Sweeney was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED) in October 2009 while serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan.
PORTLAND, Oregon – When retired Marine Corps Sgt. Josh Sweeney recounts his inspirational journey following an explosion that took both his legs in Afghanistan, he leaves out an important detail: His gold-medal winning goal.
Sweeney played on the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team that beat the Russians 1-0 earlier this year in Sochi. He shot the game’s lone goal in the second period at Shayba Arena, giving the Unites States its second straight gold medal in the event.
Chided about omitting the detail, Sweeney laughed.
“I still feel pretty lucky to be able to have done that,” he said. “I try not to take too much credit for it.”
He also doesn’t mention that he’s been honored with a Purple Heart for his service in the Marines.
Sweeney will receive the inaugural Pat Tillman Award for Service at the 2014 ESPY Awards on July 16. The award is being presented in conjunction with the Pat Tillman Foundation, which invests in military veterans and their spouses through educational scholarships.
Pat Tillman died in action in Afghanistan in 2004 after leaving the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother Kevin.
“While the ESPYs celebrate the best accomplishments from the year in sports, we remain committed to social responsibility and the heart of the show has always been the presentation of the signature awards which, in the name of Arthur Ashe and Jim Valvano, annually honor leaders who make an impact far beyond sports,” said Connor Schell, vice president of ESPN Films and Original Entertainment. “We are proud to add Pat Tillman’s commitment to service and selflessness as another pillar of the ESPYs. Josh Sweeney’s dedication and achievements make him a deserving recipient. “
Stuart Scott, the ESPN broadcaster who has battled cancer, has been named recipient for the Jimmy V Perseverance Award, and Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, will be awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
Sweeney grew up in Arizona and started playing hockey to get out of the heat. He joined the Marines in 2005 following high school.
On his second deployment, Sweeney stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving in Nowzad, Afghanistan, in 2009. He suffered severe injuries to his arm in addition to his legs.
One of his first thoughts when he started his arduous recovery was that he’d never play hockey again.
With both of his legs amputated as a result of his injuries, Sweeney faced months on rehabilitation. He ended up at a facility in San Antonio, where he happened to hear about a sled hockey team, the Rampage.
“It was the same feeling as when I was in high school or even junior high – just being out there with some buddies and passing the puck around, shooting the puck – that feeling when you step out on the field or the ice, whatever your sport,” he said. “Right then and there I knew it was something that I loved.”
Sweeney’s coach pointed him to the U.S. national team. That led to Sochi.
“It was awesome being able to represent my country again in a different way,” he said.
Sweeney recently moved to Hillsboro, Oregon, with his wife Amber. Although he’s still with the national team, he’s hoping to put together a sled hockey team in his new home, and has been working with the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.
“After being injured you think, ‘What can I do now?’ or ‘What are my limitations?’ Being out there on the ice and seeing what I could do helped make me feel better about myself,” Sweeney said. “The fact that it was so hard to get to where I am today – the training was just endless and some days it felt like I got on the ice for no reason at all and I wasn’t getting any better – it really helped me emotionally to push through and look at the right things I was doing. The positive things.”
The 2014 ESPYS, hosted by Drake, will be televised live July 16, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN from Los Angeles.