Defying the odds: Hadley’s Owen Earle back competing less than two years removed from horrific accident

Hopkins Academy’s Owen Earle attempts to walk at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield following a horrific accident in 2022 that broke several bones including his left tibia.

Hopkins Academy’s Owen Earle attempts to walk at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield following a horrific accident in 2022 that broke several bones including his left tibia. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Owen Earle (14) lining up for Amherst in a game at Holyoke High School on Sep. 21, 2023. Earle was the starting safety and kicker for the Hurricanes last fall.

Owen Earle (14) lining up for Amherst in a game at Holyoke High School on Sep. 21, 2023. Earle was the starting safety and kicker for the Hurricanes last fall. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Hopkins Academy head basketball coach Jim Hart (left) and Owen Earle (right) outside of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Hopkins Academy head basketball coach Jim Hart (left) and Owen Earle (right) outside of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Owen Earle participating in physical therapy after a horrific accident broke several bones including his left tibia.

Owen Earle participating in physical therapy after a horrific accident broke several bones including his left tibia. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Owen Earle shoots hoops while on crutches outside of his house in Hadley, Mass.

Owen Earle shoots hoops while on crutches outside of his house in Hadley, Mass. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Hopkins Academy’s Owen Earle, left, pulls down a rebound against Greenfield earlier this season.

Hopkins Academy’s Owen Earle, left, pulls down a rebound against Greenfield earlier this season. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-05-2024 4:09 PM

Lying flat on his back in the middle of a field at Four Rex Farm in Hadley, Owen Earle stared straight into an endless stretch of overcast sky, raindrops gently splashing him.

Although he didn’t feel much pain, he knew there was no getting up.

“I had never even broken a bone before this, so I didn’t even know what was going on,” Earle said. “I was just laying there in shock. Because of the adrenaline, my body didn’t really hurt, but I knew for sure I broke my leg. I couldn’t move it.”

Minutes earlier, Earle and his friends were finishing up their day – one of the last shifts at the farm they’d be doing before heading back to school at Hopkins Academy in a few days. No more 3 a.m. wake-ups, no more long, exhausting days in the summer sun once that week was over.

After loading up the farm’s wagon with six huge crates of watermelon they had just picked, Earle, Harry West and Leo Russell hopped aboard the vehicle (estimated to be about 10,000 pounds) to be pulled back up to the farm by a tractor. 

With the crates taking up most of the space, Earle couldn’t find a comfortable spot to sit for the rocky ride. He finally got settled at the very front, but in a split second, the wagon jolted. It had connected with a large bump.

Earle went tumbling over the front edge. Both of the wagon’s axles plowed over his body.

“I thought I just saw my best friend die,” West recalled.

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West and Russell hollered to the tractor driver, urging him to stop. He quickly did, and in panic mode, everyone raced to check on the 13-year old who had been flattened by a five-ton wagon.

Using Earle’s phone, which miraculously dodged any damage, they called his parents. His father, John, made the nine-minute drive from their house in Hadley to the farm in five, and asked his son what hurt.

“My shoulder kind of does,” he answered.

So John pulled down Owen’s shirt to take a look.

“When he looked, my whole chest and shoulder was all blood, and there were tire marks down my chest,” Earle said.

John called an ambulance, and Owen was transported to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. All told, he spent an hour laying in the field.

More than 30 doctors and nurses worked on Earle. Nine broken ribs, a broken left tibia that started poking through his skin, six broken bones in his foot, a punctured lung and a bruised heart that was leaking blood into the stomach. His entire left side was struck by the wagon, and every part of his body suffered injuries except for his head – which had a few scrapes but no serious damage.

All things considered, he was fortunate to be alive.

Several professionals told him if he hadn’t been in the shape he was – spending an entire summer working on the farm and working with his personal trainer can help take credit for that – he wouldn’t have survived.

“While I was on the wagon, it wasn’t smart to be in the front. It's just common sense,” Earle said. “But I guess I wasn't thinking at that time. I definitely got very lucky.”

