Life After Football
Shepherd Center provides rehabilitation and hope for high school football players who sustain brain or spinal cord injuries.
Athletes with spinal cord or brain injuries – particularly high school football players – often enter Shepherd Center’s doors stunned, disoriented and doubtful about the prospects for their future.
But while they are patients, most undergo change – sometimes in the physical body in the form of returned function, but almost always in the spirit, soul and mind. They begin to realize that though they probably cannot return to the football field, they can rebuild their lives with hope, independence and dignity, which is part of Shepherd Center’s stated mission.
Despite increased national emphasis on safety and injury prevention in football, the past two seasons produced an unusually high number of spinal cord and brain injuries at the high school level. Eight of those injured players – like many other athletes before them – came to Shepherd Center for rehabilitation, and eight of them experienced the hospital’s nationally ranked, holistic approach to care. They reached many of their goals for recovery while still patients, and they continue to make progress since returning home.
Shepherd Center Medical Director Donald Peck Leslie, M.D., reels off the names behind these rehabilitation success stories – Odion, Colt, Jared, Drake, Cooper, Joshua, Terry and Timothy. Each young man has a unique story to tell (see the sidebar articles on the following pages), but all represent what can happen when excellence in care combines with excellence in character and condition.
“We have an incredible list of young athletes, injured in their sport, who are back to home, school, friends and life,” Dr. Leslie says. “Is it simply because a lot of injured patients are athletes, or does it speak more to Shepherd’s broad continuum of care and success record? I think it’s both.
“One of the ongoing themes here is that this is a special group of patients, who before their injury, were in excellent condition and were motivated to get back to an active lifestyle,” he explains. “In addition to the excellent care provided by our physicians and nurses, and the physical, occupational, psychological and other types of therapy we provide, Shepherd Center offers so many more opportunities for recreational therapy than what other rehabilitation hospitals do. We have more than 30 therapeutic recreation staff members working to get people back into activities they enjoy. Some can return to sports they enjoyed before the injury, and others move on to adapted sports – like Curtis Lovejoy, a swimmer and fencer and one of our Paralympic gold medalists.”
Also part of Shepherd Center’s broad continuum of care and stated mission is the promotion of safety and injury prevention. Staff members regularly make presentations to middle and high school students, emphasizing sports safety in particular.
Dr. Leslie believes, particularly in football, that safety and injury prevention messages across the country are now getting the attention they deserve. Football players are safer and better protected than ever, though there’s still room for improvement, he says.
“If you walk into an NFL dressing room, you’ll see constant reminders of concussions,” Dr. Leslie notes. “You used to hear, ‘Oh, he got his bell rung.’ But that doesn’t get it anymore. Players with potential concussions are getting adequate evaluations and MRIs now, and the medical attention they are getting is fantastic. It’s happening with spinal cord injuries, too. What used to be considered just stingers are now evaluated to see what really happened. In the past, you’d hear people talk about nine concussions and how a player never missed a game. As a result, they have long-term neurological effects. But I’m hopeful because today we have the most awareness about brain and spinal cord injuries in athletes than we’ve had in the 28 years I’ve practiced rehabilitation medicine.”
This awareness combined with better athletic training and protective equipment will prevent injuries, Dr. Leslie says. But accidents still happen, and for those cases, he adds, Shepherd Center remains committed to excellent rehabilitation care that provides the best chance for injured athletes to return to an active lifestyle.
Injury Prevention Resources
The National Athletic Trainers Association has posted the “Heads Up” football injury prevention video – produced by Ron Courson, University of Georgia director of sports medicine – on its website at www.nata.org/consumer/headsup.htm.
Colt Brake, 17, of Rocky Mount, N.C., is still getting used to his “new normal” while holding out hope that this normal might someday be a thing of the past.
Colt sustained an incomplete C-4 spinal cord injury when he made a tackle on Oct. 8, 2010 in a high school football game.
“I remember tackling the guy, and right after I hit him, I tried to get up and couldn’t move,” Colt says. “I remember everything from that game. When I got hurt, I was in shock. I didn’t really feel anything. But I knew it was bad. Right there on the field, I knew I was paralyzed.”
Colt’s self diagnosis was confirmed to his mother, Tammy Brake, at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, N.C.
“They did X-rays and told us it was a really bad – a crushed C-4 and broken C-5 vertabrae,” she recalls. “They told us it was a severe spinal cord injury. As a mom, your body goes into automatic survival mode. At that moment, we learned to live for each moment. Even today, we don’t think about tomorrow until it gets here.”
