Somewhere amidst the haze of knowing his right leg had been blown off -- maybe before knowing his brother’s right leg was gone, too, but definitely after deciding his girlfriend would leave him -- Paul Norden got Ray Rice’s message.
This isn’t a story about victims. It’s a story about survivors. Three from the Boston Marathon bombing and one named Ray Rice.
Paul Norden became a Baltimore Ravens fan the same day the team came into existence. Forget that he was raised nine miles north of Boston and almost never left the city’s suburbs. Forget that liking anyone but the New England Patriots was not trendy in any of those zip codes. As a 15-year-old in 1996, he cast his lot with the Ravens and that was that.
Norden fell for Ray Rice back when Rice was a diminutive, yard-hoarding workhorse of a tailback at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were on regional TV a bunch and, well, Rice scored a lot of touchdowns. Sitting above the guest-room bed in the home of Norden’s girlfriend, Jacqui Webb, near the autographed Ravens helmet Norden bought online, is a Ray Rice action figure in Rutgers home reds, a Christmas present from Jacqui.
Paul has simple tastes. He wears plain white T-shirts most days. He steals his brother’s gym shorts and doesn’t want for expensive things. Still, there’s a clear rule of gift-giving with Paul, Jacqui says: “Every holiday or birthday, no matter what you want to get him, you have to get him something Ravens, too.”
Ray Rice was at home in New York on April 15, when two brothers allegedly placed two bombs on Boylston Street in Boston, at the finish line of the world’s oldest annual marathon. The Ravens’ 26-year-old starting running back sat, riveted and disgusted all at once, desperately watching his television until he just couldn’t anymore.
“I had to turn it off,” Rice says. “What goes through your head to even think of doing that to somebody?” He pauses, talks some more and then sighs. “It was innocent people who just went out there to enjoy their day.”
This country has suffered tragedy before. Rice was in high school outside New York when the planes of Sept. 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. For most of Rice’s adult life, American soldiers have been deployed overseas.
But something about this one pierced. It was a sporting event. It was three hours north, up I-95. It was in the state where his two younger brothers go to college. And really, he says, “it didn’t matter where I was at. I felt so attached to it.”
Paul Norden has suffered from sometimes crippling bouts of anxiety throughout his life. Family has always been his anchor, as the second of five children born in eight years to a mother who started at 17. He overcame a speech impediment thanks to the painstaking patience of his mom and grandmother. He helped care for that diabetic grandmother in the last years of her life and he slept for nearly a year in her hospital room. But Norden had to get a GED because the disquiet he felt in his high school became unbearable.
He doesn’t stray far from home. He doesn’t go clubbing in Boston. And the one time he and Jacqui tried to go to the Bahamas, he turned around the morning after he landed and flew back.
This year, though, he wanted to celebrate Patriots' Day at the marathon with Jacqui and his older brother, JP. Their friend was running, and three other friends agreed to meet the Nordens and Jacqui near the end of the route.
“It’s always a good time,” JP says of Boston’s annual festivities. “It’s always fun.”
For years, Rice penned "S.U.P.E." on his game-day eye black.
Rice’s father was murdered when he was 1 year old, the accidental victim of a drive-by shooting. The man who became his father figure, cousin Myshaun Rice-Nichols, was killed 10 years later, in a car accident with a drunk driver. Rice-Nichols was a rapper with a recording contract. Rice remembers him as being the first member of his big extended family who said he’d accomplish something -- and then went out and did it. Rice-Nichols’s stage name was S.U.P.E.: Spiritually Uplifting People Everywhere.
“I tried to live life without excuses. What I lacked in not having my father around, I found in father figures,” Rice says.
Give it a minute, though, and Rice acknowledges it’s not that cut-and-dried when it comes to his dad.
“It riles you up sometimes. Because you’re like, ‘Why him? Why did this tragedy have to happen to him? What did he do to deserve it?’ ”
At 2:49 p.m. on April 15, the second bomb purportedly set by the Tsarnaev brothers went off, 210 yards down the street from, and 13 seconds after, the first. Those 13 seconds ticked in slow motion, JP Norden says. Everyone wondering what that first explosion was, running off the sidewalk and toward the street, trying to stay together and then ... BOOM.
