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Miracle in the Making
The Adam Taliaferro Story
By Scott Brown, Sam Carchidi
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Scott Brown and Sam Carchidi
All rights reserved.
Death of a Dream
Get up, Adam Taliaferro kept repeating to himself. Get up!
The Penn State freshman cornerback had just made a helmet-first tackle and, as he pleaded for assistance and his arms flailed uncontrollably, his body felt glued to the ground by an unknown force.
Help was coming. Penn State's trainer ran onto the wet Ohio State football field and held Taliaferro's head. Wayne Sebastianelli, the Penn State doctor, was right behind him. Sebastianelli calmly started giving Taliaferro stern, lifesaving instructions. "Concentrate on me, Adam," Sebastianelli said. "Focus on my eyes."
"Help me up," Taliaferro said.
"Do not move," Sebastianelli cautioned. "Do not try to get up. Do not move your head from side to side."
This scene took place during the waning minutes of a one-sided Ohio State victory. No one cared about the score — or that it would become the most lopsided loss in Joe Paterno's 35 years as Penn State's coach. Players held hands. Most knelt and prayed. Some cried.
"Stop rolling your shoulders," Sebastianelli said firmly but gently as he tried to alleviate the fear in Taliaferro's chocolate-brown eyes. "We need to keep you still."
Ever since he was six years old, Adam had known that he would play in the NFL someday. That was before he became a New Jersey high school football sensation, before he earned a full scholarship to play for Penn State's highly distinguished football program. But now, as he lay on the ground, there were more important issues concerning the quiet and lovable 18-year-old. None concerned the NFL.
"I couldn't feel anything except my head and face," Taliaferro said later. "I didn't know what I had done to myself. It felt like my whole body was broken."
Taliaferro, a sleek and speedy 5'11", 183-pounder, had just tackled a 231-pound running back; the violent impact had caused his neck to snap backward. Though woozy, his first instinct told him to pop off the ground like he had done thousands of other times. Get up, he told himself as he stared at the sky while prone on his back. Mom is watching on TV, and you know how she gets. Get up and show her you're OK. Show Dad, Alex, and the millions of people watching across the nation, too. Show the 98,124 fans at Ohio Stadium that this is just a minor setback, that you can walk off the field and give a polite wave for their support.
Taliaferro didn't remember the hit. All he could remember was waking up on the ground. Waking up and asking for someone to take his hand and pull him up. Waking up and wondering why, for the first time in his life, he had no control over his body's movements. His arms were flapping back and forth in front of his face, and he couldn't stop them.
To those who were watching on national TV, seeing Adam's arms move seemed like a positive sign. What they didn't know was that it was involuntary movement, that Adam wasn't able to move his fingers, that he had no feeling in his hands or legs.
Back in Voorhees, New Jersey, an upscale suburb located 18 miles outside of Philadelphia, Taliaferro's parents and his 14-year-old brother, Alex, watched the scene on their big-screen, family-room television set. Until that day, either one or both of his parents had attended every one of his football games since he was six years old. This was the first game they had ever missed. And now, when Adam seemed to need them most, they were helpless, 512 miles away. Watching from the comfort of their cozy, two-story home. Watching and answering frantic phone calls from friends and relatives. Watching and pleading and praying as Adam was given medical attention on the field — and a commercial, a damn commercial, interrupted their only connection with their soft-spoken, strikingly handsome son. "I wanted to jump through the TV set and be there with him," said Addie Taliaferro, Adam's mother.
When Adam played football in high school, Addie was so terrified that her son would be injured that, after watching the first quarter, she would retreat to the parking lot and sit in her car. It was her sanctuary, her way of coping. She would sit in the front seat, roll down the window, and listen to the public-address announcer give accounts of the game. "Fifty-five yard run! Touchdown, Adam Taliaferro!" The announcer's voice would echo around the stadium, around the parking lot.
It was a soothing sound for Addie. Not so much because her son had scored, not so much because he had broken off another long run, not so much because Eastern High was headed toward another victory. It was soothing because her son had not been injured on the play.
Addie could picture that oh-so-contagious smile as he crossed the goal line. She could picture him graciously hugging the linemen who had thrown the run-springing blocks. She didn't need to watch any of it. All she needed to know was that her son was safe, that he was in one piece. And if she could just sit in her car and think positive thoughts while opposing players were trying to snap her little boy in half, well, her Adam would be protected. "It was just so quiet and peaceful in there," Addie said.
There was no peace, no quiet, no comforting words from the PA announcer as the Taliaferros waited for the commercial to end and the camera to zoom in on their son on September 23, 2000. It was a day that changed Adam's life. A day that changed the whole family's life. A day that some frightening words, no matter how hard they tried to deny them, became a daily part of the family's vocabulary. Words like quadriplegic and paralysis.