Colt, who uses a sip-and-puff power wheelchair, says he’s regained a lot of the weight he lost after his injury and is gaining strength in his biceps.
Tammy says it was the education she and her family received at Shepherd Center that equipped them to adapt to their new life with confidence.
“I learned so much at Shepherd, and it was all because they are such good teachers,” she says. “There are a lot of responsibilities when you leave there, but we were so confident and educated about what we needed to do. Colt had to be able to tell someone how to do everything, even though he couldn’t do it himself. He could walk someone through it all, step by step. Coming home wasn’t so scary because I was so educated. If we had not gone to Shepherd, would I have that? I’m not sure.”
While a patient, Colt appreciated having people his age “to talk to and hang around with” at Shepherd Center. He keeps in touch with many of them on Facebook.
“It’s been good to be back home and have people come visit me all the time and take me to my favorite places to eat,” he says. “But it’s been tough watching the baseball team (for which Colt also played) and not being able to be out there with them.”
This past winter and spring, Colt attended classes three days a week and therapy twice a week. He is on target to graduate from high school next year.
Colt and his family remain convinced that he has not seen the end of his physical improvement.
“We met plenty of people at Shepherd who said not to listen to people who say that what you don’t have after six months, you’ll never get back,” Tammy says. “Plenty of people at Shepherd have kept seeing improvements. One lady there told us that after five years, she was still regaining function. That keeps us pushing.”
Even at the young age of 15, Cooper Doucette of Nashua, N.H., knew plenty about tackling – both how to do it and how not to do it.
Never lead with your head. Keep your head up, and then hit with your shoulder. Coaches and trainers had ingrained in Cooper the proper techniques for tackling and injury prevention. But flukes happen, even when you are doing it the right way.
“It was a normal drill,” Cooper recalls of the football practice session on Aug. 14, 2010. “I was on defense, and the runner broke out and I went in for the tackle. I was deciding which side to put my head. I went to one side, and he moved the same way at the same time. When I hit him, I fell to the ground and couldn’t move. I knew it was bad. I told the manager I couldn’t move anything.”
Cooper sustained a C-5 incomplete spinal cord injury – initially diagnosed as complete – and underwent surgery at Children’s Hospital in Boston to stabilize his spine. Then, he spent two months in rehabilitation at Shepherd Center.
“Being at Shepherd Center was a real positive experience,” Cooper says. “Meeting all the kids and others who were hurt like I was and seeing how they were doing was encouraging. When I got there, I couldn’t move my arms. When I left, I could move both arms and wrists. The activities were actually fun. The teen-ager ‘Fun Fridays’ were fun, and I actually liked the outpatient program a lot, too. It felt like I was on my own with my family, but still getting the treatment I needed.”
Cooper, now 16, returned to his home in November 2010. Since then, he’s met many of his goals, but still has plenty he’s working toward.
“I’m doing good therapy-wise, and I’ve been back in school since December,” he says. “I’ve gotten some finger movement and have wiggled my toes. I still don’t have any leg movement, but I’m sure that will come soon.”
Getting back to his routine at home went a long way toward keeping Cooper’s spirits up, he says.
“I couldn’t wait to get back to school,” says Cooper, who has made the honor roll every quarter since he returned to school. “It was fun to see everyone and getting back into the groove of things. It was hard in a way, but I got used to it pretty quickly.”
Eventually, Cooper hopes to walk again. But more immediately, he wants to become more independent and be able to push a manual wheelchair on a regular basis.
“I’ve been doing that some recently, and I’ve been turning myself in my bed,” he explains. “I’m trying to do as much as I can by myself. Doctors have told me since my injury was an incomplete one, there’s a chance to do a lot more.”
Cooper is hoping to participate in an SCI rehabilitation program near his home this summer and then perhaps return to Shepherd soon thereafter. “I know I need more intense therapy,” Cooper adds.
From her spot in the bleachers, Andrea Damesworth would look for No. 66 after every play – partly because Drake Damesworth, now 15, of Gleason, Tenn., was her favorite football player and partly to make sure her son was OK.
But on Sept. 17, 2010, she didn’t see No. 66 walking away from one of the collisions that happens on the line of scrimmage with every play. This time, her son was on the ground, and he wasn’t getting up.
“I was frozen in my spot on the bleachers, looking across the field, looking for 66. ‘Where’s Drake?’ I kept asking,” Andrea recalls. “When I finally realized it was him on the ground, it was surreal. My husband, Alan, was already headed to field.”
Mom wasn’t far behind. When they got to Drake, they discovered their boy had been hurt seriously – even though trainers were thinking it might be only a stinger.
