Pat Reinhardt wrote her son's epitaph: "Farewell, Gallant Warrior."
But he didn't die.
By all measures Ed Reinhardt, a football-star-in-the-making at the University of Colorado, shouldn't have lived. After all, said the neurosurgeon who operated on him in Eugene, Ore., the kind of damage Reinhardt suffered in a game against the University of Oregon results in "a 90 percent mortality rate, and his damage was about as severe as you can get."
Even in the unlikely event that Reinhardt lived, said a neurosurgery professor at the University of Colorado Medical School, he would "most likely be in a vegetative state, tube-fed, not communicative." He was destined, according to an expert in brain injuries at the University of Miami's Biofeedback Laboratory, to be "nothing but a stare."
November 14, 1994
Ten years later Reinhardt is playing basketball in the driveway in front of his home in Littleton, Colo., a Denver suburb. His opponent misses a shot badly, and Reinhardt sneers. "Great shot," he says. Then he shoots. Nothing but net.
What happened in Eugene on the afternoon of Sept. 15, 1984, at first seemed ordinary. With 1:57 left in the football game between Colorado and Oregon, the Buffaloes trailed 27-20, and they had the ball on their own 25-yard line. Reinhardt, a 6'5", 235-pound tight end, lined up on the right side of the Colorado line. The previous week, in the first game of the season, the 19-year-old sophomore caught a school-record 10 passes against Michigan State and became the nation's second-leading receiver.
Reinhardt ran a six-yard route and turned inside as Buff quarterback Steve Vogel threw him the ball. Reinhardt caught it, ran another 13 yards and was hit by Oregon safeties Dan Wilken and Jeff Williams. Reinhardt's head was knocked around, at one point colliding with Wilken's thigh pad, before it hit the turf sharply but not ominously.
After lying on the field briefly, Reinhardt was able to walk unsteadily to the Colorado bench. Moments later, however, his pupils dilated, his jaw locked and he passed out. Watching the scene unfold from his seat in the stands, Dr. Arthur Hockey of Eugene, a neurosurgeon and Oregon season-ticket holder, instantly sensed a brain injury. He ran to the fallen player. Hockey recalls saying aloud that he wished the Colorado team doctor had Mannitol, a drug that reduces brain swelling. "Unbelievably," Hockey says now, "he had it." Reinhardt was rushed to nearby Sacred Heart General Hospital, and within a half hour Hockey was operating on the left side of the player's brain. During the tackle a blood vessel in Reinhardt's brain had burst when the brain crashed into the inside of his skull—the equivalent of a rear-end auto accident at high speed. The prognosis was dire.
When Pat Reinhardt heard of her son's injury, she was in Lincoln, Neb. She had gone there for a football game between the University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska, for which another of her sons, John, was a walk-on defensive lineman. As Pat flew to Ed's bedside in Oregon, a calmness came over her, and she spoke to God. "I know one thing," she said. "If he dies tonight, he'll be in heaven. If he dies, I will accept that. And in order to prove that to you, God, I'm going to write his epitaph."
That tended to, she threw her entire being into trying to save her son. At his side she whispered repeatedly, "Eddie, you can't leave us. You're too important to our family."
Though still in a coma, after several more operations Reinhardt had improved enough by Oct. 16 to be flown to Colorado in a medical emergency transport plane. He was treated in two Denver hospitals, first at University Hospital and then at Craig Hospital. While still unconscious he was named to the Big Eight All-Academic team, based on his freshman GPA of 3.24.
Finally, on Nov. 16—62 days after his injury—he came out of his coma.
Discharged from Craig Hospital on Feb. 15, 1985, he returned daily as a full-time outpatient for two months. Afterward doctors prescribed three hours of speech therapy and three of physical therapy per week to be done at home. Pat Reinhardt and her husband, Ed Sr., felt instantly that this would not be nearly enough. Eddie could do almost nothing. The injury had left him barely able to speak; his right side was mostly paralyzed. Whether he would ever get any better, the Reinhardts had been told, was in doubt.
Shortly thereafter Ed Sr., who owns a small business-forms company in Littleton, went to Arlington, Texas, to visit a couple who were giving intensive therapy to their son, who had been shot in the head by a crazed neighbor. The couple and a host of volunteers worked on the boy day and night. Ed Sr. returned to Colorado and told his wife, "I don't think we have any choice." The battle was joined.
