Making Goals On and Off the Field: Will Fraser-Gray's Story
Will Fraser-Gray returned to collegiate soccer after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in a car crash.
Will Fraser-Gray, 22, grew up in Lancaster, a city in northwest England. A talented athlete, he played many sports, including rugby, cricket and cross country, but soccer was his favorite. He even had the opportunity to play on two professional sports teams at a young age.
“All I wanted to do was play soccer — it was my main passion. I heard about an amazing opportunity to become a student athlete in America,” Will says. “The idea of traveling and getting to live away from home was really cool, and I wanted to do it.”
Will’s dream came true in August 2018 when he began attending Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, on a soccer scholarship while pursuing a degree in business administration. Then in the early morning hours of March 31, 2019, during his second semester at school, the unthinkable happened.
“My friends and I were in the car on the way back to campus from a night out when we were in a car crash,” Will explains. “The car rolled. I didn’t have a seatbelt on and was thrown outside.”
Will ruptured a ligament in his neck, lacerated his liver and spleen, and punctured a lung. The greatest concern, though, was the traumatic brain injury he had sustained.
“I was rushed to Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center in Athens, Georgia,” Will says. “The doctor performed an emergency craniotomy where a portion of my skull was removed to relieve pressure on my brain.”
Will spent three weeks at Piedmont Athens before transferring to Shepherd Center’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program on April 23. When he arrived at Shepherd, the young athlete had lost 50 pounds since the car crash and needed assistance to walk.
“Initially, it was a massive shock to the system,” Will says. “As much as I had physical injuries, I had quite a few mental injuries, as well. I felt depressed.
“The therapy team at Shepherd put me on a strict schedule like I was back at school. I didn’t have the option of if I’d get better. It was like, no, you are going to get better.”
One of Will’s primary rehabilitation goals was returning to playing soccer at school.
“Every opportunity, my therapists had me practicing dribbling the soccer ball and passing it,” Will says. “Not even a month after the crash, I was playing soccer again in the garden.”
Well on his way to his goal, Will faced another hurdle on May 15 when he had surgery to replace the piece of his skull that had been removed.
“A week after the surgery, I started having seizures,” Will recalls. “I’m a really chatty person, and suddenly I’d be having a conversation and wouldn’t be able to speak or write anything down. Fortunately, I got the right anti-seizure meds about a week later.”
Medically stable, and ready to graduate from inpatient on June 3, 2019, Will had to decide whether to return home or complete outpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd Pathways.
“I just wanted to go back home to the UK to see my friends, family and dog,” Will says. “My friends and family convinced me to stay at least three weeks, and it was honestly the best decision I ever made.”
Will continued to improve physically and cognitively, and with the help of his therapists, he was able to run again and prepare for his return to school.
“I learned strategies to cope with my workload in a new and different way,” Will says. “By the time I finished at Shepherd, I finished all my spring classes online and was able to go back to school in the fall.”
Will began his fall semester on August 7, 2019. While he could not play full contact soccer for a year, Emmanuel College maintained his scholarship. In return, the business major contributed to the team in another way — running the team’s social media account.
By August 2020, Will was cleared to return to full contact soccer at the NCAA Division II level. Due to COVID-19, games were postponed until January 2021, but that made his return all the better.
“I was so ready to be back,” Will says. “I’d not played in 22 months. Two of my best friends who had visited me in Shepherd played with me, and it was a bit emotional for the three of us.”
Will graduates this year and is deciding what he’d like to do from there. One thing he knows he wants to do is use his experience to give back.
“When I went home to the UK, I went back to my old high school and gave a speech about the importance of wearing seatbelts and having a positive attitude,” Will says. “My story can be a vehicle for positive things in peoples’ lives.
“I know this sounds like a happy story, but there were some very tough moments through it all. I genuinely put everything down to Shepherd Center. All the nurses, therapists and surgeons. I just am so grateful I was given the opportunity to go there and be surrounded by these inspirational people.”
Written by Damjana Alverson
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 743 inpatients, 277 day program patients and more than 7,161 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.