Thursday, February 2, 2012

Battler of Bunker Hill: Brewster Captain Aaron Titcomb Looks Toward Future

His face jumps out at me right away, producing a muted ‘wow’.  Then I realize I’m looking up at this hulking youngster, not always common when you’re 6’2”. Clad in a Bruins hoodie and carrying the manners that have seemingly dwindled to a rarity among his peers, 18-year-old Aaron Titcomb politely orders the turkey tips at the Nines and readies himself for what could be painful topics.

Titcomb, a 6’4”, 200 lb. defenseman from Charlestown and senior captain on the Brewster Academy hockey team, has an easygoing, happy-go-lucky demeanor. Hoping to finish up his pre-college career with a flourish, Titcomb is aiming to catch the eyes of a few more scouts in his quest to put a hat on some unfinished family business. He wants to do what his father was derailed from doing. That consisted of taking advantage of natural skills, parlaying those into a hockey scholarship, and playing professionally somewhere some day. Oh, and he’s also taking on this task after suffering a broken neck  (broken C-3 and fractured C-4 verterbrae as well as a concussion) just two years ago.

Born in May of 1993, Titcomb, in true Townie fashion, was taught by his grandmother how to skate in the place that Hollywood would later morph into Ben Affleck’s post-score meeting spot. Like pretty much every tyke thrown to the wolves that is a sheet of frozen water, Titcomb got his verdict right away---that boy can skate. He proudly donned the fabled, if not the original, Monument of Charlestown Youth Hockey until squirts. From there, the talented, swift-skating D-man joined a series of traveling teams and invite squads over the next few years so he could play up to the level of his skills until high school came calling.

Titcomb settled on Austin Prep, a perennially solid contender and launching pad for another son of Charlestown, Tommy Fitzgerald, who had a lengthy, successful career as an NHL checking line extraordinaire. He jumped right into a big role for a freshman---#3 on the defenseman chart.

After an impressive rookie campaign, Titcomb played himself up to the #1 backliner for a ranked squad. He played in all situations because of his talent and reliability. He was poised be the team’s best player in his junior year, infrequent for a D-man in MA HS hockey, and also be in a good spot to perhaps be the last man standing at the Garden.

This is where the trajectory of Titcomb’s hockey future was forever altered, from a rising star to burning comet to, hopefully, a skyward rocket once again. Instead of returning to AP, he opted to join the then-Bridgewater Bandits of the burgeoning Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL). With its competitive environment and the success of flyover country’s junior USHL, Titcomb and his family decided to leave AP. It wasn’t an easy decision. “But we thought it was the best decision”, said Titcomb.

Through no fault of his own, things started off rough and only got rougher. In Titcomb’s first game, he broke his collarbone, an injury that would shelve him for three months. Incredibly, he finished the game after suffering what is often described as one of the most painful bone breaks you can take without passing out from pain. Not only did it reveal Titcomb’s heart and desire for the game, it showed he had an incredible pain tolerance. But even pain tolerance can’t outrun a broken neck.

In just his seventh game back after the collapsed clavicle, Titcomb suffered the unthinkable. While finishing a play behind his net, he was crushed from behind and immediately fell into a heap (the kid who hit him was tossed from the league for the hit). After being down for several minutes, Titcomb somehow managed to skate to the bench under his own power. With a broken neck. And, oh yeah, he was expecting to go back out for his next shift. But fortunately, the ambulance personnel, fire fighter in attendance, and coach recognized just how hurt he was and immediately stabilized his neck before he was taken off by ambulance. For the next seven months, Aaron had to wear a neck brace and could not skate for seven months.

“Adversity is similar to proving people wrong”, said Titcomb. And this was just his latest bit of adversity. The first time adversity hit Titcomb’s life, even if he was unaware it had, was when his father, Albert (Albie to those who knew him), was murdered in cowardly cold blood by a lifelong alleged chum. In the interest of full disclosure, I knew Albie on a better-than-casual but not quite “we boys” level. We played quite a bit of street/ball/gym hockey against each other and always were very cordial to each other. In the confines of our one square mile, he was a hell of player with a bomb of a shot, whether on parquet or ice. He certainly had the skill to play, at minimum, a D2 school. But, like so many of our peers, he fell victim to foreign substances that robbed him of his potential. That was bad enough. Sickeningly, it was one of his own peers, in a truly delusional power trip, which robbed him of his life over nothing, really.

But Aaron is determined to fulfill the void that his dad unintentionally left for him. In fact, he feels like that’s his destiny right now. “Yeah, I definitely want to fill those footsteps my dad wasn’t able to. Everybody tells me he was a great player and I want to finish what he started.” So far, his career at Brewster has put him on the path to success after such a debilitating injury. Last season, as a junior, he led the team in points while manning the role of #1 defenseman. This year, he was unanimously voted team captain of the Bobcats and his teammates haven’t regretted their choice one bit, as Titcomb’s durable two-way play helps his team immensely. “Shea Weber and Keith Yandle [another descendant of C’town] are the two players I model myself after”. Pretty good role models.

In addition to his skills on the ice, Titcomb also is on track to be a Magna Cum Laude graduate. Furthering his hockey career and being a top-notch student aren’t the only things he wants to do. “I want to inspire other kids who had similar situations, I hope to give back”, he said.

But, he wants to make sure that I know none of this happens without the guidance and stewardship of his mother Mary (Johnson) Gillen. It’s pretty clear that she is his main inspiration. “Look at her”, he’d often tell himself. A teenaged single mother that lost any lingering hope of growing up as a family after Albie’s death, Mary soldiered on and, in the process, set an excellent example for her son that he still follows to this day. He also credits his grandparents and his step-father Jimmy Gillen (again, full disclosure, I’ve known Jimmy for almost 30 years) for instilling in him the strength and confidence to fight through adversity. “He (Jimmy) has really made work hard and pushed me toward making a name for myself and that’s the only thing I want to do.”

Right now, the future is in Titcomb’s hands. And there’s no other way he’d rather have it. Rather than regrets about past events or despair about his upbringing, this kid is just happy to look ahead to what’s around the bend. Still, that doesn’t mean he forgets about what has happened. Hardly. Instead, Titcomb has a constant reminder that he wears around his neck. It’s a picture of his dad; the dad he never got to know yet the one whose dreams he can still complete.

“I’m not going to be satisfied until I play on a professional level,” he tells me.

I won’t be surprised if he’s satisfied, at all.