Shrapnel sliced through Paul’s right leg. Then JP’s. A piece of the pressure cooker that housed the bomb’s innards wedged itself into JP’s gluteus. Shrapnel bombarded Jacqui’s right leg, and the blast set her rings on fire. Paul and JP apparently pushed Jacqui forward into the street and out of the bomb’s direct line; she had burns in the shape of hand prints on her back.
Paul knew his leg was gone right away. He saw the foot, attached to part of his calf, on the street. He wanted to pick it up, in case someone could sew it back on. JP was confused at first, wondering if someone punched him. Once he saw his right leg was gone, he started checking the rest of his body to see if anything else was missing and found a fire on his other leg.
“I started looking for my brother,” JP says. “I found him and his leg was off. But he was just fine.”
There’s an amateur video posted on YouTube that shows the whole scene: people running toward JP, flinging off their shirts and belts to make tourniquets. Paul sitting up, his white shirt tie-dyed in blood, coolly talking to bystanders huddled near his stump.
They were no more than a few feet apart, but Paul never saw JP. Jacqui saw Paul calling out for her and JP, but she couldn’t make eye contact. JP is sure he heard Paul talking on his phone, but he probably didn’t. JP’s eardrums were shattered. His hearing still hasn’t entirely come back, and even with two more surgeries up ahead, doctors aren’t optimistic it ever will.
“This guy kept wiping my face, telling me, ‘You’re going to be OK, you’re going to be OK,’ ” JP says. “I remember being real dizzy and (thinking), I’m not going to be OK.”
The Norden brothers’ nightmare tugged at TV anchors all across the cable networks: Two brothers, 16 months apart, sent to two different hospitals; neither knowing where the other was, both missing a right leg. Paul got through to his mother in the ambulance, but JP had lost his phone, and for nearly four hours, Liz Brown-Norden thought her first-born was dead.
Over the next few days, their siblings set up vigils at the two hospitals -- Brigham and Women’s for JP and Beth Israel for Paul. Jacqui was sent to Tufts. Liz shuttled between the hospitals as the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers played out across America’s television screens.
JP didn’t watch any of that footage. And for a solid eight days, his mother lied to him every time he asked to speak to Paul. He was in with the doctor: he was getting X-rays: he was sleeping. Liz said Paul was doing anything but what he was really doing: laying in a coma, wracked first by a fever, then pneumonia and eventually going septic.
Of course his mom lied to JP, Paul says; if his big brother had known the truth, “He probably would've tried to leave the hospital and come be with me.”
On the outside, baby sister Caitlin asked for prayers for her two brothers on CNN. Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty saw the TV clip, found Caitlin on Facebook and bought a gift basket for Paul and JP. It arrived, and Caitlin sent McCourty a grateful message, thanking him even as he asked if he could do more. Somewhere in the online conversation, she mentioned her one brother was a Ravens fan. McCourty immediately thought of his old Rutgers teammate, Ray Rice.
That same day, McCourty casually mentioned to his social marketing advisor, Jeff Weiner, that he needed to track down Rice. Weiner, friendly with Rice’s marketing manager, figured: Why wait? He contacted Ben Renzin, Rice’s manager, and Renzin immediately got Rice on the phone.
“I’m not going to be ashamed,” Rice says, even as he girds himself to say what comes next. “It brought me to tears. To find out what happened to this guy. And it was like, ‘Why him, out of all people?’ ”
The first thing Rice could think to do was record a video message on his phone. In the message, he’d invite Paul, JP and Jacqui to a Ravens game and wish them well. But as he started talking off the cuff, he felt a weight in his chest. This wasn’t just about sending prayers and thoughts. This wasn’t just about asking the Nordens to be strong.
“Just remember -- you guys are an inspiration to everyone out there watching, especially myself,” he said on that message. “Please be able to push through during this tough time, because as you continue to grind, I will as well.”
