Team Hoyt: In the race

Published: April 2006

On Monday, April 17, 2006, the father-son team of Dick and Rick Hoyt marked their 25th running of the Boston Marathon, finishing in just under three hours and 45 minutes. The anniversary came just five months after John Michalcyzk and Ronald Marsh premiered their appreciation of the Hoyts, Rick’s Eyes on the Prize. The following story about the documentary appeared in the winter 2006 issue of Boston College Magazine.

The image, once seen, is indelible: His face sweaty, his mouth grimly set, a middle-aged man of below-average height with massive arms and shoulders, a number pinned to his sports singlet, strains forward to power the wheelchair of a gaunt young man with rigid limbs whose own face is a grimace, but whose eyes beam.

Since they started road racing, around 1980, Dick Hoyt and his son Rick, a nonspeaking quadriplegic, have competed together in more than 900 races, including 24 Boston Marathons. In the process they’ve turned themselves into “Team Hoyt,” snagging corporate sponsorships, delivering motivational lectures on racing and disability, and garnering humanitarian awards and proclamations from sports organizations, schools, police departments, mayors, and governors.

On November 21, the Hoyts dropped into Boston College’s Yawkey Athletic Center for the premiere of Rick’s Eyes on the Prize, a film about them directed by John Michalczyk, professor of fine arts, and Ronald Marsh, a staffer at O’Neill Library, with script by Michalczyk and Rick Hoyt. The screening drew more than 100 viewers, mostly college age but with a sizeable minority of older people. David Grossman, cantor at Temple Shaare Tefilah in Norwood, Massachusetts, and a marathoner himself (he wore blue athletic pants to the premiere), said seeing Team Hoyt at each Boston Marathon “is the high point of the day—almost the high point of the year.” Torey Thelin ’06 read about the Hoyts in a recent Sports Illustrated. She planned to report on the screening for her feature writing class. Her classmate Kevin Sin, a senior exchange student from Australia, had watched the Hoyts on TV as they competed in running, swimming, and biking in Honolulu’s Ironman triathlon. He hoped for an opportunity to meet the pair after the movie.

Rick’s Eyes on the Prize is the second in a series of short-film profiles of disabled individuals directed by Team Michalczyk/Marsh, with four additional films currently being assembled or planned. According to Philip DiMattia, executive producer of Rick’s Eyes on the Prize and director of BC’s Campus School, which serves youngsters with multiple disabilities, the series, called “I’m in Here,” aims to depict “the challenges of going from being spectators in life to being active participants.”

In addition to racing and traveling the lecture circuit, DiMattia said, the younger Hoyt has served as a “test pilot” for the Campus School’s EagleEyes technology, which allows severely disabled people to operate a computer using eye movements. EagleEyes was developed at Boston College by James Gips and Peter Olivieri, both faculty in the operations and strategic management department of the Carroll School of Management, and by Joe Tecce, a psychology professor.

Rick’s Eyes on the Prize is a blend of first-person reflections before the camera, scenes of training sessions, and dramatic race footage. Early in the film, Dick Hoyt recalls his son’s birth with cerebral palsy, in 1962. Advised to send the boy to an institution, his parents instead vowed to raise him “as a normal child,” but because he couldn’t speak, schools wouldn’t enroll him, even though he was clearly bright and alert, with a lively sense of humor. Then, when Rick was eight, engineers at Tufts University invented a forerunner of EagleEyes, a computer system that allowed him to spell out words by making small head movements. Suddenly he could communicate. (His first words, as most Hoyt fans know, were “Go, Bruins!”—a cry familiar to local hockey enthusiasts.) With his new setup, Rick was admitted to his town’s public school system and eventually to Boston University, where he earned a degree in special education in 1993.

According to the film, the idea of racing as a team came from Rick. A local athlete in central Massachusetts, where the Hoyts lived, had been paralyzed in an accident, and a benefit race was being planned. “I have to do something for him,” Rick told his father, “to let him know life does not end when you become paralyzed.” After that race came the Hoyts’ first Boston Marathon, in 1981. The event had been open to wheelchair entrants since 1975, but not to contestants pushing wheelchairs. The Hoyts ran Boston without a number, after which they ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., turning in a 2:45 performance, more than respectable for a fortyish man, even one without a son to push. The next year, race officials in Boston gave the Hoyts a number. As Dick Hoyt tells it in the film: “The first time we [ran the Boston Marathon], nobody knew who we were or what we were going to do, but now we’re so popular people say we are the Boston Marathon.” More to the point says Rick (really somebody speaking words Rick typed) in one of the film’s voice-overs: “People sometimes treat me as if I’m not there, but not when I’m racing. . . . If people who watch us compete can just begin to understand that the disabled are normal, that we have rich, productive lives, that’s all I ask.”

Rick’s Eyes on the Prize, which has a running time of 30 minutes, was three years in the making, as the filmmakers followed Team Hoyt through three Boston Marathons and three Ironman competitions. “Dick helped write the script,” says Michalczyk, “by answering our questions. Rick supplied his bio, which served as the basis for the script.” Funding for the film came from Boston College, the Jacques Salmanowitz Program, the John W. Alden Trust, and the Campus School Volunteers. Distribution is through Marsh and Michalczyk’s company, the Etoile Documentary Group.

When the film ended and the lights went up in the Yawkey screening room, Dick Hoyt, 65 now, craggy-faced and wearing a V-neck sweater that emphasized his rocklike build, stood at the lectern to offer his impressions. But before he could get out a half-dozen words about the movie, his voice caught, and he stopped. Recovering slightly, he started talking about a high-tech racing bike Team Hoyt had been using lately. Finally, his emotions under control, he opened a question-and-answer session through which the audience learned about such things as Dick’s training schedule (four to four-and-a-half hours per day, seven days a week) and Team Hoyt’s plans for the time when they can no longer race (Dick said he doesn’t foresee such a time). The high point of the Q&A came in response to a question about Rick’s early utterances, the ones from the days that immediately followed the famous “Go, Bruins” exhortation.

Rick, a slight man in his middle forties, answered that one himself. Normally he would have used small head movements to type the answer, but he had not brought his computer, and so a lower-tech process had to be employed whereby Rick used head movements to indicate letters of the alphabet to his dad. This required a good deal of trial and error on the interpreter’s part (“A? E? I? O? U?”), and for close to 10 minutes most of the audience sat rapt while Dick patiently deciphered what Rick wanted to say, which turned out to be, “I recall telling jokes.”

After the Q&A, the Hoyts mixed with the audience. Kevin Sin, the exchange student, got to meet them. As he said a few days later in a phone interview, “I told them that I have a nephew with a slight disability, and . . . that they are an inspiration for me to help him not give up.”

David Grossman, the cantor and marathon runner, took a similar message from the evening. The Hoyts, he said, “don’t stop for anything.”

This feature was posted on Tuesday, April 18, 2006 and is filed under Research.
Writer: David Reich. This story originally appeared in Boston College Magazine, Winter 2006.