By the time Drake got in the ambulance, rescue workers didn’t mask the severity of his condition.
“They told me it was a lot more serious than what we were hearing on the field,” Andrea says. “They were not taking him to the local hospital, but instead, were going to fly him to Jackson, then ultimately to Memphis.”
Once at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, MRIs and CAT scans confirmed that Drake had sustained an incomplete C-5 to -6 spinal cord injury.
“That was our reality check,” Andrea says. “Doctors said he’d probably never walk again, never play sports, never do this or that. All I kept hearing the doctor say was never, never.”
Within a couple of days, a Shepherd Center admissions liaison evaluated Drake at Bonner and began the process to get him transferred to Atlanta.
“We had never heard of Shepherd Center and didn’t really want to come to Atlanta,” Andrea says. “But nurses there kept telling us that if we wanted him to have a chance to walk again, that is where we needed to go.”
Once at Shepherd, Drake began rigorous rehabilitation.
“When I got to Shepherd, I started moving my left foot a little,” Drake recalls. “They told me my injury was incomplete and that I would get some leg movement back. I worked on it everyday at therapy until I could walk with a walker. I took seven steps the first time, and my blood pressure bottomed out. The second time, I took 33 steps. I was making improvements every day.
“If I hadn’t gone to Shepherd, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Drake, who can walk short distances with just a slight limp. “If I’d stayed somewhere in my neck of the woods, I don’t think I would be walking today.”
Drake probably will not need a wheelchair at all by this fall when school starts back. He’s hoping to be able to do a light jog sometime in the not-too-distant future.
“I’m setting goals so I can stay in shape and not be a couch potato,” Drake explains. He looks forward to participating in sports again.
“I won’t be able to play football,” he said. “So maybe I’ll work on golf and try out for the team.”
When Jared Coppola, 18, of North Reading, Mass., sustained a C-5 incomplete spinal cord injury while playing football in September 2009, it was the second time his parents were told that one of their triplet sons had a serious back injury. This one, though, was by far the worst. Jared was paralyzed and continues to undergo therapy.
In 2008, Jared’s brother Brandon had fractured his C-5 vertebra while playing football. Brandon can walk, but the injury ended his football-playing career. He stayed with his team as a trainer. The third of the triplets, Tyler, is a record-setting running back at his high school and will play football this fall at Marist College.
Jared, who made great improvements as an inpatient at Shepherd Center for several months, worries about his brother, he says. But Jared doesn’t obsess over it. Instead, he enjoys every minute of being around his teammates and his brothers.
“I wanted Tyler to keep playing,” Jared says. “He loves the sport, and he didn’t want to regret not playing his senior year. He kept us in mind while playing and set records for rushing yards at our school.”
Jared got one last chance to be in the middle of the field at the 50-yard line last fall. It’s something he’ll never forget.
“On Thanksgiving Day 2010, I used a walker to walk out on the field for the coin toss – as a captain with my brothers,” Jared recalls. “It was special to be on the field again with both of my brothers. There were a lot of cameras, but I wasn’t nervous because I knew I could do it. My teammates, their parents, no one had gotten to see the progress I’d made in therapy, or seen how far I’d come. So I think it meant a lot to everyone.”
Jared has regained movement in his upper body and can walk some with a walker. He hopes he’s nowhere near the end of making such improvements. “My goal is to just keep getting stronger, keep pushing forward, more and more steps every time I’m walking,” he says.
This fall, he plans to go to the University of New Hampshire, where his older brother plays football, and study business. In the meantime, he’ll enjoy time with friends and his brothers this summer.
“I hang out with friends a lot,” Jared says. “My brothers will take me out, throw me over their shoulder and take me places. We hang out outside, a lot with the same kids as before. They’ve stuck with me through this, and it’s been a big help.”
The Coppola story is so inspiring that ESPN filmed a documentary for its popular “E:60” news magazine show. The segment is scheduled to air this summer.
Jared says being featured on ESPN is something he and his brothers will never forget – even though they’d obviously rather be featured for on-field accomplishments. But great achievements often occur in everyday life, off the field, he adds.
“It’s exciting to be on E:60,” Jared says. “They came to our first playoff game, and it was kind of weird. We didn’t know a lot about it up front, but they did a lot of work to put it together. The preview, which is all we saw ahead of time, everyone liked. We can’t wait for it to come out.”
Initially, doctors said the chances of survival were low for Joshua Haddock, 18, of Cumming, Ga., who sustained a traumatic brain injury during football practice in September 2010.
Joshua had been hit in practice the day before things got critical. He had a headache and was a little grumpy, but everyone thought he was OK.