Months later, thinking back on his own emotion as he talked into the phone’s camera, Rice quietly says, “Recording that message was tough.”
“It just struck me in a way,” he says. “You don’t realize until somebody says they’re a big fan of yours and then you see them going through a real-life situation, how you affect them and how it affects you.”
The message was forwarded on to Caitlin Norden. Paul was still in a coma, Patriots fan JP candidly admits he wasn’t too moved, and then Paul woke up. His right leg was gone, he was consumed with worry his girlfriend wouldn’t want to be with a one-legged man and Caitlin showed him the message.
“It was the first time I smiled,” Paul says. “I mean, who am I? I’m a nobody and he’s an NFL superstar and he reached out to me.”
For Rice, it’s always been his mother and him. He says Janet is more best buddy than mom, the strongest person he knows. The 4-foot-11 sparkplug used to wear a helmet to his Rutgers games and still refuses his pleas to retire and let someone else work with special needs children. She’s the reason, Rice says, that he reaches out. The reason he works with an anti-bullying campaign, the reason he guest-bartends to raise money for various causes, the reason he befriends young cancer patients.
“It starts with her. My mom could've felt sorry for herself when it was just us in the house,” Rice says. But no, Rice and his siblings never went hungry. And along the way, Rice says, “you realize that everybody needs somebody. I was able to have her. I was blessed to have her by my side.
“I’m blessed and I’m fortunate to be playing a game that I love. I reach out because it makes me look back on where I’ve come from, where I’m at and where I’m going. … We wear the shield of being in the NFL, and I think it’s our job as pro athletes to get out there as much as we can.”
Having Paul, JP and Jacqui on the M&T Bank Stadium field at a game was supposed to be a small token of appreciation. Hearing their story, hearing of their spirit, it “pushed me,” Rice says. The Boston crew reminded him that each day is a gift. Then his manager called and instructed him to go back to the Nordens’ Facebook page and look at a logo. The one the Norden family had created to help support Paul and JP.
There’s an American flag blanketing the United States, the words “Standing Boston Strong” stretched along the top, JP and Paul’s names along the bottom and the phrase “Two Brothers, One Nation” on the left. The silhouettes of Paul and JP are in the middle. Paul’s on crutches and his shirt has a 27 on it. As in, the number Ray Rice wears.
Rice says he can’t lie: he teared up when he saw it.
“That was the most touching thing that, you know, I felt like I was being honored,” Rice says, stumbling over the words. “I felt totally attached. I saw it. It was just like, that -- that -- that’s truly remarkable.”
Paul and Jacqui are going to the Ravens’ home opener Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns; JP will have to miss it, as doctors take skin from his back to seal the flap on his stump. But before then, Rice invited them to come down to training camp. He didn’t want to wait that long to meet them.
Stairs are still scary for Paul, especially going down them. His artificial knee doesn’t bend on its own. The prosthetic foot has to land on the edge of the step to force the bend as the other leg comes down. Paul says he still has to think about the process of walking, that he can’t simply keep his “head up and just walk yet.”
Still, he’s not much for grading on a curve. His first day home, he grabbed his crutches and took one of his 50-pound boxers on a walk. Then he took the second one out. He was walking so quickly on his prosthetic that Jacqui proudly relates how wounded Marines expressed amazement when they saw Paul in action.
In the world of amputations, there is a universe of difference in whether a knee is saved or not. JP was able to keep his knee; Paul was not. JP thinks his surgeon would’ve been able to save Paul’s knee. But Paul is fine with how things are.
“I just wanted to get going,” Paul says. “I’m walking. Look at JP; he still has to use crutches. He’s in pain. He needs more surgeries. This was for the best.”
Paul was still in his bed, freshly awoken from the coma, when Rice’s invitation came through. He decided right then, with no knowledge of what actually lay ahead, that he’d be walking by that game. He doesn’t want to say he needed that goal to accomplish everything that’s happened so far. Still, he smiles and says of having that Week 2 target date: “It probably helped a little.”
