The Road Back

Three months after a paralyzing spinal injury, the Buffalo tight end is making big strides thanks to aggressive medical care, his indomitable will—and a gutty call by his surgeon
December 17, 2007

EVERY STEP isprecious now. Every movement is a gift. Every morning brings another sunrise,full of sweet promise. When Kevin Everett was a little boy growing up in PortArthur, Texas, he would sit with his grandpa James Nico, and the older manwould explain to him life's lessons. One of them was this: Don't ever bebitter. Just keep doing your best, even when things aren't looking so good.

Even when you arelying, helpless and twitching, on the floor of a football stadium, unable tomove your limbs and unable to take a deep breath. Even when you drift to thesurface from a deep, chemically induced sleep two days later and find yourselfin a hospital bed, with tubes in your throat and in your groin and machinesbeeping in every corner of the room and your mother gently rubbing yourforearm, asking you through her tears, Baby, can you feel this? Please blinkyour eyes once if you can feel this. You know I love you, don't you, baby?Please blink once if you know. And you slowly blink once, though you don'tremember it.

Even when you'reat a rehabilitation hospital almost a month later and an occupational therapistputs a tiny, one-pound weight in your right hand and asks you to do one bicepscurl with the same arm that once blocked NFL linebackers on Sunday afternoons.And you just can't do it. Even when your life is unfathomably changed at theage of 25. Even then.

Here is KevinEverett now, sitting at a breakfast table in a corner of the house the BuffaloBills' tight end bought last year for his family in the Houston suburb ofHumble. His fiancée, Wiande Moore, a sprinter whom Kevin met when both wereathletes at the University of Miami, sits to his left, and the two of them pickat the remnants of supper. His mother, Patricia Dugas, is in the kitchenputting the finishing touches on a Christmas gingerbread house with Kevin'syoungest sister, Davia, 11. His other two sisters—Herchell, 15, and Kelli,14—are sitting nearby on family room couches in front of a wall-mounted TVtuned to MTV but muted because Herchell is tapping out a social studies paperon her laptop. It is a family place at a family time.

"I'll tellyou what," says Kevin. "I'm still trying to figure out everythingthat's happened in my life lately. But I don't think anybody has life figuredout. I know you've got to take the good with the bad, and you've got to bestrong. Plain and simple. Just because you get knocked down doesn't mean you'vegot to stay down. That's what I feel about all of this. If you get knockeddown, you've got to get back up."

So he gets up. Herises from his chair and walks easily to the kitchen, opens the refrigeratorand takes out a drink. Then he walks back. Simple as that. And yet not simpleat all. "I'm making strides every day," he says. "Way back when Iwas first in the hospital the doctors were saying I might not ever walk again,and they didn't know the outcome for me moving my limbs anymore. So how much doI believe about all this? The sky is the limit. I'm going to take this as faras I can."

It is a beautifulthing, to see Everett move, a towering victory hidden in workaday acts."I'm so proud, I want to bust out and cry every time I look at him,"says his mother. "All you heard was people saying 'catastrophic injury' and'never walk again,' and now just you look at him."

ON THE FIRSTweekend of the 2007 NFL season, Everett fell limply to the Ralph Wilson Stadiumturf after making a tackle on the second-half kickoff. He did not get up. Thestadium fell silent, an ambulance drove onto the field, and players from bothteams formed a prayer circle, the nightmare tableau that can unfold in anyfootball game but is thankfully rare. Everett, a third-year player, hadsuffered a fracture dislocation in his neck and severe spinal cord damage. Hewould be the subject of grim prognoses (many victims of his injury, indeed, donot walk again) but also exhaustive and controversial medical care, includingthe groundbreaking use of a hypothermia treatment that has both encouraged anddivided the medical community.

Three monthsafter his injury Everett is in the midst of a heartwarming recovery. He walksunaided at a slow, steady clip for the distance of about half a football field.(A speedier pace or a longer walk can push him off balance, though that shouldbe alleviated as his core muscles strengthen.) He can raise his arms above hishead with effort and is gradually recovering the fine motor skills in his handsand fingertips. He has lost roughly 35 pounds from his playing weight of 260,but he looks vibrant if, at 6'4", slender. His other bodily functions arefully intact. Five days a week, four hours a day, he has physical therapy atThe Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at Memorial Hermann MedicalCenter in Houston, calling on a lifetime of athletic training to pushhimself.

