Family says Daily Herald articles 'reduced the fear factor'

  • Alex Novak, then 15, received a visit from former St. Francis varsity football coach Greg Purnell. Novak was injured in a bike accident in August 2012.

      Alex Novak, then 15, received a visit from former St. Francis varsity football coach Greg Purnell. Novak was injured in a bike accident in August 2012. Mark Black | Staff Photographer, January 2013

  • Alex Novak, now 17, has been named an honorary captain on the football team at St. Francis High School in Wheaton.

    Alex Novak, now 17, has been named an honorary captain on the football team at St. Francis High School in Wheaton. Courtesy of Larry Novak

Posted10/4/2015 6:12 AM

The moments leading up to Alex Novak's accident, ordinary then, now seem surreal.

The 15-year-old is eager to start in his first high school football game. He has a bright future. Boy Scout. Black belt in karate.


He finishes helping his sister pack for college. Then he takes a bike ride on a summer evening.

And in an instant, that all changes when he is struck by a van. He suffers severe brain injuries.

His parents opened up their home and their new reality to the Daily Herald as we set out to capture how the community was embracing the teen. The stories touched off financial support, to be sure, as the Novaks faced overwhelming quality-of-life costs for their son. But the family also heard from readers, strangers to them, who mailed letters and offered encouragement.

"The community support has made this disaster situation livable," Alex's dad, Larry, said. "I can't imagine what life would have been like without all the input and support."

His mom, Donna, said the stories put a "human" face on her son's medical needs.

"One of the things I think it did tremendously, the articles, it reduced the fear factor," his dad says. "To see someone in a wheelchair, maybe you're afraid to come up to him. But after reading the articles, people understood and wanted to come up to him and reach him and interact."

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Three years after the accident, those medical needs are still ever-present. He receives speech, physical and occupational therapy at Wheaton North High School. His family has moved to a Winfield home, where they hope to install pavers and a wheelchair lift so Alex can use the pool for more therapy.

But the community's support hasn't subsided either. Alex, 17, has been made an honorary captain on the St. Francis football team, and he represented the Spartans during the coin flip at the homecoming game. He joins the band on the field during halftime performances with a trumpet, the instrument he played before the accident.

"The challenges are easier to take day to day with the help of others," his dad says.

This is an abbreviated version of a Daily Herald story on Alex Novak published Jan. 19, 2013:

Step inside the Novak family home in West Chicago and two things immediately wrestle for your attention.

First, there's the Christmas tree, still meant as a symbol of joy even in the middle of January.


Then, next to the sofa, there's the hospital bed and the maze of buzzing electrical equipment.

On this evening, Alex Novak, 15, is sitting in his wheelchair, wearing his St. Francis High School football jersey and taking his nutrition through a tube because he cannot swallow.

Just five months ago, his life was much different. It was Aug. 18. He had just finished helping his sister, Raquel, pack for college. And now he was riding his bike, just blocks from home, when he was struck by a van.

The accident left him with severe brain injuries. He would spend the next six weeks in a coma.

Months later, he still requires 20 medications. He breathes through a tracheal tube. A vibration vest helps him cough.

If you can look beyond the medical equipment, you'll see a photograph on a wall in the Novak house. It's a framed picture of the St. Francis football team, signed by the athletes who wore Alex's jersey number on their helmets for every game this past season.

"We're doing our best to improve his life as he has always improved the others that have interacted with him," his dad Larry says.

Before heading off for St. Francis, Alex attended St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Winfield. This week, Mike Zierk, coach of that school's seventh-grade girls basketball team, and some of his players presented Alex and his family with a check for about $1,500.

Zierk originally hatched a plan to raise funds to replace the aging sound system in the Winfield school's gym and organized a pub crawl to support the cause. But he switched gears once he learned about the accident through his daughter Shannon, a longtime friend of Alex's sister.

He set aside the proceeds of the pub crawl for Alex, then created a program in which parents and fans could contribute money based on how members of his basketball team played last Sunday -- maybe 25 cents for a layup or 50 cents for a steal.

"After the game, people came up to me and just handed me money," Zierk says. "One guy handed me four $100 bills."

The family takes some comfort in the help offered by people like Zierk, in the visit by St. Francis students who came to the house to sing Christmas carols. But there is pain there, too.

"He's a good kid," Larry Novak says. "Bad things shouldn't happen to good kids."

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