IN A RANCH-STYLE HOUSE in the quiet southeastern Texas town of Magnolia (pop. 1,467), a 32-year-old man gently rubs coconut oil onto his daughter's arm, combating her latest bout of eczema. Later, after a dinner of spaghetti with meat sauce and hard-boiled eggs, he will sweep the dining-room floor and joke about his chaotic life as the stay-at-home father of three boisterous girls: the snack breaks, the impromptu fashion shows, the pitter-patter of little girls running around the house. "I hope I'm not scaring you from having kids," he jokes to a visitor.
To be clear: Kevin Everett loves being a dad to five-year-old Famatta, four-year-old Faith and 18-month-old Kelani. He savors the nurturing and the playing. He gently disciplines his daughters the way his grandfather taught him. And the girls love him back. When they see a scratch on their father or hear him cough, they start asking questions.
When Faith was two, she noticed something much more severe than a scratch. She inquired about the seven-inch scar running down the back of her dad's neck. Seven years ago, he coolly explained to his middle child, Daddy got hurt and had to go to the doctor to get fixed.
AT 1 P.M. on Sept. 9, 2007, the opening Sunday of the 88th NFL season, the Bills hosted the Broncos at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Buffalo had gone 7--9 the year before, ending a seventh straight season without making the playoffs, a club record. But in the off-season the team had drafted highly coveted California running back Marshawn Lynch with the 12th pick. Now the slate was clean: 0--0.
It was also to be the year that Everett got a break and injected a little life into the Bills' offense. The versatile 6'4", 253-pound tight end had fought hard to get where he was: He toiled for two years at tiny Kilgore (Texas) College; transferred to Miami and spent a year backing up All-America Kellen Winslow Jr.; and then, after being drafted No. 86 in 2005, tore his left ACL on the first day of his rookie minicamp. Now that Everett was healthy again, offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild was thinking up ways to get Everett and incumbent starter Robert Royal onto the field together in the Bills' 12 personnel grouping. On the 53rd play against Denver, Everett hauled in his first catch of the season, a three-yarder from quarterback J.P. Losman.
Everett also doubled up as a wedge-buster on Buffalo's kickoff-coverage team—that is, he launched himself into the human wall of blockers (a formation that has since been banned) during returns. On the opening kickoff of the second half, however, the wedge for some reason drifted away from Everett, leaving nothing but daylight between him and Broncos return man Domenik Hixon.
Seven years later Everett closes his eyes and re-creates the scene in his mind. "I never really had a clear hit like that on a returner," he says. "I always had to hit the wedge. Every single time."
As Everett turned off the hip of the blocker on the right of the wedge and gathered himself to make the tackle, Hixon lowered his left shoulder to absorb the unimpeded hit. On impact Everett's helmet collided with Hixon's left shoulder pad, and the ballcarrier was knocked on his backside.
But something wasn't right. Bouncing off Hixon, Everett's head jerked back. His arms curled underneath his body as it limply crashed to the turf, paralyzed. The collision pushed his C3 and C4 vertebrae—the third and fourth from the base of the skull—upward and out of alignment, pressing his spinal cord into the shape of a shallow bell curve. With the game stopped, Bills and Broncos players united in a prayer circle as Everett was rushed off on a stretcher.
What happened in the subsequent several hours would be well covered in both sports sections and medical journals. The Bills' spinal consultant, Andrew Cappuccino, was on the sideline when the hit occurred, and en route to Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital he made the decision to start Everett on an IV drip of cool saline solution. This lowered Everett's body temperature, which caused the blood vessels in his arms and legs to constrict. The body responds to cooling by prioritizing blood flow to vital parts: the brain, heart and spinal cord. Inducing hypothermia was and still is a disputed procedure; it can cause infection, blood clots and liver failure. It was a risky decision, but it worked.
Following a four-hour surgery to fuse Everett's C3 and C4 vertebrae and decrease the pressure on his spinal cord, the injured player received more iced saline through a catheter. Shortly after the operation he experienced slight movement in his legs. On Monday, Cappuccino told reporters that his patient would probably never walk again; by Tuesday mobility had become a definite possibility for Everett.
Many media reports credited the hypothermia for the turnaround, though Cappuccino also cites the medical team's quick response to the injury, anti-inflammatory steroids and Everett's top physical condition and strong will. "The preponderance of patients I've taken care of with [an injury like this] did very poorly," says Cappuccino. "They did not walk again, did not breathe on their own. This was a potentially lethal injury."
TWELVE DAYS after his surgery, Everett flew on a private plane from Buffalo to the Institute for Research and Rehabilitation Memorial Hermann in Houston, near his mother, who lived in Humble. Confined to a wheelchair and with no movement in his arms, he spent the next two months being guided through exercises to restore movement and help him stand. When he ate, he required help. "He couldn't do anything for himself," remembers his brother-in-law David Moore. "He was completely dependent upon the nurses and his family."
"I felt helpless," Everett says. "I didn't feel like the man I was."
He pushed through the humiliation. In early October he stood up for a few minutes; on the one-month anniversary of his injury he took his first steps with the help of a walker. And on Nov. 18, walking without aid, Everett was released from the hospital.
His new life began with much fanfare. He delivered a locker-room speech before the Bills' home finale against the Giants. He accepted a special award at the ESPYs, appeared on Oprah and released a book, Standing Tall.
Since then Everett's life has grown much quieter, save for the arrival of the three girls. "I didn't know how [the injury] was going to affect my body in regard to being able to have kids," he says. "I'm blessed." In March the Everetts moved from Spring, a suburb of Houston, to Magnolia, where Kevin and his tireless wife, Wiande—a former track star at Miami, where they met—have settled with their daughters into a protective bubble of family and countryside. Magnolia is the type of place where deer hop the seven-foot fence to frolic in the woods on the Everetts' property. "It's peaceful," Kevin reports. "You don't have to deal with all the traffic and all the crazy people."