At Ohio Stadium, those devastating words started to filter into some people's minds as Adam was given medical attention. In the meantime, four commercials that took a total of a minute and 30 seconds were shown to the rest of the country. When the commercials ended, Adam was still down; he was having problems breathing as he listened to the doctor's instructions in front of a packed, church-quiet stadium.
"Stay still and stay focused. Do not move." The words were especially difficult for Sebastianelli. He had developed a close relationship with Adam in the few months they had known each other. He had treated him for a dislocated thumb, which required surgery in the preseason, and they had developed a bond.
It was easy to develop a bond with Adam. He was so humble, so sincere, so polite. He wasn't the stereotypical football superstar. This is someone who worked as a nurse's aide as a high school senior, someone who had to be coaxed by his high school English teacher to miss a class so he could accept an award at a football banquet, someone who was an honor student and a model citizen, someone with "a fantastic smile and calmness and humility to him," Sebastianelli said. He fought back tears when he realized it was Adam who had been injured. This was the first on-the-field spine injury he had ever treated.
As Sebastianelli spoke, pads were placed behind Adam's neck and trainer George Salvaterra held his head so it wouldn't move. If the head doesn't remain still and in a neutral position, a fracture of the vertebra can sever and severely damage the spinal cord. That, in turn, can compromise breathing.
Adam didn't realize the severity of his injury. All he knew was that he had no feeling in his legs. And as he was lifted onto a stretcher, the other players knelt, held hands, and said silent prayers.
Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn State coach, took a look at Adam's condition and kicked the turf in disgust. It was the worst injury he had ever witnessed in his 60-year association with the sport. "Just looking in his eyes, he had so much fear there," Paterno said. When he went to Adam's side, he hoped it was a minor injury. "But then when I looked and saw the anxiety of the medical people and everybody else," he said, "I knew."
For Paterno, it was personal. In 1977, his then 11-year-old son, David, fell off a trampoline at his school and fractured his skull, slipping into a coma for seven days before making a full recovery. "As soon as I saw Adam on the field," Paterno said, "I remembered seeing my boy on the concrete floor at Our Lady of Victory."
Based on Adam's symptoms and the numbness he was describing, Sebastianelli knew immediately that the injury was serious. The rest of the nation drew a similar conclusion, mainly due to the fact that, from the time Taliaferro made the tackle, it took nine minutes and 51 seconds before he was placed into an ambulance. For the Taliaferro family, those minutes seemed like years.
The attending doctors and trainers were deliberate for a reason. They knew that if Adam was moved incorrectly, the injury could become even more catastrophic. There were indicators, including Adam's inability to move body parts in certain ways and the unnatural position of his legs (they were rolled up on each other), that this was a potentially life-threatening injury. "The motor control left behind indicated that his injury was at the cervical vertebrae," Sebastianelli said. From his examination on the field, it was pretty clear "that we were dealing with an injury of the fifth cervical level."
In layman's terms: a broken neck.
* * *
In central New Jersey, Adam's girlfriend and high school sweetheart, Rutgers University freshman Jen Greenberg, watched Adam make his life-altering tackle on her dorm TV — and celebrated.
Jen, blonde and attractive, outgoing and articulate, attended Adam's Eastern High football games to socialize and hang out with friends. It wasn't until her senior year, when Adam scored 28 touchdowns and was a two-way standout, that she actually became interested in the sport.
She couldn't believe what she had been missing.
And, now, as she watched Adam make a tackle on national TV, it seemed just like old times. Adam making a big hit. Adam in the spotlight. Adam on his way to becoming a collegiate star. She raced out of her Rutgers dorm to spread the good news — unaware that Adam was still on the ground and unable to get up.
Jen had been watching the game with two friends. They saw Adam make the tackle, made some small talk, and took their eyes off the TV for a few seconds. Jen ran next door to spread the good news: "Adam just made a great play," she said to her friend Matt.
When she returned to her dorm room a few minutes later, her friends were gone. She turned on the TV, but the network had switched to another game. "I just figured the Penn State game was over," she said.
She needed to talk with some people, needed to celebrate Adam's crunching tackle. She picked up the phone and called J. D. Benson, Adam's Penn State roommate.
"Were you watching the game? Wasn't it a good tackle?" Jen's cheeriness stunned J.D., who was still watching the on-field drama unfold on his TV.
"What?" he said.
"Did you see Adam's tackle?"
J.D. was dumbfounded by Jen's question. "What are you saying?" he said, the words coming out slowly, painfully.
"Did I wake you up or something?" Jen asked. "You sound like you were sleeping. You sound upset."
"Jen, what are you talking about? He's down, Jen, and he hasn't gotten up yet. Everybody's holding hands and crying and there's an ambulance there." She was unable to watch the developments because, at that time, her TV viewing area was given a different football game.
