The Mystery of Inspiration


Definition: – “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”

December 3, 2020 was the anniversary of an event that changed my life forever. I was introduced to the mystery of inspiration in the most unexpected way I could have ever imagined. It was 45 years ago that one of my best friends, Michael Schwass, while playing the sport he loved, broke his neck.

Just five years earlier I did not even know Michael Schwass but we both shared a love for the sport of ice hockey. He was passionate about scoring goals and I was passionate about preventing goals from being scored. Michael was a forward and I was a goalie.

Now on the surface you might think that goalies and forwards didn’t like each other because of the pain that is caused by each one of us being successful at our positions. However, this all changes when the persons playing these two positions are teammates. Michael and I became teammates when we both made the Niles, Illinois travel hockey team as bantams where our lifelong friendship began.

What are you passionate about? Is one of my favorite questions to ask people. When you answer this question truthfully, can the person you are talking to feel it? I mean really feel your excitement at a visceral level.

My passion for being a goalie led me on a path to being on the ice that fateful evening back in 1975, watching Michael skating in on a breakaway and being checked from behind, and go crashing into the boards headfirst.

We were playing against one of our archrivals Glenbrook North. It is a unique perspective to watch the game of hockey through the eyes of a goaltender. Things happen in seconds and I was watching Mike skating in on a breakaway, something I had seen many times previously because he was such a talented skater and stick handler. I saw him being checked from behind by the defenseman and then crashing into the boards, something that was common when we played a physical team like Glenbrook North.

What was so unique this time was when Michael’s body hit the ice, it didn’t move. After the whistle blew I remember skating up to him and saw our coach Gary Weber kneeling at his feet and after taking his skate off, pinching his toes and asking over and over again, “can you feel this?” Mike’s response, “no, no, no!” Although none of us realized it then, Michael had become a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down, which would last the rest of his life.

The mystery of inspiration entered my world later that season in the spring of 1976, our senior year. We were fortunate to continue our postseason by winning strategic games at the end of our schedule and we entered the Illinois state high school hockey tournament as complete underdogs because of the loss of our star player. No one expected the Notre Dame Dons to do anything in the state tournament, but then no one understood the silent inspiration of our fallen captain Michael Schwass, which we all carried in our hearts into every game. We ended up getting white-hot just at the right time, winning five games in a row against teams we were lucky to beat during the regular season, if at all.

The first mysterious paradox of Michael’s inspiration materialized when it was announced to all of us that the team we were to face in the championship game of the state tournament was none other than, you guessed it, Glenbrook North! (No, I did not make up this story!)

As we huddled together in the locker room before the most important game of our high school career, I couldn’t believe my ears. The locker room was located under the bleachers of the Randhurst Ice Arena and the walls were literally shaking! As the 2700+ fans stomped their feet on the metal bleachers, the entire building shook.

As we hit the ice and began skating around the rink, suddenly the entire crowd erupted in thunderous chanting “Stosh”, “Stosh”, “Stosh”! (Michael Schwass carried the nickname of one of his favorite Chicago Blackhawk players, Hall of Famer Stan Mikita “Stosh” as he was known around the NHL.

Unbeknownst to us our coach Gary Weber had gone to the hospital and convinced the doctors to allow Michael to come to the game. The crowd erupted because Michael “Stosh” was wheeled into the Randhurst Ice Arena and it was the first time he had been out of the hospital since the accident!

We were all inspired like never before by our captain and we won the championship game 4 – 3. Glenbrook North never had a chance!

I handed the championship trophy over the glass to Michael because he was the inspiration for all of us to be the best version of ourselves.

The First Step Foundation, another mystery of inspiration.

After high school, I went up north to play hockey as a Wisconsin Badger for UW Madison and during my freshman or sophomore year, I got a call from my other co-captain at Notre Dame, my good friend Tony Salemi. He invited me to the first fundraiser for Mike Schwass. The event was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. It was a “Roast” of the entire Chicago Blackhawks hockey team organized by Michael’s newfound friend, the late Keith Magnuson. I have no idea what the specific results were from this event; all I know was that the banquet hall was packed with over 2000 paying supporters along with a huge live auction!

During this weekend trip home, I had breakfast with Tony to review the awesome event that Tony had assisted in planning. It was at this breakfast meeting that the mystery of inspiration from Michael struck again.

Definition of Inspiration: “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.”

Tony and I looked at each other and said “we need to start a not-for-profit company/organization to help our fallen teammate.” The realization hit both of us that Michael is going to need our help long-term and not just as a single event, and the First Step Foundation was born.

“Never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come.”

