March 3, 2014

Making Sense: Tufts' Fearless Problem Solver

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Jack McDermott's lacrosse career may not have turned out as he envisioned, but he has the opportunity in his senior to be a key ingredient in the Jumbos quest to get back to Memorial Day weekend. He's ready to undertake the task. (Tufts Sports Information)

Jack McDermott is sitting in a large room on the Tufts campus, surrounded by guys he doesn't know or has just recently met.

It's the fall of 2010, and the men's lacrosse team, fresh off its national championship the previous spring, is having its initial fall meeting. McDermott certainly belongs there. The same spring that the Jumbos were hoisting hardware, McDermott was named the Massachusetts player of the year after leading Medfield High School to a state title. Alas, there were a lot of talented freshman in the room, and even more among the upper classes.

A low key approach to this first meeting would have been the safe play.

Sitting and listening quietly certainly would have been the choice of most students dealing with the same speech impediment that McDermott has dealt with his entire life. Whereas most young adults talk before they think, McDermott must gauge, measure and concentrate on each word leaving his lips or he'll get tripped up by a stutter. It can range from a brief pause before a sentence to a string of mono-syllabic attempts at forming a word, but it's always on the forefront of McDermott's mind.

It's not something he's afraid of, however.

As Tufts head coach Mike Daly strode to the front of that large room four years ago, he asked a question to the 60 or so players assembled in front of him. McDermott's hand was the first one to go up.

"I'll never forget it," Daly said. "He's the first one to volunteer and jumps up and puts himself out there. He gets hung up and kind of stutters. To see him attack everything he does head on, it's impressive."

The pathology of stuttering, which impacts males four times as frequently as females, has been linked to genetics. Just as the speech impediment has been codified in McDermott's genes, his DNA strands also possess both fearlessness and a gift for problem solving.

"I've always been one to put myself out there and try something," McDermott said. "My personality is just about how can I help out?"

* * *

McDermott had a lot of time to think on the train rides into Boston.

Every day between the morning and evening preseason football practices during his sophomore year in high school, he would sit on the commuter rail lamenting the need to take his eight-hour speech therapy classes in the city. After spending the entire month of August on this schedule, McDermott came to the conclusion that it wasn't working.

"I realized that it wasn't a sustainable way of doing therapy," he said. "So I had the idea that all the same stuff I was doing in Boston I could be doing at home between my football practices. And it's absurd that I'm paying thousands of dollars getting on this train and doing hours and hours of boring speech therapy. I just had an idea.

"An idea that things could get better."

He filed his concept away for a couple of years, but when he arrived in Medford, he was inspired by the vibrant Tufts student body that was undertaking all sorts of independent projects. He decided that he would put in motion his idea of creating an application for iPhones and iPads that would help other people working to correct their speech impediments.

"I bought some books on what it takes to create an app and I took a couple of computer science courses here, but in no way could I have built the entire app on my own," McDermott said. "I worked with a friend over the summer before my sophomore year and we built it over three or four months. I built my website and I just started selling it. I made some phone calls and sent some emails."

The app, "Speech4Good," enables users to undertake speech programs proscribed by their therapists and then receive instant playback of the recordings of how they sound. These recordings can then be sent electronically to their therapists for evaluation. McDermott borrowed a couple thousand dollars from his parents to get the Speech4Good app, and his company, Balbus Speech – which was named one of the "Coolest College Start-ups" by Inc. magazine in 2013 – up and running.

"I was able to become profitable within the first three or four months," he said. "I sell a thousand or so a month to speech therapists and it launched my sophomore year so it has been something that all along I've been growing as my side project. It's not anything where I plan on dropping out and buying a beach house, but I pay my rent with it."

* * *

Lacrosse was supposed to be the easy part of the college experience for McDermott. Operating as the quarterback of the successful Medfield program, along with special teams duties, he certainly had the pedigree to step right in and be a contributor at Tufts.

It didn't happen.

"I've had a hard time in terms of playing time here," McDermott admitted. "It hasn't always been an easy or straight path for me. But I knew that going into it. There were no guarantees or any special treatment like some of the other schools promised me."

McDermott understands why he never got the burn he wanted at the attack position, and he's certainly not bitter about it.

"The great thing about playing here is we're always bringing in guys who are great young players who are talented, and that forces you to improve," he said. "The challenge for me was I found myself in the role of being a fourth attackman for two or three years. I was right there, and I had plenty of chances and opportunities, but I could never find my stride and break through. So I was that fourth attackman, and that's a spot you don't want to be in."

"He is just a team guy," Daly said. "He was never questioning of anything. He was almost too respectful from time to time. 'Coach, I know you're making the right decision.' 'Coach, I'll do whatever you want me to do. You tell me, I'll do it.' That's why we wanted to fit him in because he's our type of kid."

As Daly and his staff prepared for this year, which started on Saturday with the Jumbos 24-6 win over Middlebury, it was clear that McDermott was not going to be among the top three attackmen yet again for his senior year. Daly brought him in and threw out an idea. The defensive midfield unit had been decimated by graduation and there would be playing time available, especially on faceoffs – a role that McDermott played with some success at Medfield.

"He laid out the options and the numbers and said, 'Here's where we are," McDermott recalled of his meeting with Daly. "'We'll have your back if you want to stay at attack and keep working there, but we also think you can be a player for us and we have these three or four needs.' There was no sit down where he said you're now playing midfield. It was my own choice. It was how can I help us? How can I put our team in a better spot? It was on my own terms. 'Here's the situation and I don't want to put a ceiling on you.' I was empowered by it and ran with it. I'm now a midfielder."

In the opener on Saturday, McDermott was on the faceoff wing for the Jumbos and played a key role as a defensive middie as Tufts handed Middlebury its worst loss in 53 years.

That fearlessness and problem solving ability that has always been at the root of McDermott's character surfaced again. This time, instead solving a problem by developing an application that is now used by children with Down Syndrome and autism, along with adult stroke victims and those with stuttering issues, he has solved a problem for his coaching staff and team.

A lot of us allow our perceived weaknesses to shape our lives. Jack McDermott takes his presumed weaknesses and shapes his future.

"He is just a kid we all should look up to," Daly said.


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