"I've justtried to stay positive," he says. "The doctors say sometimes it takes along time to come back, if you ever come back. So I kept plugging away, workinghard. And every day there is a little bit more, something that starts comingback. There haven't been any what I would call milestones. Justgradual."

If he hasdespaired, he does not admit it. Instead, he describes only a transformingstrength that has come with his injury. "I look at my life in a whole newfashion," says Everett. "You realize how blessed you are. You thank Godeven more when you wake up in the morning and for every little thing you have.I thank God for sparing my life and letting me be here for my family and myfiancée. I've been able to see how much people love me, and how much I lovethem."

He was a footballplayer. More than a football player, in truth, a by-god force of nature.Growing up in Port Arthur, he far exceeded the weight limits imposed in youthleagues, so he bided his time until joining organized ball in junior high. Hemade the Thomas Jefferson High varsity as a sophomore, and in his senior yearthe team went 7--4 and reached the state playoffs. He played defensive end andtight end, and in one memorable midseason game in 2000 against powerhouse OzenHigh from nearby Beaumont, Everett scored a long touchdown on a tight endscreen pass. "I think he ran through their whole team before he got to theend zone," says Al Celaya, Everett's coach at Jefferson that year.

Everett wasrecruited by Miami, but one bad high school grade made him ineligible to playfor the Hurricanes, so he went instead to Kilgore (Texas) College and picked uphis associate's degree in a year and a half while playing two seasons of juniorcollege football. "He came to Kilgore and went to class and took care ofbusiness," says Jimmy Rieves, who was Kilgore's coach. "A lot oftalented players come to junior college and get in trouble. Not Kevin. Therewas no foolishness about him whatsoever."

He enrolled atMiami for the spring semester in 2003 and played two seasons at tight end on aHurricanes team that was ludicrously deep—Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow, FrankGore, Jonathan Vilma, Devin Hester—and typically bombastic. "I met someflamboyant, cocky guys," says Everett, laughing at the memory. He tookmental notes on talking smack and backed down from no one. "When he broughtpassion to practice, people did not mess with Kevin," says Rob Chudzinski,who recruited Everett and subsequently coached him as a Miami assistant beforemoving to the Cleveland Browns in 2004. "Over time he became one of thetoughest kids we had at Miami."

Everett wasselected by the Bills in the third round of the 2005 NFL draft. He missed hisrookie year with a torn left ACL but in 2006 contributed on special teamsbefore working his way into the tight end rotation this year. "You knowwhat?" says Everett now. "They even put in a tight end screen." Hiscareer stretched out in front of him, a dream made real.

JUST PAST 2:30P.M. on the second Sunday in September, Bills kicker Rian Lindell teed up thefootball at his 30-yard line and paced back, ready to commence the second halfof the season opener. The first player to Lindell's right was Everett—positionR5 in special teams nomenclature. He wore number 85 on his blue jersey, and inthe first half, as the starting tight end, he'd caught the second pass of hisNFL career, a three-yard completion from J.P. Losman. The Bills led 7--6 asLindell's kick floated to the goal line, outside the hash marks, where it wasgathered in by the Broncos' Domenik Hixon.

In kick coverageEverett was a wedge buster, a player who lines up in the middle of the field,sprints more than 50 yards and propels himself into the cluster of blockersgathered tightly in front of the return man. Wedge-busting is ferocious,demanding work; Everett was good at it. On this kick, however, he wasn'tblocked at any point on the field. Just outside the Denver 20-yard line, heslipped to the right of the wedge. "They just didn't block me," saysEverett. "I don't know why. I remember right before the hit, I looked overand saw [teammate] Sam Aiken. He's a wide receiver, and I beat him down [thefield]. I was thinking, Man, Sam's late."

As Hixon startedupfield, he angled toward the middle. Just past the 15-yard line he planted hisright foot and prepared to cut outside, to his left. As he made the move,Everett arrived, shoulders squared, his body in an athletic crouch. Just beforeimpact, Everett bent his upper body forward; Hixon dropped his upper body. Theplayers collided violently, the crown of Everett's helmet meeting the side ofHixon's. "I've seen the play so many times, and it was the timing ofit," says Everett. "I did the same thing I would do every time runningdown on kickoff team, got low to put my pads under his, and this one time helowered his helmet."