Jacqui is a dynamo, as bubbly as Paul is reserved. After seven years together, they’d be the yin to each other’s yang if they didn’t share the exact same brand of warmth. And resolve. And heart-wrenching matter-of-factness. Paul lets a stranger feel the BB still stuck in his neck, Jacqui allowing the same of the shrapnel almost poking through her calf. And no, she never even considered leaving him.
Third-degree burns covered much of Jacqui’s right leg. She’s had six surgeries to remove shrapnel , to clean out burns, to clamp together bits of her leg -- and she’ll still need 4-6 more. She shouted down doctors’ talk of taking her leg, and then, when her surgeon discussed cutting skin from her left thigh to graft onto the hole on her right calf, she said no again. She had one unmarked leg left and she’d like to leave it that way, thank you very much.
She worked her way to Massachusetts General Hospital and found a surgeon whose proposal included using skin from her backside and having her out of the hospital in one day – as opposed to one week, like Tufts was telling her. The irony is that, had she logged those extra hospital days, she would have bumped to another category in the One Fund’s distribution scale and been given a lot more money.
She wasn’t thinking about that then; she was thinking about getting home, and getting back to her work as a realtor. She’s essentially a small business owner; there was no guaranteed unemployment to claim and no promise her business would be there if she took a whole summer off. Paul used to build roofs as a member of the sheet metal union. He’ll never be able to go back to his work.
When the call about visiting the Ravens’ training camp came in, Jacqui told Paul: Anxiety be damned, I’m taking you.
Paul pinched himself purple the whole day. Ravens director of media relations Chad Steele walked Paul and Jacqui onto the practice field, Terrell Suggs swung by and Paul’s eyes bugged: “Do you know who that was?!” he demanded of Jacqui.
After 30 minutes of open practice, the Ravens’ local media went inside and Steele kept the two Boston natives on the field. They walked and talked, and then Steele handed Paul his phone. Ray Lewis was on the other end. Paul’s eyes went even bigger and he exclaimed, “I can’t talk to him. What would I say?!”
Paul and Jacqui toured the facility, taking pictures everywhere. At the end of practice, as the Ravens came off the field, Rice broke away and came toward them.
Over the first few minutes, the conversation was all hi/hellos, a stilted chat between two men who didn’t want to say anything hokey. Then Rice said something to Paul about proposing to Jacqui. Poker-faced, Paul said, “This isn’t my girlfriend.” A panicked Rice looked around in disbelief -- He brought ANOTHER girl?! -- before realizing Paul was messing with him. Rice grinned, wearing that look that said, This joker’s a lot like me.
The brothers and Jacqui got all sorts of visitors when they were in the hospital. JP met Michelle Obama, although he admits he was so doped up he thought the First Lady was a physician’s assistant. The Patriots’ Stevan Ridley and Rob Gronkowski visited Jacqui’s hospital room. But the best, the coolest, was Kevin Spacey. Because the Academy Award-winning actor walked into Paul’s room and immediately called all his friends dirty names.
“He was just a funny guy,” Paul says. “You just feel like yourself for that whatever amount of time. It's like you're your old self because you stop focusing on what happened or what's going on.”
Paul is asked to break it down: What percent of the time does he feel like himself? Five percent, he says. “He was never good at math,” JP deadpans from across the room.
There’s a hurt here, one that makes JP’s heart ache more for Paul than for himself. The Nordens have stayed pointedly apolitical on bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brother who lived.
“People ask me all the time if I hate him,” Paul says. “I tell them I don’t know him -- how can I hate him? I’m just concentrating on me.”
But JP says he can’t compartmentalize his feelings anymore. Not when he looks at Paul. “I hate what he did to -- when I see my brother, I -- it hurts,” JP says, trying to find the right words.
An hour later, Paul will say something eerily similar about his brother’s pain: “It's easy for myself to deal with it because in my head it's just -- I'm just going to deal with it and get through it. But to see him going through it? It's tough. It's just not ... it's … life's not fair.”