Jen began shaking and crying. Her exhilaration was replaced by shock, her euphoria replaced by depression. "I was scared because I couldn't see it. And I started panicking," she said. "I ran down the hallway to find someone to talk to and not many people were there because it was a weekend and they had gone home. I ran to a friend's room and told Matt and he tried to comfort me."
She quickly returned to her room and an all-night phone vigil began. First, it was her brother who called and told her to stay calm. Then her dad called. "He tried to tell me some football players get hit and they get a shock in the spine and get paralyzed for only a few seconds. He said they were probably only taking a precaution with the backboard and the stretcher; he was trying to comfort me and I was hysterical," Jen said. "I was shaking and in a state of shock. I got off the phone with my dad and called Adam's dad."
* * *
Andre Taliaferro had discovered that his son was naturally athletic when he saw him ride his bike without training wheels before he was four years old. Unlike his own dad, Andre took an interest in sports and knew firsthand about Adam's athletic exploits, having coached him in youth football and basketball leagues. His son was always the go-to player, the guy who took the big shot in basketball, who took the key carry in football.
When it came to athletics, Adam Taliaferro always seemed to be in control — until he tackled Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks with one minute, 39 seconds left in Penn State's eventual 45–6 loss. Taliaferro's head connected with Westbrooks' knee and thigh, fracturing the C5 vertebra located in the middle part of his neck. The collision was so powerful that Westbrooks sustained a deep thigh bruise and limped for the next week.
For four years, Westbrooks had rarely received much playing time and had clamored for the spotlight. Now, he was at center stage — for a terrible reason. "From the impact and the way he was laying on the ground," Westbrooks said, "I knew he was paralyzed."
Taliaferro was playing left cornerback for the first time in his Penn State career, having played right corner or on special teams in the first four games. And while his pursuit angle was slightly different than usual, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the play. It was a basic running play. Taliaferro read it and saw that Westbrooks was moving slowly. This would not be a difficult tackle, he thought. But at the last instant, two Penn State defenders came from behind and forced Westbrooks to speed up. Taliaferro was caught off-guard by the running back's acceleration. He lowered his shoulder to make the tackle and didn't have time to put his head up.
If he only could have had another split second. If he could have had time to pick his head up. Football players are warned that catastrophic injuries can occur if the head is down. The simple rule: tackle with your eyes looking straight ahead.
"I knew it was bad, but at first I thought it was a stinger and I'd be out the next day and then be fine," Adam said. But from the sideline, Penn State quarterback Rashard Casey said he heard Adam let out a piercing scream.
From the field, Penn State safety James Boyd tried to comfort Taliaferro. Boyd was on the same side of the field as Taliaferro when the tackle was made and he landed right beside him. "We were almost on top of each other," Boyd said. "Sometimes I wonder, 'If I would have made the tackle, if I could have got up there before he made the tackle, maybe it wouldn't have happened.'"
From his family's home in South Jersey, Andre Taliaferro had a different perspective as he watched the tackle on TV. "My first thought was that it was a good hit, a hit I've seen him make before," Andre said. "And when he fell down on the ground, I didn't think he was hurt because I saw him move his arm. And then he stayed down for a little while, and Addie said, 'He's not getting up. He's hurt.' I said, 'Addie, he's going to be fine. He's OK.' The commercial went off and the game came back on and by the somber tone of the announcers, I said, 'Something's wrong.' And then everybody starts. My wife is crying. My son is crying. Now I'm not sure what's really happening myself. I'm thinking, 'Maybe he is really hurt,' but never thinking he's hurt to that degree."
Barrel-chested Andre Taliaferro, a former semipro football player, was terrified. "I'm scared, but I'm trying to make sure no one panics and I'm trying to reassure everybody," he said. "But by this time, people are calling on the phone." He told Jen — and countless others — that he didn't know anything, that he was trying to get in touch with Penn State, that he would inform them when he heard some news.
Frantically, he phoned Penn State University, Ohio State University, and the Ohio police. Looking for answers. Looking to find out information about his son's condition.
* * *
As Adam was being whisked to the hospital — a four- or five-minute drive from the football field — he knew something was terribly wrong, knew this was worse than the broken collarbone or the broken ribs he suffered while playing football in high school.
"I can't be paralyzed," he said while being strapped down in the ambulance. "I just can't be paralyzed."
Those who sat in the ambulance, including Dr. Sebastianelli, wanted to tell Taliaferro that he was going to be all right, that he was going to be able to walk again. But they couldn't. All they could do was keep him calm and try to comfort him. One of the doctors kept touching Adam's lower legs and was encouraged that he had some feeling. Salvaterra told Adam there was a chance he was in spinal shock and that he might regain movement in a few hours.
Excerpted from Miracle in the Making by Scott Brown, Sam Carchidi. Copyright © 2009 Scott Brown and Sam Carchidi. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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