asked, he took questions about his missing arm in stride. Mike said older people — who would just walk up and ask what had happened — and young children, were the most curious. He remembers a boy playing alongside Josh on a jungle gym. The playmate kept trying to get a look at Josh’s right side, while Josh kept swinging.
“Where’s your hand?” the boy finally asked.
Josh let go of the bar and raised his left arm. “Right here,” he said, and resumed swinging.
By the time he entered Victor Senior High School, Josh had chosen to concentrate on soccer. In addition to playing on his school team, he joined a club and the family traveled all over the Northeast for games. He caught the attention of Fredonia men’s soccer Coach P.J. Gondek, who recruited him for the Blue Devils as a midfielder.
Josh played sparingly his first two seasons and briefly considered quitting. Yet he returned for his junior year determined to make the most of whatever playing time came his way. There was an immediate dividend. 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,” 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.
Because teammates looked up to Josh, Gondek named the soon-to-be-senior as one of three captains in the spring of 2013. It was then 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 spoken about the missing arm — not during recruiting, drills, games, or even reflective moments in the off-season. “I decided,” Gondek said, “I wasn’t willing to ask him. He had one year to go, it was his senior year and he was a captain, so I didn’t 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 (even) when I had the players doing push-ups in in the weight room…so I never brought it up.”
Before Gondek could broach the subject, Josh had another accident. He had just returned to campus to begin his final semester when he fell on ice, breaking his left wrist. He required surgery and needed to stay at home in Rochester to recuperate as the semester began.
While Mike took care of Josh’s physical needs, Maria worried about her son’s academics. Josh needed 16 credits to earn his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, with a concentration in Management, and missing so much class time concerned her. She called Gondek, asking for help getting in touch with Josh’s professors, who could not have been more understanding. “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 that Gondek — while dealing with an academic situation, not a soccer-related one — finally brought up the nomination to Josh.
Josh was speechless. “When coach told me,” he said, “I didn’t know how to react. I was really humbled.”
The night of the awards dinner in Syracuse presented a conflict for coach and player alike. At the exact time the program was to begin, the U.S. and Ghana would be starting their World Cup game in Brazil. Gondek received a text from Josh the day before. “He wanted to know,” Gondek said, “what we were going to do about watching the game?”
Prechtl gave Gondek permission to set up an iPad at the dinner. They tuned in the game and were able to watch — without attracting too much attention to themselves — before it was time for Josh to receive his award.
Gondek spoke first and told the story about how he and Josh never talked 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.
Maria was up next. She had no real time to prepare her comments — she first learned she was expected to say something about her son when she saw the program that night. “I could see during dinner,” Josh said, “that it was on her mind.”
“She started to say something,” Gondek recalled when Maria got up to talk, “and then she stopped. 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.”
Josh spoke last. He thanked his parents for everything, especially all the state-to-state trips to games. He thanked Gondek for giving him the chance to play, and Prechtl for nominating him. He remembered to be short. He had never felt like a hero, plus there was a game to watch.
“I didn’t know what else to say,” he said, “except ‘Go U.S.A.!’ Maybe that’s why we won.”
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