Hixon was drivensideways by the blow, staggering to his right, where Aiken finished the tackle.Everett never saw that. "My body went numb instantly," he says. "Ithought he kept going because it felt like he ran smack over me."

Everett's bodywent limp, and he crashed to the artificial turf, flat on his stomach, his headturned to the right. He was motionless except for a momentary twitch of hishead and neck as he tried to lift his paralyzed body off the ground with theonly muscles in his body still firing.

Fifty yards fromEverett, on the Buffalo sideline, stood Andrew Cappuccino, 45, an orthopedicsurgeon with specialty training in disorders of the spine and for 13 years amember of the Bills' staff under the team's medical director, John Marzo.Eleven days earlier, on Aug. 29, Marzo and head trainer Bud Carpenter had led a1 1/2-hour spinal cord injury refresher drill at the Bills' field house inOrchard Park, N.Y. Cappuccino had nearly begged off—"I told Bud, 'Thatscenario is never going to happen,'" recalls Cappuccino, who'd yet toencounter a spinal cord injury at a Bills game in his time with the team—butCarpenter insisted. Now that drill would form the foundation for the seminalmoment in Cappuccino's career. And in Everett's life.

A UNIT ofphysicians, trainers and emergency medical technicians moved onto the field andsurrounded Everett. When the training staff determined that Everett had nomobility below his neck, Cappuccino was waved onto the field. He performed aquick battery of tests to assess the severity of the injury, squeezing variousparts of Everett's body and asking him to respond. Cappuccino determined thatEverett was quadriplegic. He turned to Carpenter and told him, "Bud, we'rein the spinal cord drill."

Marzo, a formerquarterback at Colgate, spoke to Cappuccino, who played football at JohnsHopkins, in the language of the athlete. "This is your game," he saidto his colleague and friend. "Take the ball and run with it."

Over the ensuingseven hours, Everett would receive extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, careacross a wide spectrum of treatments from a team of more than a dozen medicalprofessionals. As the leader of the team, Cappuccino would direct andadminister not only first-rate conventional spinal cord injury care but alsodaring unconventional methods that pushed the standard of such treatment andpotentially endangered his own career in a profession in which malpracticelitigation is a real concern.

Thirteen minutesafter Everett struck Hixon, the Buffalo tight end was loaded into an ambulancedriven by emergency medical technician Dan Lengel. Another EMT, Rich Bartel,worked next to Everett's gurney. Cappuccino sat by Everett's head, talking tohim as Everett struggled to breathe—a difficulty that often afflicts patientswith high cervical injuries. "I felt like I was going to suffocate,"says Everett. "That made me nervous. That was the worst part of the wholething. I had to stay calm and not panic. Dr. Cappuccino was right there withme, talking to me, helping me stay calm."

As he spoke toEverett, Cappuccino recalls, "I was thinking to myself, God, I havechildren this age. I thought about my 20-year-old son and what he would say tome if it were him on that stretcher. I knew he would say, 'Dad, don't leave melike this.' Kevin was at that moment, frankly, quadriplegic, and I made adecision to do anything I could to try to make him better."

Cappuccino knewthere was a flicker of hope. On the field he had applied forceful pressure toEverett's lower extremities, from his ankles to his groin, and had detected aresponse that was absent with a sharp sensation such as a pinprick. This toldCappuccino that Everett had suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury, probablymeaning that the cord was severely damaged but not severed.

Cappuccino thenmade two decisions, one that has reverberated through the medical world and onethat has gone largely unnoticed but might have been just as critical.

First, heintroduced mild hypothermia as a part of Everett's care. In November 2006,Cappuccino had attended a seminar of the Cervical Spine Research Society andsat in on a talk by Dalton Dietrich, scientific director of The Miami Projectto Cure Paralysis. Dietrich devoted the last 10 minutes of his presentation tothe potential benefits of induced hypothermia for neuroprotection—the rapidcooling of the body to reduce metabolic demand and to prevent further damagefrom swelling and other inflammatory mechanisms. It is a controversialtreatment that has not been established as a standard of care in spinal cordinjuries and is the subject of considerable debate in the field. Partlymotivated by that talk, Cappuccino had instructed the EMTs at Bills games tostock their ambulance with three bags of saline solution in a cooler.

