“Say something philosophical.”
After diagnosis as paraplegic, professor becomes men’s lacrosse team’s personal philosopher
November 21, 2014
Paul Bagley was on his way home from the ophthalmologist in Towson the day of the car accident.
He was sitting at the traffic light across from the Towson Town Center mall in December 2008. The light changed to green. He pulled into the street. A car driving from the opposite direction T-boned him in the intersection.
Hours later, he was diagnosed as a paraplegic.
Bagley, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at Loyola, can’t stand on his own for an extended period of time. His wife, Susan, drives him to and from campus during the academic year. He travels around the Evergreen campus in a motorized wheelchair that has the ability to open and close his office door with the push of a button.
Despite these obvious challenges, Bagley describes his physical state as merely a limitation.
“It is obvious that there are things I don’t do now that I would like to do,” Bagley said, referring to his condition. “But I don’t feel as if I’ve lost anything.”
The first few weeks after the accident are a heavily medicated blur for Bagley. There’s a memory of a helicopter ride. He hardly recalls the visits from Rev. Tim Brown, S.J., associate professor of law and social responsibility, and Rev. Jack Dennis, S.J., former director of Campus Ministry.
Through it all, he’s thankful to be alive.
“After being T-boned and flipped over, the only thing I had was a cut on the top of my head. No broken bones. Just a cut on the top of my head… and this thing,” he said, pointing to his chair with a laugh.
“But everything works. God was good in that regard,” he said.
Bagley’s injuries included a broken neck and an “incomplete” spinal cord injury. Because his spinal cord injury was incomplete, there’s hope he can fully recover neural and muscular function.
While he doesn’t plan on taking up surfing anytime soon, walking from his office to the classroom would be nice. “There’s hope on the horizon,” he said.
That’s Bagley’s mindset: hopeful. He’s never thought of his condition as an obstacle.
“I don’t have an obstacle mentality,” he said. “Can I read? Yes. Can I write? Yes. Can I speak with people? Yes. Am I still able to laugh? Yes.”
His ability to pray has not been affected, either. None of the important stuff has been lost, he said.
Of course, that depends on how you choose to look at the situation. And Bagley’s viewpoint is unique.
“St. Augustine says that sin basically comes from libido—the desire for possession of things—but it’s always things that can be taken away from you against your will. It’s an interesting way of thinking about it. If those are the sources of your enjoyment or your sense of self-worth, but someone can take them away from you whether you want them to or not, then you are left with little.”
Make no mistake; Bagley doesn’t consider himself stoic. This has been his frame of mind long before the accident.
His father was in the military. Bagley was born in Germany and moved several times around the United States and to Italy during his childhood. He was diagnosed with diabetes at age 18, followed by kidney failure in 2000. He was on dialysis for about two years, and underwent kidney and pancreas transplants in 2002. And then the car accident occurred in 2008.
So when it comes to overcoming an obstacle, Bagley says you must persevere.
“Go around it. Go under it. Go over it. Go through it. There are a variety of ways,” he said, pausing. “But I don’t see this as an obstacle to anything.”
“Say something philosophical”
Following the accident, Bagley stopped teaching for a full calendar year before returning to Loyola for the spring 2010 semester. On his first day back in the classroom, he told his students that neither his teaching style nor the course material had changed—and he reassured the many students he was meeting for the first time, who may have heard rumors.
“You think it’s awkward for you. It’s awkward for me, too,” he told his students, with a laugh, referring to his wheelchair.
Shortly after his return, he wheeled by Ridley Athletic Complex one afternoon to watch a lacrosse practice, and he stopped to chat with the team.
One of the players said, “Say something philosophical.” Laughter followed, but Bagley agreed to the request.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said. And that’s where it began.
Bagley, who knew nothing about lacrosse until he began teaching at Loyola in 1990, began stopping by practice every week to “say something philosophical.” His quotes became a weekly chat with a theme relating to philosophy, adversity, and winning versus losing.
Later his inspirational drop-ins evolved to include an email, which he would send to the team before and after every game, whether they won or were defeated.
Bagley’s email themes have varied for each season, as players and personalities change. He has focused on everything from ancient philosophers to the HBO show, The Wire. But one thing is consistent: Each week, Bagley’s words of inspiration are what the players take with them as they take the field for a match.
Of these pep talks, Bagley said, “I just get a joy out of being able to appreciate what our student-athletes do and how they do it… how committed they are to each other and to Loyola. That’s enough.”
He’s still able to do what he loves to do— teach at Loyola. Being the lacrosse team’s personal philosopher is an added bonus, he said.
A lacrosse ball covered with black ink sits atop a cabinet in Bagley’s office in the basement of the Humanities Center.
Closer examination reveals the inky scribbles are the signatures of members of the 2009 men’s lacrosse team. The ball was signed by each player after one of their first games in spring 2009 against Towson.
After the game, the four team captains brought the ball to Bagley’s house, where the professor was recovering from the accident.
The lacrosse ball is just one part of what he jokingly refers to as his “shrine,” the corner of his office filled with photos and memorabilia of Loyola’s men’s lacrosse team throughout the years.
“Lacrosse has committed to me, some way or another. And I’m very committed to them.”
“I’m glad that what is provided to them here has made a positive influence on them and on their lives. Ignatius, in the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, says that the ambition of this education is to send people into the world to leaven it effectively for the good,” he said, with tears.
“I see that go on here. And it’s a good thing.”