The next day at practice, he got dizzy, felt like he’d been hit by a train and then collapsed. The last thing he remembers is looking at his team’s trainer and being unresponsive to her direction.
He began seizing on the field, and his body was stiff as a board, recalls his mother, Natalie Rae Bryn-Roth. By time he got to Northside Forsyth Hospital, doctors were awaiting him outside the emergency room. Joshua had a severe brain bleed. He was flown to Atlanta’s Northside Hospital, where chaplains met Natalie at the door, and doctors told her they’d do what they could.
“The doctor told me, ‘This is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to recover from,’” she says. “He was not sure Joshua would survive. I told him to get back in there and make him survive because we have 200 people in the hospital, all on their knees, praying in circles.”
Joshua not only survived surgery, he surprised everyone by staying significantly ahead of schedule in his immediate recovery.
“An hour out of surgery, a nurse came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to see this. You’ve got a fighter. He’s already opened his eyes.’”
Two weeks later, Joshua was transferred to Shepherd Center.
“When he got there, he had no balance and couldn’t walk, but they got to work on him using a gait belt,” Natalie says. “At that point, the doctor at Northside who told me he might not wake up told me he was going to walk out of Shepherd on his own. He said what Joshua did, that wasn’t normal. People don’t recover like this.”
At Shepherd, Joshua received physical, occupational and speech therapy and was discharged after only a week.
After giving his brain more time to heal, Joshua returned to playing lacrosse at his high school in spring 2011. He is now a freshman at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and plans to continue playing lacrosse there.
Joshua says he has tried to stay as focused on his goals as he was before his injury. “I always knew I was college bound, and when I got out of the hospital, I wanted to make sure I was on track for that with my school work,” he says.
When Odionikhere “Odion” Agbi, 16, of Grayson, Ga., sustained a C-4 to -5 incomplete spinal cord injury on the football field in November 2010, his mother, Juliana Agbi, says she got a word from God, through Odion’s 11-year-old brother.
“‘He’s going to be all right,’ my youngest son told me,” Juliana recalls. “Now, I know that an 11-year-old boy might not be right about that, but for whatever reason, God used him to calm me down that night. I was a total wreck. When he spoke these words of encouragement that Odion was going to be all right, I instantly thought of the Bible verse that says, ‘Cast all your burdens on Him, because He cares for you.’”
Doctors at Gwinnett Medical Center couldn’t offer that kind of assurance. They knew Odion would need immediate surgery. But beyond that, they weren’t sure.
“They kept asking him to move his toes, fingers, something,” Juliana says. “He was lying motionless in the hospital bed. They didn’t know if he’d move again or not.”
Odion remembers almost none of that.
“The very first thing I remember was waking up on the field and not being able to move,” he says. “My coach was praying over my leg, which hurt. It’s the only thing I could move. Then I blacked out again. I vaguely remember lying in a hospital bed, but I was very medicated. I remember seeing a couple of people and seeing my mom cry. Two days after surgery is when I really can start remembering things.”
What happened after his surgery, Juliana believes, is nothing short of a God thing.
“His recovery has been nothing short of a miracle,” she says. “We thank God for that. He was at Atlanta Medical Center for a week or so, then was moved to Shepherd Center, which was a wonderful experience. He still talks about it with fondness. It was a very comforting environment. The doctors and everyone were so very knowledgeable. The treatment he got was part of God’s plan for his recovery. It was marvelous.”
Odion underwent a short period of inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd. “When I got to Shepherd, I was already walking with some help, but I made a lot of improvements there,” he recalls.
“Shepherd Center was amazing,” he says. “They treated me like I was a king, and it felt good. I never saw anyone in a bad mood there – patients, nurses, doctors. Everyone was friendly. Oh, and the food there was great, too.”
When Odion was discharged from Shepherd Center, he was still feeling a little “tingly,” he recalls. But that went away after a month or so, and today, he’s essentially symptom-free. He returned to school and was cleared to play any sport except for football or wrestling. Those are small sacrifices as far as Odion is concerned.
“I’m running summer track, doing the 200- and 400-meter, and playing basketball,” says the rising high school junior. “I’m OK with not playing football. I’m going to have to get over that. As long as I can be with my team and teammates, I’m fine. It was very important seeing how much they cared. I didn’t expect to see so many people come and pray for me, but it helped me push through.”
In his hometown of Rocky Mount, N.C., Terry Pittman, 14, is somewhat of a local hero, a walking miracle doing things few thought he’d ever do again – like walking.
Terry sustained a C-5 incomplete spinal cord injury during a football practice in September 2010.
