Sitting down to lunch with Kirk Daubenspeck last week, listening to him embrace his extraordinary life, I couldn't help but recall one of the best, most underrated movie scenes of all time.
The final frames of the World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan" are winding down when the Tom Hanks character uses his final breaths to give the Matt Damon character the task of a lifetime.
Hanks is cast as a U.S. Army captain who led seven soldiers on an assignment to find Damon in the days following the invasion of Normandy. Damon plays the last surviving brother of four servicemen, who is being summoned home.
The mission is nearly complete when Hanks, mortally wounded, gives Damon a powerful, everlasting reminder that six men gave their lives in order to rescue him.
"Earn this," Damon is told. "Earn it."
There is nothing fictional about the life and near-death of Daubenspeck, the Madison product and one-time record-setting goalie for the University of Wisconsin men's hockey team. There is no script and there are no stunts.
What is real, and wonderful, is that Daubenspeck has been saved through the efforts of many. Remnants of their selflessness, generosity, expertise and support will accompany him to an anniversary celebration Friday night at the Kohl Center.
Exactly a year will have passed since his 2006 Acura slammed into a slow-moving semi truck on a foggy stretch of highway near Dodgeville. The top of the vehicle was sheared away, creating a horrific visual that prompted the first policeman on the scene to expect that a fatality was inside.
Daubenspeck still doesn't recall ducking below the dashboard an instant before impact, an athletic move that saved his life. He doesn't remember the severe brain injury that left him in a coma for six days. He doesn't have memories of five-plus weeks he spent in the hospital.
Yet when Daubenspeck drops the ceremonial puck for a Western Collegiate Hockey Association series between UW and Denver, he will do so acutely aware of his great fortune.
He knows that a host of UW players — those who were his teammates from 1993 to '97 and others — dropped what they were doing and came to his aid. He knows that more than $100,000 was raised to defray his medical costs. He knows that complete strangers contributed to that endeavor and it's unlikely that he'll ever be able to properly thank them all.
In the 360 days since the accident, Daubenspeck has become a father again — he and his wife, Peggy, now have a 4-month-old daughter named Elsa and a 2-year-old son named Axel — and he has happily returned to work full-time as a medical equipment salesman.
"I'm (darn) proud of the distance I've come," he said.
Daubenspeck, 37, no longer uses a cane to get around, but has bouts of anxiousness and struggles with subtle aspects of coordination such as brushing his teeth with a circular, up-and-down motion. He had 20/20 vision before the accident, but now squints at the large menu board and acknowledges the need for glasses. He also makes a point of taking careful notes after a business call so as not to let a key detail slip into oblivion.
"I'm waiting for a ‘Come to Jesus' moment," Daubenspeck said of his recovery, but in the next breath he notes that "it's a miracle in more ways than one."
He said every important relationship in his life has been somehow enriched by the trials and triumphs of the last year. He said everything in his life pales in comparison to what awaits him at home every night.
"My family is my whole life," Daubenspeck said. "It's truly a spiritual dedication."
The final scene of "Saving Private Ryan" shows the Damon character reflecting on his life while standing near the tombstones of Normandy. He tearfully asks his wife if he's been a good man and if he's lived a good life. In other words, was he worthy of the all the sacrifices made on his behalf?
Daubenspeck has embarked upon a similar journey. May he earn it as well.
Contact Andy Baggot at email@example.com or 608-252-6175.