Paul and JP had gone into Boston separately that day. JP ran into another friend from the brothers’ hometown of Woburn, one who invited him to grab a beer. JP said maybe later -- he wanted to meet up with his brother first. Paul thinks about that every so often. If JP had grabbed that beer, he’d still have a right leg. Of course, they have talked about it. And every time, JP says the same thing to Paul.
“He's glad he was there,” Paul relates, “because he doesn't think he would've been able to deal with it if he wasn't.”
There’s no bright side. There’s nothing better about two men losing legs. But there is something tangible in facing this alongside each other.
Earlier in the day, leaning against a kitchen counter, Paul complained about not being able to rake the leaves, about not being able to do things he’s always taken for granted. He was talking about the bad days and frankly, the days he hates his life.
JP said nothing then, but some two hours later, he brings it up: “Paul complains about not being able to rake. It’s not like he ever did it before. We have a younger brother, you know?”
The Ravens are defending Super Bowl champions. With Lewis retired, leadership falls to quarterback Joe Flacco and Rice, a responsibility both already had begun embracing in recent years. Rice signed a contract that secured his daughter’s future last summer.
Paul’s right hand needs to be broken and surgically repaired. JP has the upcoming surgery on his right stump, then one in October to remove an extra bone that grew out of calcium deposits in his left leg. Jacqui still has laser procedures ahead. But she’s back at work. Paul is walking. And JP is working out at a gym, feeling shy every time someone walks up and calls him an inspiration.
Both brothers chafe when they are mistaken for injured servicemen. Paul says, “I’m just a regular guy. I didn’t serve the country.”
Maybe not in the traditional sense. But he is a mark of resilience. He does say he won’t break and he promises the bombs won’t win. He is what America fancies itself.
“You can easily choose to give up on yourself,” Rice says. “ You can choose to give up on anything that you've decided to go out there and want to do. And that's not what Paul has chosen to do. That's what makes him a hero.
“He might've called himself a nobody, but to me, you know, this guy will personally change my life.”
Back in Woburn, it isn’t all rosy horizons. Paul is struggling with his insurance company over referrals and coverages to get back to rehab work at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital (a building whose roof he helped lay in his previous life). Prosthetic legs cost anywhere from $100,000 to $140,000, and Paul said he was told he’ll need a new one every 3-5 years. Showering went from being a five-minute process to one that takes 40. And yet, JP says exactly what one expects him to say after five minutes of sitting with him.
“You can’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself -- that isn’t going to help you,” he says. He swears the changes aren’t all bad. “It made me look at life a little different and think of how to maybe live a little better. You think of more things to do now in life because this could happen anytime.”
More things to do and more people to meet -- like football players. Paul has unabashedly told every Patriot he’s met that he’s a Ravens fan. So of course he would tell Robert Kraft the same when the Patriots owner came to visit him at Spaulding.
“He was great about it,” Paul says. “He said, ‘That’s fine. Just as long as you’re not a Jets fan.’ ”
That day at the Ravens facility, Paul, Jacqui and Ray fell into an easy banter. They bonded over all being raised by exceptionally hard-working single mothers. Rice told Paul he thinks he’s “a miracle.” Paul shyly shook his head and thanked Rice for making him feel like a kid whose every dream came true. Later on, Paul said, “It felt like he was one of us.”
After signing his rookie contract, Rice bought his mother an apartment across the way from the Hollows, the New Rochelle, N.Y. housing project he grew up in. Last summer, after signing a five-year, $40 million deal, Rice bought his mother a house. A whole, big house.
Paul and Jacqui just bought a house, too. It’s catty-corner to the home of Jacqui’s mother, it has a third floor Paul has already commandeered as his “Ravens Room,” and they’ll close Sept. 18. Paul and his father already painted the great room in the back. It’s a whole, big house, and from the soft yellow paint outside to the gleaming hardwood floors, it quietly says one thing: Hope.
“I don’t want my life,” Paul says, “to be based on the marathon.”
Aditi Kinkhabwala is a reporter for NFL Media. Follow her on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.
Image credits: Stew Milne, Boston Globe, Getty Images, Associated Press