"When we gotinto the ambulance, Dr. Cappuccino told me to start two IV lines with the icedsaline," says Bartel. Cappuccino also pushed 3.5 grams of the steroidSolu-Medrol intravenously, and from the ambulance he instructed the hospital toprepare a solution that would deliver 600 milligrams of the steroid per hourfor the next 23 hours. This is a more common treatment in spinal cord injuries,although it has not proved universally effective.

Second,Cappuccino instructed Lengel to drive to Millard Fillmore Gates CircleHospital. Normally a player injured in a Bills game would be taken to BuffaloGeneral, about a mile closer, but Cappuccino knew that Gates has magneticresonance imaging (MRI) technicians on duty 24 hours a day. This is rare, andwith Gates's in-house CT scanning capability it would enable swift diagnosis ofEverett's injury. The hospital also is the only one in Buffalo with aneurosurgical intensive care unit, under the direction of Dr. Kevin Gibbons,47.

Everett arrivedat the hospital about 35 minutes after the hit. X-rays and CT scans showed afracture dislocation of Everett's cervical vertebrae at the C3/C4 level,meaning that one vertebra had slipped out of alignment and was compressingagainst its adjacent vertebra and the spinal cord in the neck. An MRI showedthat Everett's spinal cord was 70% to 75% compromised, or pinched, by thedislocation.

Cappuccino andGibbons, assisted by senior neurosurgical resident Ken Snyder, worked to reducethe dislocation. A halo device was screwed into Everett's skull, and while heremained awake, manual pressure and traction weights were used to realign thevertebrae and remove pressure from the pinched spinal cord. Next would come 41/2 hours of surgery to stabilize Everett's vertebrae and further decompressthe spinal cord. Both the reduction and the stabilization surgery are commonpractices in spinal cord injuries and clearly were vital elements of Everett'scare.

BEFORE EVERETThad been put under anesthesia for the operation, Cappuccino had placed a callto Everett's mother. Patricia had begun her day under the impression that shecould watch her son's game on cable television. When she found that the gamewas not carried locally, she and her husband, Herchel Dugas, went to Mulligan'ssports bar in Humble. "We were late because I spent so much time trying toget the game on TV at home," says Patricia. "When I walked in the doorat Mulligan's, it wasn't 15 seconds before I saw Kevin running down the fieldand boom! And then Kevin wasn't getting up, and I was just standing there infront of the TV. It was so noisy everywhere, but I couldn't hear a thing. Ifelt like I was in a movie. And he wasn't getting up."

Patriciaremembered that she kept a number for a member of the team's training staff.From the bar she punched it in, identified herself and left a message. Billsdirector of player programs Paul Lancaster called back shortly and told herKevin had been taken to the hospital. It would be 90 minutes before Cappuccinophoned Patricia from the surgical suite at Gates. She can't recall his exactwords, but snippets are burned into her soul: Your son is paralyzed rightnow.... We're taking him into surgery.... Afterward I want to do somethingcalled cold therapy. "She was upset," says Cappuccino. "Shecried."

It had been atrying summer for Patricia. In August her youngest daughter, Davia, had falleninto a diabetic coma and spent two weeks in intensive care in Galveston. Nowher oldest child was in a hospital, 1,500 miles away, paralyzed. Cappuccinoheld a cellphone to Everett's ear so he could speak with the woman he calls hisMoms. Patricia heard a weak voice on the other end. "Don't worry aboutme," Kevin told her. "I love you."

"That was mybaby," says Patricia, tears rolling down her cheeks as she retells thestory three months later. "He's always been so strong, and he sounded soweak." The next morning Patricia would be on a plane to Buffalo with Moore,at the Bills' expense. The surgery went smoothly and was finished at roughly9:30 on Sunday night. Soon, however, another dilemma presented itself.

Last June thehospital had purchased an Alsius CoolGard 3000 thermal regulation system, whichuses a catheter of cooled saline inserted through the patient's femoral veininto the inferior vena cava, cooling the blood as it flows past the catheterand regulating core body temperature. The machine, which has been helpful intreating strokes and other brain injuries, had not yet been used at thehospital on a spinal cord patient, but Cappuccino felt strongly that inducedhypothermia—at a significantly lower temperature and in a more controlledenvironment than is possible with IV cold saline in the ambulance—could helpEverett.

