SPRINGFIELD — Ask Mike Vaz how he’s doing and he says “I’m better than I was a year ago.”
Vaz, 28, one of the city’s greatest high school athletes and a 2013 electee in the Springfield Public High Schools Sports Hall of Fame, is basically paralyzed from the shoulders down.
He sits in an electric wheelchair that he cannot independently operate, and although he is able to raise his arms, he cannot move his fingers. And the legs that a decade ago powered him to being a dominating presence in football and basketball are not working either.
He sometimes feels movement in them, but that is about it, he said.
“I have no legs yet,” he said. As he said this, he emphasized the word “yet.”
Vaz’s life took a dramatic turn on the night of Feb.8, 2013 when he was shot and critically injured in a domestic shooting on Wellington Street in Springfield.
A man he did not know, Anthony Brown, 27, forced his way into the home of Julie Treadwell, 26, Vaz’s girlfriend at the time. After shooting Vaz, Brown shot Treadwell to death. Brown then turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
He’s breathing on his own now, and that movement in his arms, however slight, is more than what his doctors thought he would ever have again.
While he holds out hope that he will walk again, he acknowledges it will not be easy.
“My doctors say it is a possibility. It’s going to take a lot of work.”
For now, he is unable to feed himself, dress himself, or get in or out of bed without help. It takes four people to carry him and his chair out the door when he goes outside, and he is dependent on continual care from the time he wakes until the time he goes to sleep.
And all of this, he admits, is frustrating as hell.
In 2003 he graduated from the High School of Commerce as the only athlete to win the region’s top athletic awards, the Angelo Bertelli and Norman Dagenais awards in football, and the John “Honey” Lahovich Award for basketball.
Even after high school and high school sports, Vaz remained on the go.
“I wouldn’t be in the house at all, even in the winter. I would always be at the gym putting up shots or playing in a league,” he said.
He said it is frustrating that he is unable to move on his own. He said that he never thought he would be in a position where he’d be praised for being able to touch his own nose.
“Never in a million years,” he said.“ “This is hard. This is frustrating.”
Through it all, Vaz makes one thing clear. He does not expect, seek or want anyone’s pity.
“For what? A lot of people are in worse situations than I am,” he said. “I’m just blessed to be here.”
Vaz said he remembers everything about the night of the shooting, from the time he was awakened by the sound of Treadwell’s front door being kicked in until he was loaded into the ambulance and rushed to Baystate Medical Center.
Treadwell and Brown had been in a relationship, and he was the father of her twin boys. But it went sour and on Dec. 19, 2012, she obtained an abuse prevention order from the district court. She told the courts that a day earlier, Brown had broken into her home, kicked the refrigerator door off its hinges, and punched her. He was ordered to stay 100 feet away from her and the twins.
The order expired on Jan. 3, 2013, and a little more than a month later, Brown broke into her apartment one last time.
Vaz said when he heard the front door flying open from the upstairs bedroom he knew something was wrong. He grabbed Treadwell’s twin 1-year old boys and put them in a closet to keep them safe.
By the time he went outside the room, Brown was at the top of the stairs and the two of them fought.
“I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall,” Vaz said.
“We fought for a little while. I didn’t know he had a gun at first.”
As they struggled, Treadwell’s 5-year-old son came out of his room and stood in shock at the scene before him. Vaz shouted for him to go in the bathroom and lock the door.
Brown, Vaz said, must have been on drugs or something. His eyes were black and empty and he was mumbling something the whole time. And he had incredible strength.
“He had Superman strength. He wasn’t feeling nothing,” he said.
At one point, Brown tumbled down the stairs. A handgun fell out of his pocket. He picked it up and began shooting up the stairs at Vaz.
Vaz was struck in the arm. Brown chased him after him, still shooting, and Vaz was forced to jump for his life out a second story window. As he hit the ground, he was struck in the back by Brown shooting from the upstairs window.
He said he was conscious as he lay on the ground and heard more gunshots from inside the house. He learned later it was the sound of Treadwell being murdered, and then Brown turning the gun on himself and committing suicide.
Vaz said he doesn’t regret anything that happened to him. His only regret from that night is that he was not able to do more for Treadwell, to do more to stop Brown.
“That’s what messes me up,” he said. “I see things I could have done differently. I think of what I should have done. I think that all of the time.”
And, as he points out, all he has is time.
