Born with a severe form of cerebral palsy, Rick Hoyt was unable to move his arms or legs. He could not speak. But he could communicate with the aid of a computer and, after that maiden race, declared to his father that when they were running, it felt as though his disability disappeared.
“That was it,” Rick’s brother, Russ Hoyt, said in an interview. “It just took off from there.”
Over the next 40 years, Rick and Dick Hoyt would compete in more than 1,000 races around the world, including 72 marathons and 257 triathlons. They became celebrities at the Boston Marathon, running the venerable 26.2-mile course 32 times between 1980 and 2014, when Mr. Hoyt, then 73 and a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard, decided it would be his last. (He had planned to stop after the 2013 race but was unable to complete the course that year because of the deadly terrorist bombing.)
Of all the races Mr. Hoyt ran, he completed only one marathon without his son. “I don’t have the desire to do it without him,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “I’d rather be out there doing it with Rick.”
Mr. Hoyt, 80, died March 17 at his home in Holland, Mass. The cause was congestive heart failure, Russ Holt said.
“Team Hoyt,” as the father-son duo was called, helped drive a profound shift in the treatment of people with disabilities, one whose impact reached far beyond their Massachusetts community.
When Rick was born in 1962, the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, depriving his brain of oxygen. Within months, the extent of his disability had begun to emerge. His parents took him to a specialist, who declared him destined to become a “vegetable” and counseled them to “forget Rick, put him away, put him in an institution and have other children,” they recalled years later to the Boston Globe.
But the Hoyts perceived in their infant son an intelligence they knew was real and, to the best of their ability, sought to provide an enriching upbringing for him and his two brothers.
Mr. Hoyt recalled taking Rick fishing, tying the fishing line around his finger so he could know the thrill of the catch. He hoisted his son onto his back for hiking trips and pulled him in a sled when the family went cross-country skiing.
When other boys scampered onto the baseball diamond, Mr. Hoyt helped his son swing the bat and then propelled him in his wheelchair from base to base.
A turning point in their life came when engineers at Tufts University in Massachusetts designed a computer that allowed Rick to tap out words with his head. The year was 1977, and the Boston hockey team was competing for the Stanley Cup. Rick Hoyt’s first words were “Go Bruins.”
“We had no idea he’d been following sports all along,” Mr. Hoyt told the Globe in 1996.
Mr. Hoyt was sorely out of shape when his son asked him to run their first race. But through an intensive training regimen, he developed enough strength and stamina to provoke envy in many fellow runners.
He and his son achieved their best time — 2:40:47, according to their website — at the 1992 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. “When I start pushing Ricky, I get this feeling,” Mr. Hoyt told the Los Angeles Times. “I go all out. I get up more for Rick. I want to pass people. I want to beat them. When I get behind that chair, it helps me.”
Although they today are an icon of the Boston Marathon — with a bronze statue in their honor at the start of the course in Hopkinton and Mr. Hoyt invited to serve as Grand Marshal of the 2015 race — they recalled being perceived as an unpleasant curiosity at their first outing in 1980.
“They didn’t want us there,” Mr. Hoyt told the Globe in 1990. “The runners didn’t think we belonged with them, and the wheelchair division wouldn’t accept us, either.”
Together Dick and Rick Hoyt were credited with opening racing to other similar duos.
“Dick personified what it meant to a be a Boston Marathoner, showing determination, passion, and love every Patriots’ Day for more than three decades,” the Boston Athletic Association said in a statement. “The pair’s bond and presence throughout the course became synonymous with the Boston Marathon.”
When an acquaintance invited Mr. Hoyt to participate in a triathlon, a daunting test of endurance including segments of swimming, cycling and running, his response was: “Not without Rick.” They went on to compete in two Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.
During the swimming portions of their triathlons, Mr. Hoyt pulled his son in a custom dinghy. During the cycling part, they rode together on a tandem bike. During the run, Rick crossed the finish line in his specially designed racing chair.
Richard Eugene Hoyt, the fifth of 10 children, was born on June 1, 1940, in Winchester, Mass., and grew up in nearby North Reading. His father was a used-car salesman and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Hoyt played baseball and basketball and was captain of his football team. He and the head cheerleader, Judy Leighton, were married several years after their high school graduation. Rick Hoyt — formally Richard Eugene Hoyt Jr. — was their first child.
In an era of scant education services for the disabled, Rick Hoyt’s mother lobbied aggressively for him to receive a standard education in public schools. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in special education from Boston University in 1993.
Mr. Hoyt and his wife, who died in 2010, were divorced after more than three decades of marriage. Survivors include his companion of 16 years, Kathy Boyer of Holland; his three sons, Rick Hoyt of Leicester, Mass., Rob Hoyt of Holyoke, Mass., and Russ Hoyt of Billerica, Mass.; three brothers; five sisters; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Mr. Hoyt joined the Army National Guard after his high school graduation and later moved to the Air National Guard. After he and his son began their racing career, he became a prolific motivational speaker. He wrote a book, “Devoted: The Story of a Father’s Love for His Son” (2010), with co-author Don Yaeger, and helped formed a nonprofit organization, the Hoyt Foundation, that serves disabled youth.
In addition to their races, Dick and Rick Hoyt biked and ran across the United States, covering 3,735 miles over 45 consecutive days, according to their site. Mr. Hoyt, who continued running even after a heart attack, heart surgery and a knee operation, was inducted with his son into the Ironman Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2020 they became the first “push-assist team” inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.
“When we’re out there,” Mr. Hoyt told the Globe in 1990, “there’s nothing I feel I can’t do with Rick.”
Rick, for his part, once said that “the thing I’d most like is for my dad to sit in the chair and I would push him for once.”