Typically when a patient has broken ribs, hospital workers will put a big, tight brace around the chest and back to help stabilize and heal them faster. But Earle had punctured a lung, so that would make it nearly impossible for him to breathe.

Somehow, surgery wasn’t required. Earle spent four days at Baystate, where he was given lots of medication and underwent countless testing and monitoring. Improvements were shown with each check-in.

“The trauma unit at Baystate was great,” Earle said. “They helped with whatever I needed.”

Over the next eight months, Earle spent time in two different casts, a walking boot, was in a wheelchair and had to walk on crutches. For someone who had never so much as fractured anything, this was certainly a change.

Even further, all of Earle’s hobbies revolved around sports. He felt lost.

“I was outside on crutches just trying to shoot a basketball,” Earle said. “I wasn’t supposed to, but sports are all I’ve ever done, and it hurt to see everyone around me playing and getting better.”

He started doing physical therapy at the four-month mark of his recovery period. And while the process was filled with plenty of downs, Earle’s support system kept him optimistic.

Hopkins Academy boys basketball coach Jim Hart sent him texts regularly, and his parents, along with his three siblings, John J, Colin and Kasey, did whatever they could to lift his spirits around the house.

“My mental health was struggling, but all the support I got from my family, friends and all of my teammates really helped me through it,” Earle said. “Having them cheering me on and giving me the energy to work through it was awesome… Coach Hart was texting me a lot and staying in touch, because he knew the potential I had. He did whatever he could to tell me that I can do whatever I put my mind to, and that I’m strong and can get through anything. That really helped.”

Earle took Hart’s advice and ran with it. His goal? To get back at some point during the 2022-23 basketball season to help the team in any way, no matter how recent his accident was. He put his mind to it, so he wasn’t going to be told no.

He exerted every ounce of energy he had from November to February in hopes of returning, and come the 2023 state tournament in early March, he suited up in a Golden Hawks uniform. Hart subbed Earle in sparingly in Hopkins’ MIAA Division 5 Round of 32 matchup with Roxbury Prep, still easing him back into it. And although the Hawks fell 59-55, ending their season, the eighth grader picked up two key steals and helped give his team a chance to win down the stretch.

Eight months removed from a near-tragedy, he was back doing what he loved.

“It was amazing to get back for that season,” Earle said. “It felt like an achievement I got through. Obviously, it was very emotional, it was a checkpoint that I got past.”

Last fall, now a freshman, Earle suited up with Amherst on the gridiron (as part of the school’s football co-op with Hopkins) and started at safety for a competitive Hurricanes team that finished 8-2.

Earle admitted the physicality of varsity football took some getting used to, but after the season, his confidence post-injury was at an all-time high.

“I had to get my rhythm back, and it took a while,” Earle said. “It was the most contact I’ve had since the injury, so I had to adjust to that. But I love playing football, and as the season went on I became more and more comfortable.”

Then came Earle’s pride-and-joy: basketball. He tossed in 216 points as a freshman this season, including a career-high 29 points in a six-point win over Lenox in late January.

Hart said it’s kids like Earle that made him fall in love with coaching, and they’re the types of players that he wants on his team. And as part of Hart’s gig with the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, he drove around Michigan State head coach and basketball legend Tom Izzo for a weekend last summer. After showing him pictures of Earle’s recovery and sharing Earle’s story, Izzo agreed.

“When I showed Coach Izzo, he said, ‘If he’s able to play for me, you make sure you contact me. Those are the types of players that I want. Those tough players are my type of players,’” Hart recalled. “I think of that a lot when I think of Owen and how far he’s come from where he was at… I know saying someone’s lucky to be alive gets thrown around a lot, but he’s literally lucky to be alive.”

Owen Earle is back doing what he loves, making the most of his second chance. His body is fully healed up, as is his heart, and it may be bigger than it ever was before.

“He’s a great kid, and a very compassionate kid with a really big heart,” Hart said. “He's learned a lot from this. He’s a competitor and he’s a fighter.”