My sophomore year at Rutgers, I bought a black Nissan Altima. I had been saving up for years to buy that car. Over the winters, I had a job hauling Christmas trees. The money I made went toward the car. Over the summers, I worked on the Rutgers grounds crew. Those paychecks, too, went into the "car account."
The day I finally took ownership of the car, it started to rain. I was driving in southern New Jersey near the dealership and stopped short when the car in front of me screeched to a sudden halt. The driver behind me either wasn't paying attention or forgot that his car came equipped with brakes. He rear-ended me so badly that the hood of his car was practically in my back seat. No one was hurt, thankfully. But after owning that Altima for a grand total of two hours, suddenly it was totaled. My mom was going crazy. I tried to be cool. I told her, "I guess it just wasn't meant to be." And you know what? I was right. A few months later, we got the insurance money and I bought another Altima, silver this time. It was the same price as the first one, but with 30,000 fewer miles.
I've thought of that story often over the past year. On October 16, 2010, I was a junior playing special teams for Rutgers during a midseason game against Army. We were playing at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., not far from our campus. With the game tied at 17 and about five minutes left in the fourth quarter, I ran downfield after a kickoff and collided with the returner, Malcolm Brown. I hit him pretty good -- I learned later that he broke his collarbone on the play. But I tucked my head. If you have a strong stomach, you can watch it for yourself. (Personally, I do it all the time. It's the last football play I ever made. I figure I might as well watch it.)
I remember feeling like I had a full-body "stinger" and that the wind was knocked out of me. But when I tried to move, I couldn't. My mom was in the stands and right away she knew something was wrong when she saw me fall so stiffly. I was taken from the field on a stretcher, and when I tried to give a thumbs-up and let the crowd know I was OK, it felt like there was an unmovable weight on my hands. I had fractured my c-3 and c-4 vertebrae and was rushed into emergency surgery.
The doctors told my mom that I would never walk again, that I would never come off the ventilator -- which I did five weeks later. My mom did not allow the doctors to talk to me because she didn't want me to hear anything negative. She was the one who told me I had broken my neck and was paralyzed from the neck down. I had just turned 20.
People wonder how my life has changed and, in some cases, it hasn't changed that much. I have the same friends and am still with my girlfriend, Rheanne, a former Rutgers soccer player. I go to parties, eat too many cheeseburgers, update my Facebook status and tweet almost every day (follow me @BigE52_ru). I watch ESPN all the time and have never been a bigger football fan. I'm still taking classes at Rutgers, still majoring in criminal justice, still aspiring to a career in sports broadcasting. I'm still part of the Rutgers football family, still on the roster.
Of course, in other ways my life has changed unimaginably. A year ago, I was a 275-pound football player -- the strongest guy on the team. I was living my dream. Today, I'm down to about 225 pounds and need someone to wipe my nose for me, hand me a drink that I can sip, get me out of bed. I'm back to living with my mom. Right now we're in an apartment because we needed to demolish the house I grew up in and rebuild so it can accommodate me in my current state. (My wheelchair alone weights 400 pounds!)
I've spent a lot of the last year in rehab trying to retrain my body to walk. It's all about baby steps, so to speak, but I'm making progress. Right now I'm standing in a standing frame and I can last for up to 45 minutes. (The first time I did it as an inpatient, I lasted 30 seconds, so that's progress!) After 17 minutes or so, though, I get dizzy and I need a shock. Because of my injury and the damage to my spinal cord, the blood flows to my legs but doesn't know to circulate back to my brain. So the muscle needs to be stimulated, a signal needs to be sent to transfer the blood and oxygen back up. The next phase is to move onto locomotive training with a harness to hold me up.
By now I've become an expert on the human body, especially the autonomic nervous system. So much goes through the spine, it's amazing. For instance, I don't sweat. The body's trigger to sweat -- to cool itself -- goes through the nervous system and that signal doesn't work with me right now. So on top of everything else, I have to be careful not to overheat.
People have asked me about whether my injury makes me rethink football and how dangerous it is. My answer: not at all. No hard feelings, football. I don't think kickoffs should be eliminated or changed either. Before this, I had never had a serious injury. Think of how many kickoffs there were in college football and how few get paralyzed. It was just a freak accident.
I've had low moments, but I can probably count them on one hand. My attitude is that I don't have time to be bitter and do the why-me? thing. I have to get better, and getting down doesn't help me do that. You can't change the outcome so why bother? I think that God chose me to go through this for a reason: so other people going through adversity can look at me for inspiration. I'm also trying to bring attention to spinal cord injuries. They affect millions of Americans and there's some real progress being made. But it takes funding. I encourage people to go to http://www.justadollarplease.org/, which supports the research of Dr. Wise Young, a neuroscience professor at Rutgers. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation at christopherreeve.org is another organization dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injuries.
Overall, I'm thankful for so many things. I'm thankful that I have insurance, three insurances to be exact -- my family insurance, insurance through Rutgers and insurance through the NCAA. Even three insurances don't cover all the costs. They say spinal cord injuries are crippling injuries -- financially crippling. My first surgeries alone cost more than $250,000. My wheelchair costs $40,000. The aides, the nurses, the countless hours in rehab? Even if we had to pay 30 percent of that -- standard with most single insurance carriers -- that would have wiped us out. (I'm also thankful that my mom is a fighter and isn't afraid to appeal with the insurance companies when they reject a claim. A lot of people don't realize that's an option, but trust me, it can work.)
I'm thankful for technology. I can take classes through Skype. I have a Bluetooth on my wheelchair. Voice Recognition Software lets me do everything from watch YouTube to send tweets and texts. One of my Rutgers boys, Jamaal Westerman, now plays for the New York Jets. I was watching a game last month and he mishandled a fumble. Boom! I fired off a text to give him a hard time: "You should know what to do! Knuckles on the ground like you're picking up money! You should have picked it up and scored!"
I'm thankful for the sports community and the football community in general. I'm reluctant to start in with examples here because, inevitably, I'll leave someone out. But I've gotten letters from everyone from Joe Paterno to Bill Belichick to Lane Kiffin. Tom Coughlin paid me a visit at the hospital. I have dozens of signed footballs and jerseys with my number, 52, on the back. Andy Reid came to visit me multiple times and called on Sundays before Eagles games. (Sometimes he'd even tell me the first play his team was going to run!) I've become friends with Malcolm Brown -- the whole Army program, really -- and have a lot of Army gear. I was at an NCAA basketball game in Newark near my house and a guy handed me a Devils hockey jersey. When he left, I saw that it was signed by Martin Brodeur. I recently went to a baseball game as a guest of the Mets. David Wright walked over and handed me a bat. I joke that we need an entire room in our home to store all the gear I've gotten. But what's more important is the support. Trust me, it makes a difference
I'm thankful that I was -- check that: I am -- an athlete. I was squatting 605 pounds at the time of my injury. There's no question that the muscle has helped in rehab. But even more important is the athlete's mentality. At Rutgers, Coach Schiano has a saying: one-eleventh. You're one of 11 guys, each with his own responsibility and skills. So focus on your job. That's what I'm doing now: focusing on my responsibility. Rehab is like my football training camp. This is my new life and I've adjusted. But I'm working my hardest to get out of it and get to the "regular season."
I believe I will walk again. I do. When that happens, I already know what I'm going to do. I'll go to Giants Stadium and find the exact spot in the field where I went down. I'll lie there for a second. And then I'll get up on my own power and walk away.