A nod to a Boston Marathon hero

Jack Foley. (Matthew Hall/Staff Photographer)

There are heroes among us, but you can't pick them out ahead of time. It might be they don't even know themselves, not until the moment that decides.

Jack Foley was at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in April, wearing the white windbreaker that identified the medical personnel on hand. Foley has been an athletic trainer for 35 years and he has worked big events from the Penn Relays to the Atlanta Olympics. This was his second time volunteering at Boston. A year earlier, it had been horribly hot and humid for the race and the medical team had its hands full. This time, the weather was cooperating. Everything was proceeding normally. And then it was 2:49 p.m. The moment that decided.

"My first thought was we had blown a transformer," Foley said. "We had been having trouble with the timing device at the finish line. They had been fooling with that. So that was my initial reaction, but then the second blast occurred and I knew that it was real. The sounds grew louder, the screaming, the fear, the disbelief was real."

Foley has spent his adult lifetime preparing to help those who need him. He grew up in Flourtown, one of 12 children, attended Bishop McDevitt High School and always thought he would go into coaching like his father. Along the way, as he played sports and saw the work of the trainers who helped, Foley decided that would be his path. After college, he found work at Penn and Delaware Valley College and then was hired in 1987 by Lehigh, where he is now the director of sports medicine and assistant athletic director.

At the 110th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association awards banquet on Monday night, Jack Foley was honored with the 2014 Most Courageous Athlete Award. After 35 years as an athletic trainer, his moment arrived at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

"People ask me. It's a common question. 'Are you glad you went?' 'Are you glad you were there?' Or, more importantly, 'Do you wish you didn't go?' I say, 'No, I'm glad I was there.' I was glad I made the right decision and went the right way."

Foley was 30 yards from the grandstand when the first blast went off, and had just started to move in that direction when the second one confirmed what was taking place.

"Then, it's just what do you want to do? The question you ask is, 'How would you react.' That will define you to a large part from that point on," Foley said.

He ran to a fallen runner just in front of the grandstand, an older runner who had not been hurt by the blast but had been knocked to the ground by the concussion. Foley saw that he was all right and moved immediately toward the smoking area of the grandstand itself.

"There was a loud voice yelling, 'Medical, medical! Need you now!' " Foley said. "There were people screaming in horror at what they were seeing. They were about fear, about looking for help. You are hearing that and there was that smell . . . a strong smell from the blast. We got in, and there was a lot of blood, a lot of blood on the pavement. I can tell you that the sounds were unreal as people were trying to flee the area and they were slipping on blood."

He did what heroes do in those moments. He stopped the bleeding where he could, prepared the injured to be transported for further care. He assessed which needed the most help, which could wait, which just needed a hand or a calming word. There among the noise and the panic and the chaos, with no guarantee there wouldn't be a third blast or a fourth, Foley and the other athletic trainers and medical personnel did what they always hoped they would do if that awful moment ever came.

They evacuated 97 people in 22 minutes, sending them to nine emergency rooms. When the last of the injured had been removed, the police hustled Foley and the others out of the area so it could be locked down and swept for more explosives.

Foley looked at his watch. So little time had passed, but nothing would ever be the same. They went back to the hotel and watched the video from the finish line. You could pick out Foley, gimping on an arthritic knee over the fence that separated the street from the victims. The same scenes flickered over and over again, but nobody said much. There wasn't anything to say.

"For me, it was probably a good month of processing because what was so real to me was the sounds and the smell. I went back, but I wasn't ready to work," Foley said. "I had to process it and I can tell you there were certain days if there was a fire whistle or an engine coming down the street, it took me right back there."

It's a tough way to get the answer to the question, although Foley probably knew the answer all along. If people needed help, he was going to help.

"This award isn't about me. It's about the hundreds of people who ran toward, not away from the blast. It also represents the thousands of first responders . . . who did it every day of their lives," Foley said Monday night. "I'm just humbled to offer a few words of gratitude to them for that."

They are among us, these heroes, and on another April day this year, Jack Foley will be at the finish line of the Boston Marathon again.

"Absolutely," he said.

Of course he did.