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Peter McDowell Yearbook Photo

Hackensack High School
Yearbook Photo


A Story of Tragedy and Triumph

I was a freshman in Hackensack High School when I first met Pete McDowell and we became friends. Pete was a typical high school kid, but extremely handsome; you took notice because when he walked into room, most of the girls turned and looked.  He never used it to take advantage of anyone, which made people respect him and see him as one of the good guys.  He was very competitive and worked extremely hard.  He was not gifted as an athlete, so he really had to work to maintain the high level expected at Hackensack and he did just that by becoming a solid league pole vaulter in track and a solid outside cornerback in football.  Pete and I wrestled on the freshman team together and it was fun.  Wrestling for Pete was not his thing, just let’s put it that way.  He would go out like a house on fire every match, be winning almost everyone and somehow get pinned!  I only mention this because it never got to him, we all wanted him to win so bad, but we never thought of him as bad, and we laughed a lot.  Sports can be so good in teaching team work, building friendship, and being able to handle success and failure. We had a great freshman wrestling coach, Pete Mackert, who we respected and he never got on Pete for getting pinned every time. Coach Mackert had a barbecue at his house at the end of the season and we all never forgot him, a good man. 

The next two years of high school for Pete were typical nothing any different than most high school students, but then something happened in a Track Practice that most likely was the prelude to what happened the following football season in his senior year.  Jim Reddington did not mention this until we met after Pete McDowell had died in 2006.  They were practicing pole vaulting in May of 1972 and Pete semi missed the pit and he landed on his head and jolted his back and neck hard.  When Jim had mentioned this when we met at a gathering Pete’s brother had after Pete died, I remembered Pete showing me a black and blue mark on his back when I was eating in his kitchen one day in 1972.  I really do not recall exactly what we said, but back then it was more like don’t worry, get tough, put ice on it, and that was the end of it.  I do not believe he ever showed any track coaches the black and blue. 

The summer that followed was typical... the black and blue went away on his back, which was long forgotten and the football season started in September and all was good.

What was about to happen to Pete this football season would profoundly affect the class of 1973.

When an incident of such life changing proportions happens to a fellow student, it has a way of sticking with you, unlike if it happened when a person is in the work force dealing with everyday life and such things are more easily put out of one’s mind, but not so in high school, when you are all experiencing many things for the first time together.    

It was the fall of 1972 on the fifth game of the football season against Passaic Valley when
Passaic Valley ran a play toward their left side where Hackensack’s outside linebacker was awaiting to make the tackle.  As the runner came around the corner, Pete McDowell, the outside linebacker from Hackensack, was there to greet him and make the tackle.  At that moment in time everything changed for him and also for many of us watching.  Pete McDowell fell limp to the ground after the tackle, which was rather close to the goal line by the Field House side.  The trainer went over to him with not much alarm, then as time unfolded, as time can only reveal in such situations, things became uncomfortable for those of us watching, fans, teammates, and coaches.  The ambulance was called and Pete was gingerly picked up and put into the ambulance to a cheer and the game resumed.  No one thought the worst because well things "like that happen in football games in High School" and well, he’s a tough kid, he will be fine.  I kept a stat sheet for defensive plays called on the sideline that year for Joe DeFalco, who was defensive coordinator that year and Pete was a very close friend of mine, so right after the game which Hackensack lost 27-7, I went up to the emergency room which was located on the back side of the only building then, it was easy to just walk in.  

Pete was in the hallway on a gurney and I said, “Hi, how you doing?” and he said, “Fine” and with that a nurse had taken out a long pin, it looked 3” long and proceeded to stick it into Pete’s thigh and buttocks area and said, “Did you feel that?” Pete was distracted by someone else at the moment, but what the nurse had done would have made anyone with feelings scream to high heaven. Pete’s response was “No”.  They wheeled him away at that moment in a hurry, and as he moved away, its funny how you think at different times in life, but I thought he will be OK, but inside I knew something was seriously wrong. 

That night Mike Miello with tears in his eyes called a meeting and told the team Pete had been paralyzed.  The teammates were all extremely upset, emotions were moved to a place no one had ever thought they would be.  It is a football game, “WHY?” was the preverbal question. I asked that once of Pete himself when we were alone, “Why did you have to get hurt like this?” and he set me straight on the reality of life at that moment with his answer, “WHY NOT ME?”.