Since he was discharged from the hospital recovery treatment center, Vaz has been living in the Forest Park apartment of DeJuan Brownand Chelan Brown, the founders and operators of AWAKE, the volunteer group that works to combat violence in the city.
The Browns, no relation to Anthony Brown, have known Vaz since he was a teen.
He requires continual care, and the Browns provide it, as does Nicole Masonet, Vaz’s girlfriend, who also works as a certified nursing assistant.
“She’s my personal nurse,” he said.
Without the support of that circle to take care of him daily and get him to physical and occupational therapy twice a week at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital in Ludlow, Vaz said he has no idea what would have happened to him or where he would have ended up.
“I’ve got a good group of people around me. That’s the best part,” he said. To have a close circle of friends to care for him, he said, is a blessing from God.
Those friends are organizing a benefit to help defray his medical costs. The second annual Mike Vaz Domestic Violence Fund Raiser is planned for Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23, from noon to 6 p.m. at Central High School.
Eight men’s teams will play a tournament, leading up to a championship game on Sunday. There will also be a women’s exhibition game and a children’s fashion show on Sunday. Both days will also have activities for kids, and there will also be special presentations by speakers about the cost of domestic violence.
The first Mike Vaz fund raised was held last March, roughly a month after he was shot, and he was unable to attend although he did deliver his thanks in a video message over the Internet via Skype.
This year, he said, he is truly looking forward to being there in person.
“This should be a good time. There will be some good games and all my boys will be there,” he said. “It’s going to be crazy.”
Although the event is primarily a fundraiser for his medical care, Vaz said he would like to put some of the money aside for anti-domestic violence programs or even for a scholarship for a deserving student-athlete.
As he continues rehab with a long-term goal of regaining use of his legs, Vaz is setting his sights on an intermediate goal of becoming a motivational speaker. He said he wants to speak to young people, middle- and high school-age students, about the danger and the cost of domestic violence.
He said he already has an invitation from one middle school, and is hoping to hear from others.
“I want to get into that. That is a big thing, to talk to kids, to let them know about domestic violence, and to let them know my story and about what happened to me,” he said.
His message is simple; don’t mess around with guns and it’s never OK to beat someone you love.
“A lot of dudes don’t understand that. They think they got to hit her to prove their masculinity. A lot of these dudes were raised different than I was,” he said.
He also said he would like to write his autobiography.
Vaz said that prior to the shooting he was never one for moments of quiet reflection. He was too busy living the life of a young, handsome athlete in his mid-20s to think about tomorrow.
“I was not sitting back to think about what I’m going to be doing in the next couple of years,” he said. “Now, all I have is time.”
His goal for the next five years is “to be on my feet and a published author,” he said.
“He’s got a long recovery ahead of him,” Chelan Brown said.
But he has made progress in the last year, despite having to be hospitalized three times for various ailments since he has come home, she said.
Through their work with AWAKE, the Browns counsel the families and victims of gun violence. Vaz, who she has known since she was 16, was never involved in guns or gangs, and he always got along with people all over Springfield.
When they heard that night that he was on his way to the emergency room, they could not at first understand why. “It was a surprise to a lot of people,” she said.
But the first time she was able to see him at the hospital, the first thing he told her was that he was grateful, truly grateful, to still be alive.
The positive attitude he shows is real, she said. It is not him putting on a brave face for the sake of an interviewer.
Seated in his chair, Vaz’s voice is strong and positive. He smiles easily, exhibits a dry sense of humor, and playfully eggs on the Browns’ two boys who flutter along the periphery during an interview.
“Those two ninjas,” he calls them.
Chelan Brown said Vaz can be so funny and upbeat sometimes that she sometimes forgets he is in a wheelchair.
“Sometimes I forget!” Vaz jokes “I’m about to walk out of here and then I can’t move.”
She smiled and said “he’s still Mike.”
In November, during one of his trips to the hospital, one of the EMTs with the ambulance asked him if he had any pre-existing medical conditions they should know about, Chelan Brown said.
“And Mike said ‘What? You mean other than getting shot and being paralyzed?’” she said.
Everyone including the EMT just burst out laughing, she said.
Another time at the hospital, not too long after the shooting, a nurse removing an IV from one of his paralyzed legs absentmindedly cautioned him that it might sting a little. He, of course, howled in pretend pain, she said.
“That’s how he always was. That was always Mike’s personality,” she said.
“He’s the funniest dude,” DeJuan Brown said. “The favorite part of Mike that everyone knew is still here.”