There wascontentious debate at the hospital. At least two doctors, including Gibbons,did not want to induce hypothermia, which can have dangerous side effects suchas heart arrhythmia, blood clotting problems, pneumonia and organ failure."Dr. Cappuccino was pushing the cooling, and it became a dynamicissue," says Snyder, 35. "He had been saying all along, 'We should dothe cooling. We should do it.'"

Only when Everettstarted developing a low fever did Gibbons and others assent. Still,Cappuccino, who bore the ultimate responsibility because Everett was hispatient, took stock of his position. A native of New York City who counts twoother doctors among his six siblings and whose father was a researchbiochemist, Cappuccino is married to a surgeon, Helen Hess Cappuccino, withwhom he has six children. His life's work and his life experience weighed intothe decisions he made that day.

At one pointduring the debate over inducing hypothermia, Cappuccino called his wife, whosemedical judgment he trusts. She encouraged him to go with his instincts."I'm human," says Cappuccino. "Things passed through my mind. If Ido this and it blows up in my face, I'm exposing myself to a lot of scrutiny.We could lose the house, lose the cars, the kids don't go to college. But I hadto be able to put my head on the pillow that night and believe that I did thebest job I could do."

Everett wasplaced on the CoolGard in the predawn hours of Monday, Sept. 10, and within twohours his body had cooled to a temperature of 91.5°. That morning Everett wasable to squeeze his thighs against Cappuccino's hands. "Everybody wasstunned," says Cappuccino, "including me."

At a pressconference on Monday afternoon, Cappuccino intentionally painted a lesspositive picture. "I'm an optimist," he said to a packed house at theBills' training facility, "but as a scientist and a clinician... I toldKevin the chances for a full neurological recovery were bleak, dismal." Inretrospect, Cappuccino says, "I was [privately] cautiously optimistic, butclassifying the injury neurologically at that point, chances were still that hewould not walk."

Everett continuedto show increased muscle movement and sensitivity on Tuesday, and by Wednesdayhe was removed from the ventilator. (He would remain on the cooling system foranother week to maintain a normal body temperature.) "I hardly rememberanything that happened in those first three or four days in the hospital,"he says now. "I could tell I was better than I was on the field. That wasgood. And I remember I wanted to be strong for my family. I didn't want them tosee me sad or crying."

Others remembertoo. They remember Everett's strength. His dignity. "His attitude wasamazing," says Snyder. "He was so strong for his family. I think it washis attitude that allowed them to get through this. When he woke up [afterhaving the ventilator tube removed], the first thing he said was, 'Thank you.'And then, 'How is my family?'"

Twelve days afteran injury that could have left him in a wheelchair for life, Everett flew toHouston to begin rehab. Less than a month later he would be walking withassistance.

NINETEEN DAYSafter Everett's injury, Barth Green, a neurosurgeon, scrolled through messageson his PDA at The Miami Project's Lois Pope LIFE Center. "I've got e-mailsfrom colleagues telling me to stop talking about hypothermia and offering falsehope," says Green. "I've got 20 e-mails from people on the religiousright telling me that what took place with Kevin Everett is an act of God, notscience, that it's a miracle." He shrugs. This is nothing new. A onetimewonder boy who entered college at 17 and medical school at 20, Green, 62, hasstudied the potential beneficial effects of hypothermia for more than twodecades. He made himself the face of the hypothermia issue before Everett cameoff the ventilator, when he proclaimed publicly on the Tuesday after the injurythat Everett would "walk out of the hospital."

The Miami Projectis a prodigious operation that has raised more than $200 million in 22 yearsfor its own spinal cord injury research. Its public faces are former MiamiDolphins All-Pro linebacker Nick Buoniconti and his son, Marc, who suffered acomplete spinal cord injury while playing college football at The Citadel in1985. Yet in the nearly three months since Everett left Buffalo, Green hasbecome the lightning rod for those in the medical community trying to quell thehypothermia enthusiasm.

"The MiamiProject made some strong statements in the aftermath of Kevin Everett'streatment, saying that hypothermia helped get Kevin Everett up walking,"says Brian Kwon, 36, a spine specialist at Vancouver (B.C.) General Hospital,who is not convinced that hypothermia is helpful to patients with spinal cordinjuries. "They have tremendous scientists in Miami who are doingfantastic, cutting-edge spinal cord injury research. But Kevin Everett is onepatient, and there has never been a published study of the treatment hereceived."

