Bree Wiley, Corey Knollinger Published

Paralyzed to Pro: W.Va. Hockey Player’s Story Of Tragedy To Triumph

A male hockey player is dressed and ready to take to the ice.
Aaron Titcomb before taking the ice at a Wheeling Nailers game.
Johnathon Burkhart/Wheeling Nailers

If you went to a hockey game in the Nail City during 2019, there’s a good chance you saw defenseman Aaron Titcomb on the ice. Titcomb played for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ ECHL affiliate, the Wheeling Nailers.

As part of a youth storytelling series from Ohio County public schools and the Rural Arts Collaborative, students learning about various professions and themes in the region recently interviewed a professional hockey player. From lessons learned on and off the ice, student Bree Wiley collaborated with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Corey Knollinger to bring us this story.

Playing for a team in the ECHL can be a significant step toward playing in the NHL – a goal that excites Aaron Titcomb but is no longer his main motivation or focus.

“My first goal was to make it to the NHL, and if that happens, that would be great. But now I think being able to affect as many people’s lives as I can while I have this platform is my biggest goal,” he said.  “When I wear this jersey, people tend to listen to somebody who has this platform. So I want to take full advantage of that and show them that, hey, no matter where you came from, or what your upbringing is, you can still affect a lot of people if you just put your mind to it and do it.”

Titcomb learned this lesson from his own rough upbringing with a single mom in Charlestown, Massachusetts, a city just outside of Boston.

“My father was murdered. When I was one, he was shot. He was into drugs at the young age and they kind of took hold of him. Kind of a bad life. And my mother had to take the reins at the age of 17. A single mother growing up in the city of Boston is kind of tough, so I kind of had a rough start, but my family came together. My mother really did a great job.”

Growing up, Titcomb tried to play other sports, particularly baseball and football, but neither called out to him like hockey.

At 17, Titcomb felt like he had everything together. He had just verbally committed to his dream school, the University of Boston. It was also the first year he was eligible for the NHL draft, but one moment changed his entire path going forward.

“So I broke my neck. When I was 17. I got hit from behind, snapped my C3 and C4 [vertebrae and] was deemed a quadriplegic. Went into the hospital. I slowly started to get my feeling back. I was in a neck brace for nine months. My mother works in Massachusetts General Hospital so she kinda was there for me and guide me through all this scientific stuff they’d say because I’d say all these big words, I get nervous but you kinda dumb it down for me so I can understand it. So I actually that’s when baseball offers started to come in. And mom was always like, why don’t you want to take the baseball offer? I’m like no. I’m like mom going to play again. I’m going to play the tell me I can’t play it’s that’s kinda give me fire.”

The next few months were an uphill struggle for Titcomb to say the least.

Doctors thought he would have a hard time walking again, let alone skating, and even after skating, playing hockey wouldn’t be easy.

Finally, after nine months, Titcomb was to go on the ice again. He still remembers his first game back.

“I remember it clear as day. Because you gotta think there’s a lot of frustration that goes into that, like I couldn’t even walk up a flight of steps without passing out because the concussion was very bad. I couldn’t read a book without blacking out.  And the first game the doctor kind of said like, okay, look, you’re gonna go and just kind of go through the paces [and] don’t really hit anybody. And I didn’t listen,”

Titcomb remembers getting at least 6 penalties that game.

“I had a lot of built up aggression, I actually ended up getting kicked out of the game,” he said.

Titcomb isn’t at all apologetic about his aggression. He says there’s a time and a place to blow off steam, and defending goals is one of them — especially hockey goals.

“I think I just kind of built up a frustration towards the world and just, you know, kinda like a why me attitude and just, I think I got the best of me and you know what, I don’t feel bad for it. I think anybody in that situation… It would take a very special person to kind of just let it fly, especially with the life that I had before,” he said.

After high school, Titcomb ended up at Merrimack college where he majored in Sports Management.

It was there he made a connection with Merrimack coach, Mark Denehy, who had a very short stint as head coach of the Wheeling Nailers.

During that time, Denehy decided to sign Titcomb who remained with the team until early March.

While Titcomb has lived a life of pain and persistence, he attributes his current success to one thing, his grades.

“I’ll tell you right now I wouldn’t be where I am without my grades because my grades got me a college education. My grades are what really got me here. So I mean, hockey’s just a luxury, so without the grades, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said.

Titcomb’s struggles resonated with Bree Wiley, a public school student in Ohio County who was among the students inspired by the perseverance Titcomb has been able to show in the face of adversity.

“He had so many obstacles in his path like his father [passing away]. I just think it’s really amazing how he can still stay so strong,” Wiley said.

In the time since this story was produced, Aaron Titcomb was traded to the Reading Royals, another ECHL team based in Reading, Pennsylvania.

This story is part of a youth storytelling initiative made possible through Oglebay Institute and the Rural Arts Collaborative (RAC). RAC is funded by the Benedum Foundation and aims to bring professional teaching artists into schools during the content day to enhance the arts education experience.

It was recorded and produced out of a yurt in an outdoor classroom in the middle of an urban farm in downtown Wheeling.