Infectious Boyd Melson making difference in spinal cord research, one fight at a time

Boyd Melson is on the other end of the telephone, talking. And talking. And talking. He sounds like a football coach pulling out the "Win one for the Gipper," speech.

He's "obsessed," he says in one breath, about finding a way to help those with chronic spinal cord injuries to get out of their wheelchairs and walk, and to see them resume normal lives.

"Can you imagine how great that would be?" he says, without giving one an option to think anything but, yes, that would be the greatest thing ever.

In the next breath, he's talking about his fighting career and his ambition to win a world title. Anyone who understands professional boxing and knows the type of commitment it demands, the sacrifices it requires, and the skill it takes, knows it's a pipe dream.

Melson is 30 and has a full-time job at Johnson & Johnson, as well as what amounts to a full-time job as a fund-raiser. As he's talking, it seems like he's doing two or three other things at once. He barely has the time to commit to a telephone conversation, let alone a fight career.

Melson, though, is a true believer. No one does anything without trying and, by golly, he's going to try and try as only he can.

"I never say I can't do something," Melson said. "I started boxing late. I don't have the wear and tear on my body a lot of these guys who started when they were little kids have. And I have a motivation to become a champion that not a lot of people do.

"The better I do, the more prominent and successful I am as a boxer, the louder my voice is. I believe I was put on this planet to help find a cure for chronic spinal cord injury and to give help to those who need it. If I win the world title, I will have that huge platform to give voice to the cause."

Christan Zaccagnino has known Melson for a bit more than 10 years – they met at the Thirsty Turtle in White Plains, N.Y., on June 22, 2002, to be exact, she says – and she doesn't bother trying to corral Melson.

Especially when fight time approaches, Zaccagnino has learned it's best to keep her distance. Melson, 8-1, fights Khalik Memminger on Thursday at Roseland Ballroom in New York.

"Boyd is a fighter, and not just as a boxer," she says. "Everything he does, he does whole-heartedly, with more passion and more intensity than you can even imagine. I say he's like 'The Hulk.' He's a maniac in the ring. Outside it, he's the sweetest guy and has the biggest heart under the sun. He's this wonderful, charismatic guy outside the ring, but when it's fight time, he's like 'The Hulk.' When the shirt starts ripping and the muscles start popping out, I try to keep my distance. I communicate with him mostly by email and text."

Zaccagnino, 29, laughs heartily. Melson was like this tornado that touched down in her life and just won't go away.

When she first introduced him to her family after telling them stories of what he would do for her, they asked her a very real, very necessary question: "Is this guy for real?"

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Zaccagnino, you see, is wheelchair bound and has been since she broke her neck on July 7, 1993, in a diving accident in her back yard pool. Melson was a West Point graduate who became a captain in the Army. She'd survived quite well and is the type of woman who wasn't going to be content to wither away.

She planned to live as rich and full of a life as possible and for nine years, that's what she did. Her family sacrificed greatly to care for her, and she fought with all her strength to get better, to cope.

Then, one day, Melson walked into her life at the Thirsty Turtle. And suddenly, she was being overwhelmed. Her life became his. He wanted to find a cure, and to pull her from that wheelchair as badly as she wanted to get out of it.

It was a little much, at first, for a skeptical family. They'd been there with her throughout. She'd gone through plenty of dark times, particularly in the beginning. She dove straight down, instead of out, on the day of the accident. When she came down, her neck wasn't strong enough to withstand the force.

She broke the C6 and C7 vertebrae and spent the next six months in the hospital. Her family never told her how dire her prognosis was – doctors said she wouldn't walk – but she quickly got the sense.

"When I was laying in bed at night, I was in the hospital for about six months by myself, and it was hard. It was extremely hard," she said. "It broke me. I'm a strong person and I let very, very few people see my weak side. It was hard. I'd lay in bed at the hospital and think to myself, 'It's the summer. All of my friends are on vacation and running around and playing sports.' Sports were my absolute love in life. I believed I was going to the Olympics. I loved swimming and soccer and gymnastics. I loved an array of sports and I was going to pick what I was going to do, because I was so good at everything. And it broke me.

"Even then, it hit me, 'I'm not going to be able to go to the Olympics. I'm going to have to change my dream.' It was so hard, so extremely hard. I'd cry at night."