Cappuccino hasalso felt some blowback. "There are doctors out there who think I'm somekind of monster for experimenting on a human being," he says. "Thereare colleagues of mine who think I'm crazy for doing what I did."

It is useful tostep back from the emotions that surround Everett's case and raise two points:First, there is almost unanimous agreement among spinal cord experts thatEverett received exemplary care across many treatments. "The most importantthing that happened in this young man's case was that he received promptmedical and surgical attention from clinicians who knew what they weredoing," says Mark N. Hadley, who directs the neurosurgery residency programat the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

Everett's carewas remarkable on many levels. The Bills employ a spinal surgeon as part oftheir medical staff. (Marzo says that at meetings of the NFL PhysiciansAssociation in 2001 and '02 he proposed making it mandatory that the home teamhave a spine specialist present at each NFL game; he didn't get much supportbut says he will try again.) Carpenter, the head trainer, regularly runs athorough spinal cord drill. Millard Fillmore Gates Circle was the idealhospital, and it served Everett not only with gifted physicians but also with atireless nursing staff that Everett thanked endlessly upon leaving.

The effect ofhypothermia is less certain, in that it is difficult to assess the effect ofany one element in an array of treatments. "There are a number of potentialexplanations for [Everett's] very thankful recovery," says Dan Lammertse,medical director of the Craig Hospital rehabilitation center in Denver."There is no way to parse out the independent contributions of thosevariables."

Recovery varieswidely among spinal cord injury patients. "Do we ever see patients withthis amount of recovery without hypothermia? The answer is yes," saysLammertse. Meanwhile, Everett has met patients who long ago suffered injuriessimilar to his and are still in wheelchairs. Clearly, as an NFL player, hisphysical condition played a role. "His ability to tolerate the physicalstress of treatment was important," says Snyder. "I wonder if we wouldhave treated a 62-year-old obese smoker as aggressively."

Second, the hopein the medical community is that Everett's recovery will lead to funding forclinical trials on the effects of moderate hypothermia in spinal cord injurycases. Hadley says, "Did the hypothermia make a difference? It may havebeen of benefit, but as scientists we don't know. We need clinical trials,where multiple patients get it and similar patients don't, to see if it hasreal merit." The irony is that Everett's highly publicized recovery couldmake it difficult to recruit patients for a clinical trial in which someparticipants do not receive the treatment he did.

Many surgeonscalled for caution. Even Green says, "Don't administer hypothermia unlessit's part of a whole continuum of care, like Dr. Cappuccino used it. We don'tneed people being cowboys out there."

Cappuccino doesnot waver. "I am convinced that cold therapy helped this young man," hesays. "I will use it again."

For Everett,meanwhile, clinical trials and journal articles are of little import. "Iknow what Dr. Cappuccino did," he says. "He saved my life."

HERE IS familiarnoise, the soundtrack of an athlete's life. The heavy crash of a weight stackfalling, the grunts that come with effort, the exhortations of trainers pushingplayers. Everett has heard it all a thousand times. But as much as this is thesame, it is also deeply different. He is in the first-floor gym at TheInstitute for Rehabilitation and Research in Houston. His coach is occupationaltherapist Lisa Criswell, and his assignment is to lift a very small pile ofplates on a chest press machine, to strengthen his upper body. It is hard work."Kevin was frustrated at first," says Criswell. "But such a jumpsince then."

Between sets,another therapist passes, holding a football. Everett turns his palms up,calling for the ball. The therapist tosses a soft knuckler that drops betweenEverett's hands and settles into his lap. "Right in the breadbasket,"he says. The moment is weighted with symbolism.

Everett can livea long, full life, but he will never play his game again. "I miss it,man," he says, and then he pauses, reflecting. "I'm not sure 'miss it'is strong enough. I think about being out there every day. Even back when Itore my ACL, I realized how much love I have for this game. I'm passionate whenI'm out there. I'm emotional. I talk a lot of trash.

"I felt likeI had a real connection with [rookie quarterback] Trent Edwards," he says.Then comes a crooked smile. "Somebody else is going to have to run thattight end screen now."