Eddie's parents and, when they weren't in school, his five siblings—John, Rose, Tom, Paul and Matt—plunged in and did everything they could think of to make him whole again. They worked with him day and night, often as many as 16 hours a day. But even that, they felt, was not enough, so Pat began lining up volunteers. They came to the Reinhardt house seven days a week, including Christmas, and eventually the total number of volunteers reached 140.
Each crew had five people: one on each of Ed's limbs, one to move his head. The volunteers came at 6:30 a.m., 9:30, 3:30 p.m., 7:00 and 8:00. What they did is called patterning. Brain cells that Ed had not previously used—and humans use only about 10% of their brain cells—had to be taught to take on new functions.
"We had to go back to the basics," says Ed Sr. His son had to relearn everything he had mastered since infancy: creeping, crawling, walking, running, talking, reading, writing. Conventional wisdom is that the brain-injured can improve only for six months to two years after the injury; then they plateau. But even when Eddie's progress seemed glacial, he kept improving.
"It was always 'Faster, faster,' " says Pat. "We had every stupid reward we could think of, from kisses from pretty girls to videotapes. We always had a clipboard and stopwatch to record his progress. All this fit right in with his athletic mode."
From the couple in Arlington, the Reinhardts had learned of the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, a facility that helps people with brain injuries. Glenn Doman, the institutes' founder, says that when Eddie first visited in October 1985, "he was very, very bad off. He had been reduced to a level below a child. He couldn't do things a seven-month-old can do." In the ensuing nine years Ed and various family members have gone to Philadelphia two times a year for weeklong sessions during which Ed's treatment is evaluated and new therapies are discussed. "The institutes told us when to jump and how high," says Pat, "and we did it."
For the first six months after they returned to Colorado, Ed Sr. shaved two faces every day, brushed two sets of teeth and took two baths. Pat fashioned large-print readers out of college textbooks to help teach Eddie how to read again. She assembled material on hummingbirds, Desmond Tutu, Robert Frost, Winston Churchill—and John Elway.
With the help of the volunteers, the seven-day workweeks went on for four years. Then they were cut down—to 6½ days. Two years after that, it was only six days a week. Today, it is five.
In the first six years after the injury the University of Colorado paid the family's medical and rehabilitation costs. Private contributions made soon after the accident, mainly by Colorado residents, totaled more than $75,000. Pat felt most of that money should be used to build a therapy room onto the house, but Ed Sr. resisted. "I didn't want to use somebody else's money to build on my house," he says. Pat prevailed, and the room was constructed in May 1985 for $65,000.
Ed Reinhardt is still not fully recovered. He has learned to talk again, albeit often in one-word bursts, because he still has difficulty forming sentences. He understands most of what he hears. He uses the telephone. He dresses himself, feeds himself, makes his bed. He gets in and out of the car without help—and doesn't want any. He fastens his seat belt. He goes to restaurants and movies.
His long-term memory is good, but he has problems with his short-term memory. He walks with a pronounced limp and frequently gets tremors in his right leg. ("Shake and bake," he grouses.) At times his right hand is frozen tightly closed. When he shoots a basketball, he does so with his left hand. Double vision makes it hard for him to read, and he has limited peripheral vision on his right side.
Eddie tried acupuncture in hopes of correcting his double vision. It didn't alleviate that problem, but it did help loosen his right hand. In 1990 he and several family members made a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia, where some Catholics believe the Virgin Mary has appeared. Ed Sr. says that while "we didn't see any miracles, there was a strengthening of faith."
When something doesn't work, Pat says, "we just shrug it off and go on. We won't try just anything, but we listen to everything." In 1993 the Reinhardts heard about the Biofeedback Lab in Miami, a unit of the University of Miami's Jackson Medical Center, and last April they tried it. The lab's director, Dr. Bernard Brucker, says that a person who was in a coma for 62 days has few prospects of functioning fully again, "but Ed is not the average person." The lab greatly improved Ed's walk, helping him to stop hyperextending his knee and to begin flexing it properly.
"Pat and Ed Reinhardt restore your belief in human beings and human nature," says Colorado athletic director Bill Marolt. "I'm dazzled by these people. Every day, they put literally everything they have into rehabbing this young man."