The reality was just that, it could happen at anytime, to anyone, doing anything. It is not a question of if tragedy will strike you, but when for all of us in some way.  The problem that was posed for us as students and young coaches at the time, was when you are in high school and life is in front of you, you just don’t see it coming.  At the time all the coaches seemed like older men, but they really weren’t. Mike Miello was only 28 years old and one of his players lay paralyzed in a hospital bed in Hackensack Hospital just up the street, what was he to do as the leader of the team.  I was as close a friend to Pete McDowell as anyone at the time and there was no team of counsellors to help students coop or support the coaching staff or anyone in the school with grief counseling.  I by no means am criticizing any of that today, I am just stating what at the time in 1972 ‘WAS’, and the coaching staff and teachers and students were left to figure out how what happened to Pete would affect their perception of life thereafter.  I don’t think anyone was consciously thinking that at the time, but people who were close to Pete knew within them, the way they looked at things changed. One example of this was Ed Church, the Head Track Coach, who the year before had been at an All-League meeting to pick who made First Team, Second team, etc.  Pete had ranked higher per his jumps than a senior from another school, so Ed Church, being a nice guy said sure, Pete will have another chance next year, and the other jumper was ranked higher and Pete never got a chance to be first or second team Pole Vaulter again.  Ed Church told me that profoundly affected him and he never did that again at a meeting... you just never know.   

All of Pete’s close friends and family rallied around him and he greatly appreciated it.  As other people of good will get involved, Pete started to become withdrawn as the weeks and months past.  Pete loathed self-pity and pity in general and when he sensed it from anyone, he would just shut down and not talk or talk very little.  He did not always read this well and he became more and more withdrawn to people outside, his close friends at this time.  

What happened the following week was one of those story book feel good stories for the newspapers, etc.   The Hackensack High School 1973 yearbook wrote about a 4-4-1 Hackensack team beating one of the best teams in the league that year after Pete’s injury.

“A 27-7 defeat by Passaic Valley the following week killed any chances for a league title.  In that game, disaster struck as linebacker, Pete McDowell was paralyzed from the waist down while making a tackle.  Our most satisfying victory came the next week against Ridgewood.  With spirits low all week over the recent tragedy, The Comets squeezed out a 14-13 win and presented Pete with the game ball.”

The moving part was to "story tellers", and people on the outside looking in, a great human interest story of winning one for the “Gipper" and that was good, but to close friends and family, we saw Pete hooked up to traction through his skull, being turned in a bed mechanically, getting bed sores, and being fed by a nurse.  What the football game did show was when people come to a place where we appreciate what we have been blessed with, we find we can do more.

What followed after Pete’s accident, after the shock of the incident had subsided, was special.   I have never seen a concentrated effort of fund raising so intense as what Mike Miello and Pete’s very close friend, Bob Dodd, and his mom, Barbara, and dad, Ralph, did following his injury. 

Bob Dodd and his family stayed the course and continued to help and be there for Pete well after it was fashionable and the crowds of kindness had subsided.  Pete would tell me how appreciative he was of what everyone was doing, but just didn’t know what to say and he felt so helpless because he could literally do nothing.  Pete’s pride made him a bad communicator of his feelings at times, and he would come across just the opposite of how he actually felt when we would talk because he would be short with his answer or appear dismissive of the gift. He would say, “How can I ever pay all this back?” and I would say, “Just do the best you can and that will be enough for everyone.”  But to an 18-year-old that was a tough sell; he felt beholden and the more that was raised the more he withdrew at the time.   

            No matter how hard you try to relate to Pete McDowell’s suffering, you cannot, it is that simple. Pete was in a place we could not fully comprehend. I was there with other friends most of the time with Pete in the hospital and Pete always saw it as an accident and never looked at it as someone’s fault or somehow it could have been prevented which would lead to that dreaded self-pity.  When Pete went into rehab at Kessler Institute, no one worked harder than him to rehabilitate themselves. Pete exceeded expectations and got the most out of his ability, as he had shown he had done in football and track and academically at Hackensack.