The game took away Everett's physical gifts, but it still pays his bills. He receives enough in monthly disability and retirement checks from the NFL to help defray his medical expenses (the Bills paid for his first surgery and the subsequent rehab) and keep his family living comfortably. Wiande stopped working as a teacher two years ago to help raise her children.
At 32, Everett would now be in the twilight of his career—two of the four tight ends at the 2014 Pro Bowl were his age or older—but he's confident it would have been a good one. With his size, he believes, he would have been a difference maker in an offense that desperately needed one; he imagines himself having grown in the mold of athletic freaks such as Jimmy Graham or Vernon Davis. He certainly would have cleared the NFL minimum of $855,000 in 2014. "I know I would've been among the elite," he says. He doesn't talk about what could have been but what would have been: He would have caught 30 to 40 balls a season; he would have pancaked defenders. "Tight ends [today], you're asking a guy to block a defensive end and separate from a safety," says Fairchild, now the offensive coordinator at Virginia. "Kevin was headed in the direction of being a guy who could maybe do both."
Robbed of that, Everett at first found it too painful to watch football. He brooded about on-field scenarios, compared his old self to other tight ends. Time has helped dull the pain. "I know I wouldn't be playing too much longer now," he says, "so it really doesn't hurt that much to think about it anymore. But early on, that's when it really hurt."
Everett knows he had no control over what happened. "It wasn't meant to be," he says. "That's the only way I can look at it; that's the way I've come to accept it."
What he can't accept is the violence and brutality of a game that he isn't part of anymore. Hits like the one that ended his career happen in every NFL game—nearly 30,000 tackles were recorded in 2013 alone—and he gets frustrated when commentators talk about the importance of tacklers keeping their heads up. Players lower their heads all the time, he says; only when a gruesome injury results is the practice brought to light.
Everett knows better than anyone how the game can rob an athlete of his career, but that doesn't mean he'd stop a loved one from playing football. He'd let his own son play. "Just because one thing happened to one man, doesn't mean it's going to happen to the next," he says.
FOR NOW, though, the three girls keep their parents busy enough. When Kevin is not entertaining his daughters, he fills his time by maintaining his house and yard, shooting pool, reading (one of his latest: The Sunday Morning Black and White Divide, a book about race and religion by Chester Hicks) and working out—everything from cardio to shoulders to leg lifts. To an outsider these are the activities of a perfectly able-bodied person, but Everett must tailor his habits to suit his considerable physical pain. He takes frequent breaks while working around the house and does not lift more than 20 pounds while exercising. He has figured out a way to hold his pool cue so that he doesn't have to strain his back, which constantly feels as if it's being jabbed by a baseball bat.
The pain starts early in the day and doesn't let up. Painful spasms can interrupt Everett's sleep. Getting out of bed, says Wiande, "is his toughest challenge." Kevin must stretch and loosen up to improve his circulation. Once he's up and about, it's not much easier. He quietly fights through constant discomfort in his neck and back, which he says he's learned to block out. On a scale of 1 to 10, he measures his pain as consistently around 7. He fights a nagging numbness in his limbs, and his body drags if he doesn't take his pain medication. He cannot run, and while driving he holds the bottom of the steering wheel to avoid straining his shoulder.
Nevertheless Everett carries himself in a way that largely masks his limitations. His gait isn't much different from anyone else's, perhaps a tad slower. He takes each step precisely, as if walking were a newly acquired skill. "If you put a postage stamp flat on your desk and asked him to swipe it with his finger and pick it up like you or I might do, he's got difficulty with that," says Cappuccino, who still talks to Everett regularly. "Buttoning small buttons—that he'll always have a problem with."
None of this has prevented Everett from staying in shape. He maintains a healthy diet and tries to keep his sweet tooth at bay. At 235 pounds, he's about 20 lighter than his playing weight but still built like a high-level athlete.
Somehow he's also retained his easygoing nature. Pain and all, he wields a sharp wit and doesn't complain much. (Occasionally he retreats to a dark closet to pray for strength.) His disarming generosity puts visitors at ease.
Everett's balance might be wobbly, but he's a rock for his family and friends. They speak of him as a caring father and friend, quick to come to the aid of his loved ones. "If I needed anything I'll just call him up," says close friend Tony Tompkins, a middle school and high school teammate. "He wouldn't ask any questions." Kevin and Wiande are patient with their girls, letting them play dress up and control the TV. Kevin can't run around with his daughters, but he shuffled up the stairs as fast as he could one morning in March when Faith accidentally locked herself in a second-story bathroom. And last year he extended that love to the man who once saved his life. Upon hearing that Cappuccino had been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, Everett offered up his bone marrow to the doctor. In the end Cappuccino (who is now healthy) received a donation from his own brother, but the gesture was the kind of thing Everett envisions being his legacy. His top priority these days is to revive the Kevin Everett Foundation, which he started in 2008. Back then he was able to provide medical equipment for several families dealing with spinal-cord injuries, but the foundation never got the publicity he was hoping for. He wants to start over, this time with help from Wiande, who has business experience. (She runs a nonprofit publishing company with her siblings.)
After making the tackle that dropped him, almost permanently, off his feet and then completing his comeback, Everett was called an inspiration, a miracle, a testament to the human will. In the years since, his name has faded from the national conversation, but this more mundane life is where Everett displays the qualities that make him a powerful figure still. Bitterness could easily have afflicted him but another emotion took its place. He wants to care—for his kids, his friends, anyone who needs it.
"That's how I am, man," he says. "You show me love, I'm going to show you twice as much."