Holmdel’s Timmy McDonnell Makes Incredible Comeback to Basketball Court After Near-Fatal Accident
As doctors assessed the damage after Timmy McDonnell was hit by a drunk driver nearly four years ago, they had one urgent request for his parents.
“They said, ‘You have 24 hours, call your church to get someone here for last rites,’’’ Clare McDonnell said. "He's going to die."
McDonnell, a former basketball and football player at Holmdel, was a 20-year-old student at Rutgers University at the time. He stepped off a curb at 2:16 a.m. on Oct. 4, 2014, after a night out with friends, when a 2007 Audi struck him in downtown New Brunswick.
He was put into a medically-induced coma for 10 days at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital after suffering serious head injuries, including a traumatic brain injury. If police hadn't been directly in the vicinity as the bars were emptying for the night, and if the hospital hadn't been right around the corner, he most likely would have died right there on the street.
He fought for his life. Even after surviving those initial harrowing days, Timmy couldn’t speak or walk when he came out of the coma. The right side of his body was paralyzed.
All of that makes what he did on an outdoor basketball court in Rumson during a summer-league game on Thursday night hard to imagine.
“For an hour, it was like the accident never happened,’’ Tim McDonnell Sr. said. "If you hadn’t been here to see it, you wouldn’t believe it."
He stayed for 28 days in the hospital following the accident, before spending 12 weeks at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange learning to walk and talk again. Then came six more months of outpatient therapy.
His father was also undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia at the time of the accident, adding to the strain on the family.
His younger brother, Matt, played in an emotional Holmdel football game while Timmy was still in a coma, honoring his brother as the community chanted “Fight, Timmy, fight!” from the stands.
“It’s been a tough four years,’’ Tim Sr. said.
Timmy’s old Holmdel teammates were often right there by his side every step of the way, supporting him any way they could.
“The amount of posters and pictures in his area at the hospital, it was unbelievable,’’ said good friend Rob Cantelli, who was a standout wide receiver at Fordham University when the accident happened.
His recovery captivated the local community and beyond. Luminaries from the sports world like Troy Aikman, Ozzie Smith, Howie Long, Mike Tyson and Pete Rose posed with “Fight Timmy Fight” signs for pictures posted on a Facebook page detailing his journey.
Initially the hope was just that he would walk again.
“You have no expectations,’’ Clare said. “You’re like, ‘OK what do you do now?’ Like my brother used to say, there’s no playbook for this.”
Milestone after milestone, he exceeded expectations as he gradually regained his physical abilities. On May 14, he proudly walked the stage after earning his associate’s degree in early childhood education from Brookdale Community College.
“I’m just happy to be alive,’’ Timmy said. “I’m happy to have a second chance, and I’m not gonna waste it.”
He still has no memory of the accident. The Somerset man who hit him was sentenced in 2016 to six months in the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center and four years probation.
The last two years have been filled with inspiring achievements, but there was still something he hadn’t done since he was a senior at Holmdel.
A special night
McDonnell was a senior guard on the Holmdel squad that made a run to the 2012 NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II final and nearly shocked heavily-favored Ewing in a 48-42 loss.
That was the last time he played in an organized basketball game until Thursday, when his old teammates and veteran Hornets coach Sean Devaney came together to give his family a night they won’t forget.
Devaney reached out to Rumson-Fair Haven boys basketball coach Chris Champeau, who runs the Thursday night summer league at Victory Park in Rumson, to see if the Bulldogs might want to play a special game against a group of Holmdel graduates.
The coaches are good friends, and Holmdel and Rumson-Fair Haven are rivals in the Shore Conference Class A Central division. The teams combined for a magical moment this past season when Rumson team manager Jack Velcamp, who has dwarfism, scored a basket against Holmdel in his first appearance as a varsity player to draw a roar from the Rumson crowd.
Champeau immediately agreed to play the team of Holmdel alumni, leading to a one-time reunion game on Thursday night. Cantelli, Christian Vikse, Dan Baumlin, Kyle Nodes, Brett Lambert, Anthony Simuro and Sean O’Neill – the entire lineup from that 2012 championship game – joined McDonnell in the game. Devaney was also there on the sideline, just like old times.
The elder and younger McDonnells admitted they both were hard-headed in clashes with Devaney at times during Timmy’s career. However, those feelings are long in the past after the coach played a pivotal role early in Timmy’s recovery.
“The first three days, they told us he wasn’t going to live,’’ Tim Sr. said. “Then we had to wait another eight days to find out if his brain stem was ruptured and if he was paralyzed.
“Sean came up to the hospital that eighth day, and this is when we had no hope, and I’ll never forget Sean said, ‘They left this much open of the door. He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever coached. As long as there’s still a little chance, he’s gonna knock that door down and come back.’ It was pretty profound, looking back now.”
“The whole thing is just incredible,’’ Devaney said. “He’s just worked so hard.”
Playing against a team of current and former Rumson standouts, the 24-year-old started slow on Thursday night.
He missed all nine of his shots in the first half in front of a crowd of about 50 people enjoying a humid night of hoops, but that wasn’t a huge surprise given that he was more known for defense and setting bone-rattling screens than for scoring during his days at Holmdel.
The important part was that he had a wide grin the whole time.
“It felt like time never went by,’’ Timmy said. “It felt like I was back in high school.”
Early in the second half, he got a foul shot to go down for his first point as the crowd applauded and his friends hugged him.
Never much of a long-range shooter during his high school days, he followed by splashing in a 3-pointer.
And then another one.
And then a third one in a row as his delirious teammates began high-fiving one another in disbelief.
“I was crying pretty hard,’’ Clare said. “This was a gift.”
Timmy then buried three more 3-pointers to give him six for the game.
“I hit the one three and I got the momentum,’’ he said. “Took another one, made another one and then I don’t know, it was just crazy.”
"This guy hasn't played in a game in six years and he's out here looking like Steph Curry,'' Champeau marveled.
With a few seconds left in the game, his teammates found him one last time.
He launched a shot from the right wing. Bottom of the net.
“I was out of my mind when he made those shots,’’ Cantelli said. “You think it’s good if he just comes out here and plays a little bit, and he hits seven threes. That’s just unbelievable to watch. That’s miracles and God.”
“When he came out of the coma, he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk, and he didn’t know who we were,’’ Tim Sr. said. “Now it’s only been 3 ½ years and he’s out here knocking down seven threes in his first game since high school. It's truly a miracle."
Timmy’s struggles are not over, as he still has memory issues due to the traumatic brain injury, but he is hopeful to land a job working with kids.
For one night, it was like he created an alternate reality where he never stepped off that curb in New Brunswick.
“It brought back so many memories, and it made me want to look forward to the future,’’ Timmy said. “I’m getting better and better each day.
"I told Coach Champeau, let us know, we’ll come back and play ‘em again. We still got a little bit left in the tank.”