Ben Abercrombie's '21-23 return to campus aided by the HVC, Harvard community

-- By John Powers ’70, HVC Board Member

Ben Abercrombie '21-23 is listed on Harvard's football roster as a first-year defensive back who wears number 32. While he likely never will play again after breaking his neck two years ago in his first game, Ben still is a member of the Crimson varsity. He attends practices and games and has a current playbook.

"He'll be part of the family, part of the fabric, part of the team for life," said Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football. "That's the way it is with any kid but certainly for someone who's had as much adversity as Ben I think it's even more important. That's the way it has to be and that's the way we want it."

Since Ben's injury that rendered him quadriplegic the university's extended community has provided him with substantial support, ranging from medical treatment to transportation to specialized housing to educational technology to mentoring.

"When I was being recruited here they told me, once you're a part of the family you're part of the family for life," Ben said. "That's been evident with my case. They've been with me every step of the way and made sure that I've had everything I've needed to return back to college and get my degree and be a part of the team and the community. They've just been great through it all."

The Harvard Varsity Club, the Athletic Department, the college's Accessible Education Office and Harvard's network of hospitals and physicians are working together to make sure that Ben, who returned to campus in September to resume his studies, can make progress toward his economics degree while dealing with his recovery and rehabilitation. "Everyone has been in Ben's corner," said Varsity Club chairman Andy Freed ’90.

To that end, the Varsity Club created The Benson M. Abercrombie ’21 Fund to provide financial support to the Abercrombie family and any future Harvard undergraduate student-athlete who incurs a severe or catastrophic injury while competing for the Crimson while enrolled in Harvard College. "The Harvard Varsity Club's slogan is 'Your Team for Life’," observed Ben's father Marty Abercrombie. "They definitely live that." To date the Abercrombie Fund has raised more than $527,000 and has paid for a number of medical costs not covered by insurance, ranging from a customized van and wheelchair to flights for treatment.

"If you're a spinal-cord patient the long-term cost is unimaginable," said Dr. Joan LaRovere ’88, an attending physician at Boston Children's Hospital and an assistant pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School who has helped arrange Ben's treatment. "Without NCAA health insurance and the Varsity Club's additional funding it would be impossible."

The Athletic Department, which has helped coordinate communication within Ben's support system, was instrumental in arranging his visit to Fenway Park for last season's Harvard-Yale game. "It was a concerted effort," said Brant Berkstresser, associate athletic director for student-athlete health and performance. "Between the ticket office, how Ben got to the game, getting through the crowds, watching the game from a private box."

Paul Callahan ’80, an alumnus who was paralyzed as a senior in 1980 when he slipped on a wet floor, has been in frequent contact with Ben since his injury. "I was awestruck by Ben's positive and amiable attitude toward life and about what life might look like for him going forward," said Callahan, who believes that he was Harvard's first quadriplegic graduate in 1985. "Ben has phenomenal instincts on how to do this."

Callahan, who returned to Harvard five years after his injury while going through rehab ("I was a stubborn quadriplegic.") admires Ben's decision to return to campus after only two years. "Everyone moves in their own time and at their own pace," he said.

The availability of advanced medical care within the Harvard network was a major reason for Ben's returning to campus when he did. So was the prospect of reuniting with his teammates and his classmates, who now are juniors. "The football guys and some of the people I met during my short stay earlier have all been by to see me," Ben said. "If I pass them going to class they'll say 'Hey!' They've all accepted me back."

Ben, who never got a chance to play in the Stadium, has been on the sideline for every home game and later joins his teammates in the locker room. "There's no question that Ben has been a tremendous inspiration to our team," said Murphy. "He's always upbeat, always smiling, always chatty. He's so engaged. There's never any woe-is-me."

The practical question was how Ben would be able to resume college life while needing round-the-clock care. "Harvard said, if he's ready, we'll be ready," Marty said. The Accessible Education Office, which provides individualized services for more than 900 students needing help with mental health, chronic illness, mobility impairment and other issues, handled the retrofitting of Ben's room in Weld Hall and arranged for an eye gaze-controlled computer and speech recognition and note-taking software through the Assistive Technology Center. "The extent of services that Ben needs is an outlier in some ways," said AEO director Grace Moskola. "But it's certainly something that we're able to support."

Ben's first-floor room also has caretaker accommodations for his mother Sherri Abercrombie, who is a registered nurse. There's also space for his wheelchair, a specialized exercise bicycle and a 65-inch flat screen TV. "They've done everything in their power to make sure I'm successful," said Ben, who is taking calculus and expository writing this semester and hopes to graduate in 2023. "Obviously it's a transition learning how to do everything academic-wise with no hands and everything. I rely on other people, me telling them how to do my work for me. It's just been a blessing."

Ben's treatment and therapy, which includes visits to Journey Forward in Canton, Mass. for specialized exercise, is overseen by Dr. Chloe Slocum, who specializes in neurological rehabilitation from spinal cord injuries at the Spaulding Hospital. "It's all of Harvard," said LaRovere. "It's Spaulding, it's Mass. General, it's the Brigham, it's Boston Children's, it's Harvard Medical School. It's all of it."

Ben, who still is on a ventilator, accepts that his road back likely will be long and challenging. "Right now he wants to get through every day with as few obstacles as possible," said Callahan. "In time, more wonderful things will open up for him...He's very wise to be taking it piece by piece."

The support from the Varsity Club and the Harvard extended community will continue. "We want to be there for athletes in good times and bad times and it goes on for the rest of your life," said Freed. "It's not just football. It's 10,000 men and women of Harvard who'd like to see Ben do well."

-- Your Team for Life --