“I was playing defensive end, and as soon as the quarterback got the ball hiked to him, a gap opened up and I went through to make the tackle,” Terry recalls. “I ducked my head and went down the wrong way. My whole body went numb. I didn’t know what was going on; I was in shock.”
Normally, Terry’s mother Tamara came to his practices, but she was not there the day Terry was injured.
“We live about five minutes from school, and it was near the end of practice when I got a call,” Tamara recalls. “At first, everyone was thinking it was just a stinger. He was talking to people while he was on the ground, but he kept saying he couldn’t move his legs or arms. He was not crying or anything, so we were hoping for the best. We got to the local hospital, and then they airlifted him to Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, N.C.”
Doctors there didn’t expect Terry would walk again, Tamara says. The Pittmans had other plans, though. Terry completed inpatient rehabilitation in Greenville and then transferred to Shepherd Center for the SCI Day Program followed by the NeuroRecovery Network (NRN) program.
“When we got to Shepherd Center, they worked with him right away and got him going,” Tamara says. “It was almost an instant change. They said he would walk again. They saw that he was strong.”
Terry was struck at just how intense therapy was at Shepherd Center. But even at his young age, he recognized that the harder he was pushed and the harder he tried, the better chances he had of walking on his own.
“When I was in inpatient rehabilitation, I was sick a lot because my blood pressure kept dropping,” Terry recalls. “I could barely even stand up. But at Shepherd, they kept working on my endurance, and I started making improvements.”
While participating in NRN, Terry began walking again.
“He’s gained most everything back.” Tamara says. “He’s walking around smiling, talking, real positive. Seeing him look stronger is such a blessing.”
By May, Terry was only using one forearm crutch. His goal is to walk with no assistance and return to his normal life – with one exception.
“I’m sure I’m done with football,” he says. “Maybe I can play golf or something. I’m encouraged by the improvements I’m making. When I was told I’d never walk again, I decided to remain positive, despite that. Then when I got to Shepherd, it was easy to stay encouraged. I saw people who’d been through this and worse, and they were walking. That gave me a lot of encouragement.”
Timothy Robinson, 19, of Mobile, Ala., is not pleased with the slow pace of the progress he’s made since sustaining a severe brain injury in October 2009 while playing in a high school football game. He cannot walk or talk. But his mother, Evelyn McGhee, focuses on the function he has regained and encourages Timothy to consider how far he’s come.
“He’s a little discouraged because his lifestyle was so vigorous and active before the injury, and now he can’t do those things,” Evelyn says. “And a lot of his classmates have gone off to college now. It’s all depressing to him sometimes.
“But I’ve seen great improvements,” she adds. “He can help pull himself up and stand with assistance, where before he couldn’t. His upper-body strength has improved a lot, and he can roll over on his left side in bed now. He’s able to do a lot he couldn’t before. He does great on the computer. He stays in touch with his friends on Facebook, and he can text now. I’m constantly reminding him just how far he has come.”
Timothy sustained his injury in the final minutes of a game on Oct. 9, 2009. He had emergency brain surgery at Mobile Infirmary Hospital and later was transferred to Shepherd Center for inpatient rehabilitation and then post-acute rehabilitation at Shepherd Pathways. He was discharged in April 2010.
Today, Timothy’s spirit seems to elevate when he talks about his former teammates and how they rallied around him after the injury. Shortly after being discharged from Shepherd Center, he was able to visit his team in the locker room.
“Oh, it was like a dream,” Timothy says via a Facebook online chat. “Even the teachers were excited to see me. I wasn’t able to communicate much except by using my hands. I’d hold up one finger for yes and two for no. But I could laugh at their jokes and smile. And I remember them telling me that I was the reason we won the homecoming game because of my motivation for the team. That felt good.”
Both Timothy and his mother say the Shepherd Center rehabilitation experience prepared them for whatever lies ahead.
Timothy finished high school in 2010 and wants to attend college at the University of South Alabama, which is very near his house. But he wants total independence, Evelyn says, and that might not be feasible by this fall. Regardless, Timothy has a plan for his life.
“I want to have a multi-platinum-selling album for my gospel rap CD, ‘Defeating the Enemy,’ which I hope to release in the near future, and I want to be able to walk, talk and hopefully find love. Oh, and I’ve got myself a girlfriend now!”
To Evelyn, that just shows her son’s spirits are not down too much.
“He is always seeking to do something different to make his life better,” she says. “There is constant change – even with him having a girlfriend on Facebook. I’m wondering how someone who can’t walk or talk gets a girlfriend. But my son did!”
Written by Bill Sanders
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.