Over the next 10 years or so a bunch of tenacious Notre Dame hockey teammates, Notre Dame coaches and friends under the leadership of myself, Tony and Don Hitzel (another co-captain and our legal counsel), the First Step Foundation qualified as an official 501(c)3 nonprofit company in 1991!

Michael continued to inspire all of us by getting his college undergraduate degree in psychology and then going on to get his Masters in Social Work (MSW) as a quadriplegic who couldn’t even turn the pages of his books! Wow!

Over the next 19 years the First Step Foundation raised thousands of dollars through nine annual golf outings and a number of other fundraisers, paying for Michael Schwass, MSW to counsel other quadriplegics to deal with the many life challenges that come with the territory of living life paralyzed from the neck down. This was the God-inspired vision of the First Step Foundation that came wrapped in the mystery of Michael’s inspiration.

The unlikely path of the mystery of inspiration.

Here is where the mystery of inspiration takes what appears to be a strange and unexpected turn. Due to Mike Schwass and his amazing drive to research and try any and all treatments for a cure to allow him to walk someday, the First Step Foundation got introduced to serving US military veterans.

One of our largest benefactors was a for-profit company named Laurus Technologies. The owner and founder was a good friend of mine John Udelhofen. John was so moved by what he saw the First Step Foundation accomplishing, he wanted to do more because of the huge need he saw in all of the military veterans returning home from their tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. So he created a new non-profit called Laurus Foundation and hired Jim Dolan as the executive director.

Enhancing this connection to the military came through my good friend and mentor Wayne Messmer, known nationally as “Chicago’s Original Voice of the National Anthem.” He introduced us to the Chicago Wolves Organization which eventually adopted us as one of their local charities they supported through Chicago Wolves Charities.

The treatments and doctors Mike discovered while treating spinal cord injuries were also effective in treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI), both suffered by military veterans during combat.

What was the common thread between all of these connections that led us to serving not only individuals who suffer physical spinal cord injuries, but also the invisible physical injury to the human brain through PTSD and TBI? Every one of these individuals – John Udelhofen, Jim Dolan, Wayne Messmer, Courtney Mahoney (Chicago Wolves) – was touched by the inspiration of Michael Schwass.

One of the many lessons we learned from our involvement with military veterans was just how debilitating brain injuries can be for returning veterans. What I mean here is that if you returned home with a physical injury such as losing a limb in combat, it was easy for the medical community to diagnose and treat. However, if you returned with some form of PTSD, it was difficult to diagnose and to treat because it cannot be physically seen. A number of the doctors we were introduced to, specifically Dr. John Turner and Dr. Frank Yurasek, were able to properly diagnose many of these veterans because of their understanding of the human brain and the entire nervous system. One of the biggest challenges is the fact that the symptoms of PTSD and TBI are almost identical. These two practitioners along with others have been able to diagnose in many cases that TBI was one of the direct causes of their problems. And then they were able to treat the brain injury directly and with very positive results. All this was being done without the use of pharmaceuticals most of the time.

The underlying result of not being diagnosed correctly and still having PTSD can have a direct correlation to the staggering rate of suicide amongst our veterans. The power of these organizations and their programs (such as Healer Warrior) are beginning to have a positive impact on veteran suicide but there is a long way to go.

Healer Warrior

In my coaching practice, I teach my life coaching clients a process of how to discover their life purpose. A core principle in this process is sharing your passion with other people you meet in life. I believe when you do not fully express your passion to the point where people feel your excitement, you are stealing the opportunity for others to be inspired by you!

If I had not infected Mike Schwass and Tony Salemi with my passion and excitement for being the best goalie I could be, the many quadriplegics and US military veterans we have helped may not have ever been cured from the effects of their PTSD and TBI.

A good friend of mine once said “you want to make God laugh, show him your plan”.

Who would’ve thunk that my passion for hockey and being a goalie would lead to Michael Schwass’ inspiration being powerful enough for us to win the state championship, and for us to create the First Step Foundation that would eventually lead to finding a solution to the debilitating effects of TBI for many of our military veterans including possibly saving their lives from suicide!

This quote by the way, came from my good friend Michael Schwass, MSW.

Stosh, may you rest in peace!
(1959 – 2010)

Please check out these websites and pass them along to any veterans and/or their families that you know are struggling.

Dr. Frank Yurasek

Dr. John Turner a Board Certified Chiropractic Neurologist

The clinic offers alternative and functional means of medicine including chiropractic neurology, acupuncture, nutrition, allergy relief, applied kinesiology and homeopathy, in addition to traditional chiropractic care.

Illinois Joining Forces

At Illinois Joining Forces, we know that sometimes it can be challenging to find the support you need, when you need it. Since our founding in 2012, we have been determined to make an impact. The core of our efforts is to connect service members, veterans, and their families to the services and resources in their local communities.