Nick Malafronte diploma, degree came after some difficulty.
Nick Malafronte looked down and shook his head.
He didn’t deserve any of this, he thought to himself.
There were cameras and photographers milling around him. Dozens of family members and friends recording with their phones. The famous Southern New Hampshire University bus was parked in the background. And his college diploma was propped up on a table amid gift bags and balloons.
“Guys, I graduated college,” he announced to the large crowd outside Abington Depot Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not a big deal.”
His parents, Victor and Diane, smiled silently. It was a big deal — even if their son wouldn’t admit it.
His college diploma marked the end of a grueling journey that dates back to 2011, when his college plans were derailed after a freak diving accident that left him paralyzed.
Malafronte, now 26, was a student at Westfield State University at the time of the accident at Island Grove Park. He was forced to put school on hold and focus on his recovery. He still had no feeling in his legs, but was working to regain strength in his arms and fingers.
A few years later, he began his studies again with Southern New Hampshire University. The online classes made it easier for him to work around his rehabilitation schedule, he said.
So after he officially graduated from Southern New Hampshire in July, his father called over to the college to see if they would bring down the bus (made famous in its commercials) to present his diploma.
Well, the bus is officially retired, college officials responded. But they soon read about Malafronte’s story, and decided to pull it out of retirement for Tuesday’s celebration.
It was a complete surprise.
Malafronte thought he was stopping by the Abington Depot (one of his usual haunts) for some food and drinks with his buddies.
But he spotted the Southern New Hampshire bus as his van rolled down Railroad Street, and then spied the cameras and people. He knew something was up.
As he rolled toward the crowd in his motorized wheelchair, he shook his head quietly.
“I don’t deserve this,” Malafronte said. “It’s a college degree — it just took a while, that’s about it.”
Libby May, the college’s senior vice president of external affairs, kicked off the celebration.
“Nick, when we heard your story from your dad, we were all so inspired by you and your grit and determination to finish your degree,” she said.
She then introduced Greg Fowler, Southern New Hampshire University’s chief academic officer, who presented Malafronte with his framed diploma.
But that wasn’t all. Knowing Malafronte was a big Celtics fan, the college called upon Lucky, the Celtics mascot, to make a visit.
Lucky (or Kit Ackerman, in real life) presented Malafronte with a Boston Celtics jersey with his name on it.
“The guys were in practice, so they sent me,” Ackerman joked. “We heard about your story and we’re really inspired and proud of your success and wanted to share this with you — have a little Celtic pride as well.”
The day concluded with a lunch at Abington Depot (where Malafronte once worked alongside his dad) with friends and family.
“I don’t know how he does it sometimes,” his father, Victor, said. “He amazes us.”
Malafronte remained bashful as the college took photographs and videos of him outside the SNHU bus. When the media circus began to wind down, he declared with a laugh: “I don’t want to be in any commercials. I’m not signing any waivers.”