Buffalo football coach Bill McCartney shakes his head in wonder. "The real story is this family unit," he says. "This is all about faith, and their faith never wavers. There is no limit to what they will do. They don't look around and say, 'Where is the help coming from?' They don't expect a miracle. They just press on. Such love. When this accident happened, they didn't even break stride. There is just something inside the Reinhardt family. They have this drive and intensity. And that woman. She is blue twisted steel."
Pat Reinhardt says she is uncomfortable with praise for her family and especially for herself. "If anything, I have been given the strength for ordinary things," she says. "I'm motivated by fear, love, anxiety. The good part is that I have been tested, and I have learned that I can survive and cope."
The rehabilitation work is exhausting, but Pat is undaunted. "We're in this for as long as it takes," she says. After 10 years the volunteers keep coming, and Pat keeps them busy, especially in the physical-therapy room. Eddie's workouts last an hour at a time and entail, among other things, five sets of 20 push-ups. Special push-ups. He does them with his feet elevated behind him, punishing his damaged right side. Helpers pry open his clenched right hand so it can be flat on the floor for the exercise.
"Straighten your elbow," exhorts Pat. "Get that right shoulder down all the way. That's good. O.K., better."
Ed eyes her and says, "Lighten up." She ignores him and offers him a granola bar. "Low class," he says. But he cats it.
"Elbow straight, Ed," she continues.
"Calm yourself," he says.
"Stand up straight," says Pat. Ed immediately breaks out into his Heritage High School fight song: "Stand up, be proud...." He works. He pauses and looks at his constant companion, Bridget, a nine-year-old golden retriever. Bridget is lying on the floor, which is what she does best. "You're lazy, Bridget," Ed says. Then he looks at a poster of a swimsuit model on the wall and sighs. He returns to sweating.
Progress is at times snail-paced, incremental. "People tell me how great he's doing," says Pat, "but then I see him put his shirt on backward." She laughs, but she is near tears.
The other day Pat took Ed to a nearby recreation center for a workout. Before going she put money in his gym bag to pay for the visit. Usually he cannot remember that he has the money when he is asked for it. This time he remembered. Pat's eyes welled up. Ed rowed 4,200 meters and rode a stationary bike for 20 minutes (six miles). He moved through the various machines—the pullover, leg extension, chest press. Pat is her son's personal trainer, cheerleader and guru. She urged more when Ed was exhausted, and he said to an onlooker, "Women. Can't live with 'em. Pass the beer nuts."
Pat ignored that. "You," she said, "are going to do this because you can do this." And he did. With vigor.
Ed is now in his second year as an assistant coach of the women's basketball team at Metro State College in Denver. He is there every day during the season. For the past three years he has also been volunteering twice a week at an elementary school, working with the physed teacher and the students. One day a few weeks ago, Ed wanted to go to a softball batting cage. He had never been to one. A longtime volunteer, Phil Smith, worked to get Ed's right hand around the bat. Confronted by a task he had never performed, and fighting double vision, a right arm that works improperly, a shaking right leg and the glare of the sun directly in his eyes, Ed took a swing at each of the 16 balls pitched to him by the machine. He missed them all. "Pretty good," he said. He sat down, rested and watched the other batters. Then he went back to the batting cage—and connected with 11 of 16 pitches. It was a perfect example of an athlete at work. "Pretty good," he said.
Ed and his mother are at the Easter Seals building in Lakewood for speech and computer training with a teacher named Maureen Melonis. Ed's task is to write a thank-you note on the computer to a woman who sent him $10.
"How do you start the letter?" asks Melonis.
"Dear Friends" says Ed. They discuss the salutation and agree on Dear Eleanor.
"What next?" asks Melonis.
"That's enough. Love, Ed."
Melonis suggests a slightly longer note. She asks him what he will spend the money on. "I have no idea," he says.
An onlooker suggests this sentence: "I plan to spend every cent of it on beer."
Ed thinks that is wonderful—"Yes, yes," he chortles—but Melonis has reservations. "How about magazines?" she says.
"Well, O.K.," says Ed, not thrilled with the alternative.
He labors. He fails. He succeeds. Working on his speech and memory, Ed tries to identify a flashlight, a watch, scissors, toothpaste, pencils. He hits and misses.