After a year of struggling and rehab, etc. Pete graduated with the class in June 1973.  Pete and I had talked how he knew he would receive undo attention at graduation, which we all felt was his “do” for what he had accomplished in getting himself functioning again and also getting into college, but that was ‘Pete’ being ‘Pete’ and his pride. But what was about to happen at graduation was attention that would drive his suffering home to everyone watching.  In 1973, the graduating class would use the walk bridge to enter the football field.  The whole class came across the bridge with Pete McDowell last being pushed by the Class President and his friend, Jim Redington, who he had pole-vaulted together with the year before. People, like myself, close to Pete didn’t think this was the best person to be pushing Pete because he had not done it much before and there were certain things you needed to be aware of.  Jim was the nicest guy you would ever want to meet... a high achiever and a person who everyone respected.  As Jim pushed the wheelchair over the bridge along the path in front of the bleachers the crowd cheered loudly as Pete crossed in front.  There was just one obstacle to overcome the curb which lines the outer edge of the track around the football field.  To people familiar to such a situation, the solution is easy turn the wheel chair around and back over it, but to someone unfamiliar and couple that with the pressure of people watching and graduates waiting to graduate, judgement is lost in the moment.  Jim hit the curb with the front wheels all the graduates watching and those of us who knew were screaming inside... “Jim just backup now and turn around".  But Jim did not. He kept trying to push forward and we all saw the look of anguish on Pete’s face as he fell out of the chair and unto the track helplessly.  There were thousands of people in the stands and when he hit the ground there was a collective gasp, and then silence, and then sporadic weeping. Pete McDowell's suffering could not have been brought home personally any more then what happened at that moment.  Who picked Pete up got him back in the chair it is all a blur from that point.  Somehow everyone got it together got focused and moved on. We all knew Jim Redington and we all knew as Pete knew, this would hurt him more than it would Pete. I knew Jim Redington growing up and a better young man I never knew, and he should never have been put in that position.  After college, Jim went on to become a doctor, moved to Virginia, and had a family, so he did fine as we all expected, but there are those bumps in the road of life that we all do have to deal with, and this I am sure was one Jim struggled with for a time.

            Pete McDowell went on to graduate college, worked for Prentice Hall in Paramus for a while in some sort of writing field, then had his own freelance business for a little while. 

Pete McDowell lived a full life in many ways through his handicap struggles.  He did finally join the wheelchair basketball league, which he had resisted for so long when people like Carl Padovano and Al Youakim had suggested it. Pete always told me he would not play wheelchair basketball, but then when I found out he did later in life and we spoke and he told me he loved it. 

Albert Youakim
told me that Pete was a hard nut to crack in getting him to understand it was not demeaning to play in a wheelchair. 

I do not know everything Pete did after college, but I do know he was working for a company at the World Trade Center when it was bombed the first time in 1993. He told me he was carried down 74 flights of stairs by four guys through a black sooted stairway. They came out and he said, “I hoped some news reporter or someone would see them to give them some praise and we came out and like no one was there, no cameras, nothing.” The second World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001, Pete was employed by a company in the World Trade Center. I was in the Carpenters Union at the time, and had not seen Pete for several years, but I knew he worked in the World Trade Center. After the attack, I drove from the job I was on, Route 80 Parsippany State Farm Insurance Building, to his house before going home to see if he was there, or if his brother, Craig, who cared for him much of his life, could tell me what may have happened. I knocked on the door and there was Pete! Pete had been home at the time of the attack preparing for a back operation to alleviate pain he was suffering from at the time. Pete was speaking to people from his company who were in and around the buildings while events were unfolding. 

Peter McDowell suffered from a lot of pain towards the end.  Pete had told me he had fallen out of his wheelchair while playing with his dog and he laid in his backyard for hours before being discovered.  I have no idea what happened, but he said it created tremendous discomfort that never really subsided. The last time I saw Pete McDowell was in Kessler Institute, where he had spent so much of his life in rehabilitation. Ed Arzoomanian, a fellow 1973 graduate was there and had become close friends with Pete McDowell, and was a great help and comfort to Pete in his final years.  Pete was in very good spirits usually. He would be guarded or acted angry because he was frustrated, but not this time. This time he was Pete, the guy I knew before he was hurt, who smiled and joked and the world was at his feet. He had dimples and a smile that girls loved, it was as though the chair was not there. As I was leaving Ed Arzoomanian and him were going over something having to do with bills and Pete got up and had to go down hallway as he wheeled down hall he turned to me as I said, “You look great, glad you are doing good,” Pete replied, “Bob, most people who had this happen are dead by now, at my age, I had a good run.”  With that I never saw Pete McDowell alive again.  The following year, in 2006 at the age of 51 years Peter McDowell passed away from what? Simply put, complication of his condition, no one knows exactly what for sure. 

The football team created an award in Pete’s honor after he was injured and Pete always felt uncomfortable having an award named after him, as he looked at it, “Just because I got crippled”.
I understood Pete’s reasoning for not feeling he was worthy, just because he got hurt. What Pete failed to realize is what he did following the injury and how he conducted his life, struggling through so many difficulties along the way, and always seeking to accomplish as much as he could with the strength that he had, was worthy of naming an award after him. Pete McDowell was no different than anyone else, and far from perfect as we all are, but we are defined by how we react to adversity and how Pete sought to overcome such an obstacle was something to appreciate both from afar and up close as friends and family came to admire.

Written by:
Bob Meli
September 2, 2018