Rick and Dick Hoyt and the Power of Family

March 25, 2021

3 min read


Incredible things can happen when you do things together.

One day in 1962, after nine months of joyful anticipation of the birth of Dick and Judy Hoyt’s first child, Rick, something went terribly wrong. During the delivery, the umbilical cord coiled around Rick’s neck, cutting off oxygen to his brain. The baby was born brain-damaged and quadriplegic, coupled with cerebral palsy. The doctors said that the child would be a vegetable all his life and recommended putting him into an institution.

Dick and Judy refused. They brought their son home, determined to make the best of the situation. Although Rick could neither talk nor move, Dick and Judy were convinced that he comprehended what was going on around him and that he was as intelligent as his two younger brothers. Rick was 11 years old when his parents raised $5,000 and approached computer engineers at Tufts University to build a computer that would allow Rick to communicate using the only motion he controlled, slight lateral head movements. The engineers refused, saying that the boy had nothing to communicate because nothing was happening inside his brain.

"It's not true," Dick insisted. "Tell him a joke." One engineer told a joke and Rick laughed heartily. A few months later, the computer arrived at the Hoyt household. By pressing a switch at the side of his head, Rick typed out his first words, "Go Bruins." After seeing some friends run a 5k race, Rick decided that he wanted to do that. Over the past 44 years, father and son, with Dick pushing Rick in a wheelchair, have together run over 1000 races, including 224 triathlons and 6 Ironman competitions, as well as the Boston Marathon, running the venerable course of 26.2 miles 32 times to the thunderous cheers of the spectators.

Dick Hoyt passed away last week at the age of 80.

There are so many lessons to learn from the Hoyts. Lessons about not giving up and perseverance. Lessons about making lemonade out of lemons. Lessons about love and determination. But when I think of the Hoyts, I don’t think of two individuals; I think of a family acting courageously together.

The Talmud relates the familiar story of Nachshon ben Aminadav and his literal leap of faith. The Jewish people arrive at the Red Sea only to look back and find the Egyptians quickly closing in on them. Faced with the vast ocean on one side and a vicious and vengeful Egyptian army on the other side, they are frozen with fear.

Nobody wants to be the first one to jump in. Amidst a vacuum of leadership and great confusion, Nachshon ben Aminadav begins walking into the ocean. The entire Jewish People watches with bated breath as he wades in until finally, with the water up to his nose, the sea splits before him.

But the Talmud brings a second, lesser-known version of this incident. Yes, there was still fear, uncertainty, and confusion, and yes, there was still fighting among the tribes, but not because nobody wanted to go in… Rather because everyone wanted to go in first. Everyone is arguing about who should jump in first and amidst the confusion, the tribe of Benjamin takes the plunge and splits the sea.

Why are there two versions of the same story?

According to the first, well-known version, what Nachshon ben Aminadav did was incredible. It was heroic, fearless, courageous, and even somewhat superhuman. But it was the action of an individual; it was one person acting bravely. The second version is the story not of an individual, but of a family that chose to act as a brave and courageous team.

By highlighting this second version of the story, the Rabbis are telling us that while the actions of an individual are incredible and what Nachshon did deserves our admiration, there’s an even higher level to aspire to, and that’s the story of a tribe, of a family that chooses together to affect change, cause redemption, and be an inspiration to millennia of Jews that will follow.

Team Hoyt are the paradigm of what can be accomplished not as individuals, but as a family working together.

Redemption won’t come through the acts of individuals; redemption comes when the parents and children will return to God together, when families and groups of people make courageous decisions.

Dick and Rick were referred to as “Team Hoyt” and helped drive a profound shift in the treatment of people with disabilities. And they did it as a true team. They were a father-and-son duo creating redemption together. They are the paradigm of what can be accomplished not as individuals, but as a family working together.

There are many opportunities to achieve greatness in our own personal lives. There are many chances to become our own, unique version of a Nachshon ben Aminadav. But the lesson of the Hoyts and the lesson of the other, lesser-known version of the splitting of the sea Is that incredible things can happen when you do things together. When you involve your family, loved ones, close friends, or community in achieving greatness.

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