That was the beginning of nine years of incredible struggle. Everyone in the Zaccagnino family pitched in to help, and Christan moved on with her life. Then, a chance meeting with Melson changed everything.

Dr. Wise Young is the director of The Spinal Cord Injury Project at Rutgers University's W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience. He's conducting clinical trials in the hope of finding a cure for chronic spinal cord injuries.

Mention Melson's name to him and he laughs instantly. Their first meeting, he said, came at an open house at Rutgers about four years ago. Their meeting, and the manner of it, is classic Melson.

"We were having the open house and he ran to it, from New York to New Brunswick, which is about 38 miles," Young said. "That's like an ultra marathon. He's the kind of guy who does these things. He had found people who would help fund that run and he handed a check to us the first time I ever met him.

"Boyd is a larger than life character who, when he gets involved in something, throws himself 150 percent into it. He's so passionate about spinal cord injury."

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Anyone with a heart could have compassion for a person like Zaccagnino, who injured herself in a freak accident as her life was starting to blossom. Melson, though, does nothing in a small way.

He decided to use his boxing background to try to help. A four-time All-Army champion, a three-time Armed Forces champion and a one-time World Military champion, Melson was an alternate on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.

In 2010, he decided to turn professional, but with a catch. He would not only donate every cent of his purse to spinal cord research, but he founded a charitable organization, Team Fight to Walk, that would help to raise money for Young's research.

Team Fight to Walk partnered with Just A Dollar, a 501(c)(3) charity, to try to help find a solution for the problem. Melson's bout with Memminger is another of his charitable fundraisers.

"Boyd is amazing, this jewel of a person and what he's doing is difficult to put into words," Young said. "He's a very physical person and when he sees you, he has this great smile and this enormous hug. When he takes up a cause, he's behind it 24 hours a day."

Melson said it's easy for him to donate his purses to spinal cord research because he so desperately wants to see Zaccagnino get out of her chair and walk to him. He wants to walk down a street with her, take her places and smile at the reaction when her friends realize she's no longer wheelchair bound.

Because she survived the accident, he said she provides great motivation to him.

"I could see someone who lost a loved one to a disease or an accident not wanting to [donate]," Melson said. "The person they love is gone and won't benefit from anything. But Christan survived. She's still alive. I've spent tens of thousands of dollars throughout the years on these experimental procedures [for her]. We've flown internationally to have these procedures and these therapies that we had to pay out of pocket for.

"I said to her, 'We don't know if it's going to work, but we fail every time we don't try.' That's a guarantee. I wasn't going to take the risk."

Melson is a strong, powerful, intelligent man. His voice quivers, though, as he speaks of the struggles he's shared with Zaccagnino over the last 10 years. They were boyfriend and girlfriend for six years, but are now just friends.

It hurts him, he says, every day she's seated in that chair.

"I'm doing this almost to save my own sanity, because this is my cross I have to bear," he said. "My best friend, who I love as much as anyone or anything in this world, is paralyzed. If I use the [boxing purse] money to buy a new car, guess what? She's still paralyzed and I'm still sad. That sadness trumps everything else in my life.

"It's affected me trying to be in other romantic relationships with anybody else. It's affected my overall happiness. I'm always sad. A part of me is always sad because I've lived with this atrocity of seeing what a spinal cord injury does to somebody."

Zaccagnino doesn't even bother to try to explain Melson to a stranger. He's an unusual phenomenon you accept and enjoy.

"There is no explaining him," she says. "He comes from a frickin' different planet. There's people out there who wouldn't do it for their own families. Then, there is this man who is doing everything and then some for me and everything and then some for people in chairs. He's lived his life very close to mine and he knows the challenges of being in a chair. Because of that, he wants everyone to be free, not only me."

Zaccagnino says her travels seeking treatment have helped, though she declines to go into detail to explain them. But she's flown to China, Jordan and Mexico, among other places, with Melson in order to try to get better.

She said she's able to live 90 percent independently, thanks to some of the treatment she's gotten. But she's most hopeful Young's research will lead to a day when a spinal cord injury doesn't automatically relegate one to life in a wheelchair.

She lost a lot, she concedes, after her accident. But for all she lost, she came away with a big win.

"I've missed out on a lot in life," she said. "But I do believe the day I met Boyd, a lot of what was taken from me was given back by having him."

If you'd like to donate to the spinal cord injury research cause, please visit or

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