Another day, Ed is at a Chinese restaurant. A teapot is brought to the table. He carefully picks it up and pours the tea into his cup. Except that it doesn't go into the cup; it goes directly beside it, onto the table. Double vision snares him again. "Nine years," he mutters. "Nine years."
So how does the Reinhardt family feel about the game of football?
"I don't care much for it." Pat concedes, "but then, I never did. But you can't protect your children from everything, and they don't welcome that protection." When Ed was a senior in high school, she suggested that he take one of several basketball scholarships he had been offered instead of football. "No, Mom," he said. "I love football. It's my favorite sport."
Ed Sr. says, "Ever since the boys began playing football, I've supported and encouraged them. After Ed got hurt, I thought it would be a little hypocritical of me to tell them to quit." His only admonition: "Play hard."
Tom Reinhardt, heavily recruited, chose to go to Colorado the year after his older brother was hurl. Years later, Tom recalls, he went into McCartney's office and saw a picture of Ed on the coach's desk. Tom liked that a lot. And these days, the youngest of the Reinhardt children. Matt, is a sophomore light end at—incredibly—Oregon.
"The blessing of athletics," says Ed Sr., "is that they taught Ed the discipline to do his rehabilitation. I have no regrets. Something else could have happened. This is what happened."
And Eddie himself still loves football. "Great opportunity, preparation for life," he says. "Coach Mac, great man."
The other day Eddie was in Boulder to have his picture taken in Folsom Field. He walked from the Colorado locker room toward the field, past a sign that reads THROUGH THESE DOORS PASS THE NATION'S TOUGHEST COMPETITORS, SHOW IT TODAY. He looked at the sign. "Read that," he asked a companion. When he heard the words, he gave the thumbs-up sign.
Later, looking out over the stadium, Ed's mood turned dark. He said, "Ten catches, two touchdowns, then bong"—he hit himself on the head with his hand—"next game. Doggone it."
It helps that the Reinhardts had often talked of the perils of the game, and Ed liked to remind his parents, "Risking is the essence of becoming." So when the two Oregon players who made the fateful tackle, Wilkens and Williams, came to visit Ed, Pat comforted them, saying, "You just happened to be present when a risk-taker had an accident."
Typically in a case like Ed's, there are lawsuits against those suspected of being responsible for the injury: the helmet manufacturer, the universities, the artificial-turf manufacturer, the coaches, the doctors, the hospital and so on. But in this case, no lawsuit was filed. Nor was one even contemplated.
"There's no blame," says Ed Sr., "so we don't blame. That was out of the question. We are not suing people. I suppose a smart lawyer could have done something, but what does that prove? Angry people sue people. We're not angry. What happened is, a blood vessel in his brain broke. So the doctors removed the blood clot and stopped the bleeding. If we had won a suit, it would have been dirty money to me. I'd have had a hard time spending it."
Today Eddie and his father are up in the mountain community of Conifer, an hour west of Denver, at the local church. Ed Sr. has spoken to a men's group. Now his son will sing.
It is another of the oddities of brain injury: While Eddie might not be able to recall where his money is, he can learn the words to songs—and remember them. His dad starts a tape of backup music, and Eddie comes alive, performing the song Lean on Me. A few months ago he sang the national anthem at the first game of the season in Folsom Field.
Later, when asked how much he owes his family, he says, "All, all, all." He's reminded that he himself has had a lot to do with his recovery. "Well, them 80 percent, me 20 percent," he says.
"If we hadn't done this, he'd be in a wheelchair, sliding out of it, drooling, unable to walk or talk," Pat says. "He wouldn't get better just sitting there. So it's not hard to keep doing this. There is no answer to the question, Why? The appropriate questions are When? and How? because they may have answers."
"At age 19, Ed was more complete as an individual than most people ever become," says his college roommate John Martin. "He was an excellent student and athlete, he had an incredible work ethic, he was spiritual. He had his life extremely well defined."
Ed's sister, Rose, wondered after the accident, "Who's going to teach him to smile again?" Today Ed smiles a lot. Is he happy?
"Yes," he replies. "You?"
Talk turns to things he enjoys, and the list is long: "Reading, writing, arithmetic, studying, classes, volunteers, coaching, walking, Softball, singing, dog, movies."
There's a temptation to say that Ed's condition may now be about as good as it's going to get. But his brother Tom says, "My mom won't stop until he's 100 percent recovered."
Blue twisted steel.