Yet the rehabcenter is no place for tears. It is a humbling place where self-pity is swiftlyexposed. Everett understands that power and has embraced it. "Every day Isee people in here who are in what you might consider really bad shape,"says Everett. "They've had something taken away from them, but they'rehappy, and they're working hard." A motorized wheelchair glides past.Another patient is lifted onto a soft mat for exercises, unable to do sohimself. Yet another walks past Everett and shakes his hand. "Everyone hereis so positive," says Everett. "A good attitude will take you a longway. Nobody promised me that I would get this far.

"I'mcomfortable with my situation right now," he says. "Some people, Iguess it might take them a long time to accept things. But sooner or later,you're going to have to. And then you put your faith in God and let him showyou the way."

Moore, hisfiancée, drives him to the rehab center in his Escalade and stays there withhim. She takes notes and asks questions and seldom leaves his side, a deepexpression of love. "We met a man here whose wife left him when he had aspinal cord injury," says Moore. "I could never imagine leaving Kevin.I need to be here for him. I'm thankful that we can still be together. He'salive. That's a blessing in itself."

Everett's mothercooks his meals and cares for him. His siblings treat him like a prodigalbrother and clamor for a night out watching the Rockets play. (Kevin hasslipped unnoticed into the Toyota Center a few times, watching NBA games fromthe suite of his agent, Brian Overstreet.) Phones ring throughout the house,the callers wishing Kevin well. "You learn who your friends are whensomething like this happens," says Everett. "I'm lucky to have peoplewho care about me." He makes a point of praising the hospital staff andintroducing them to visitors.

Everett hasthought about his future. Friends have contacted him about coaching high schoolin Texas, and that possibility intrigues him. "I'd like to work withkids," he says. "I'm sure of that. Maybe teaching. I want to stayaround football too." He says that with help from the NFL and the Bills,his medical issues have not created a financial burden.

EVERETT SITS at atall table in the back of the rehab center's gym, playing a game of Chinesecheckers against Wiande. Pinching the marbles with his thumb andforefinger—neither of which yet has much sensation to touch—and moving themaround the slippery game board is valuable exercise for improving his finemotor skills. The competition feeds his personality. It is as if he is in padsagain. Twice today he has beaten therapist Dawn Brown, and now he is closing inon a second win over Wiande. "It's beautiful, isn't it?" he barks afterone jump. "I might as well let you move twice."

At last he liftsa tiny black marble and drops it into the final slot, finishing his victory."I'm just so good!" he shouts. "I'm like the heavyweightchamp!"

He swings hislegs to the side of the chair and pushes himself into open space beforethrowing his arms skyward, standing tall, full of life.

"My body WENT NUMB instantly," says Everett ofthe collision with Hixon. "It felt like he ran smack over me."

"If it were my son on that stretcher," saysCappuccino, "I knew he would say, 'Dad, DON'T LEAVE ME LIKE THIS.'"

"I saw Kevin running down the field and boom!"says Patricia. "And he WASN'T GETTING UP. I felt like I was in amovie."

Everett recalls little about his first days in thehospital, except this: "I remember I wanted to be STRONG FOR MYFAMILY."

"THE SKY IS THE LIMIT," Everett says of therehabilitation process. "I'm going to take this as far as I can."

MORE

Talk of the Town
Read Tim Layden's personal take on the Kevin Everett story.

ONLY AT SI.COM

PHOTOPhotograph by Simon BrutyMIRACULOUS On the field with Cappuccino (white cap) and Carpenter on Sept. 9, Everett's condition looked grim. But with fiancée Wiande on his arm, last Friday was a walk in the park. PHOTODON HEUPEL/AP[See caption above] PHOTO PHOTODAVID DUPREY/APSWIFT ACTION Within moments of the hit, the Bills' medical staff knew they were in the "spinal cord drill," a routine they'd practiced just days earlier. PHOTODON HEUPEL/AP[See caption above] PHOTOBILL WIPPERTCOLD CALL Cappuccino made the controversial decision to use the unproven hypothermia treatment. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYHEAVY WEIGHT Rehab's sights and sounds may remind Everett of football workouts, but the goals differ radically. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYSHAPING UP Much of Everett's work focuses on core strength, which will improve his balance while walking. PHOTOSIMON BRUTYCIRCLE OF LIFE His motor skills and overall condition improving, Everett praises the staff aiding his recovery.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)