Saturday, March 15, 2008

Everett's recovery: 'a gift from God'

Everett's recovery: 'a gift from God'

Rick Maese

March 9, 2008


Standing in line, they fidget in place, goose-necking over the large crowd and anxiously fingering their cell phones - one text message reads: "You'll never guess who I'm about to meet." They rehearse their lines with good reason, because what exactly are you supposed to say when you reach the front of the long line?

Sorry you'll never play football again? Congratulations on walking? I prayed every morning and every night, and you're living proof that miracles exist and because of you, I'll never quit at anything ever again?

The line winds through the bookstore and there, sitting at a table, is former Buffalo Bill Kevin Everett, who inspired tears of worry when he lay motionless on a football field and later, when barely three months had passed and he was again walking, tears of relief.

Six months have passed since Everett's backbone nearly snapped in half, and this book-signing event in a chain store marks the first time his fervent followers are seeing him up close.

By the time Bills fans finally get to him, though, it doesn't matter what they've rehearsed. The words are lost, stolen by awe, trepidation and sheer amazement, and replaced by a silent, gaping smile.

"I've never had this much attention," Everett says later.

The worship certainly isn't reserved for his football accomplishments. Everett's final career numbers: two receptions, 4 yards. The first game of the 2007 season was the last of Everett's career. On the opening kickoff of the second half, in a game against the Denver Broncos, Everett collided with another player, his head just an inch too low, and in the process suffered a fracture between the third and fourth vertebrae of his spine.

No, they're here to see a miracle. A man who some thought might not live, who others thought might not walk, and who most everyone certainly couldn't envision back in Buffalo, moving about, shaking hands and scribbling his autograph. They all want to tell him, from the grandfathers to the granddaughters, how Everett's perseverance - his miracle - has inspired them.

The miracle man
One after another, Everett signs copies of his biography, Standing Tall: The Kevin Everett Story. What these Bills fans don't realize is that though he's able to sign his name, his fingers are numb. He has no idea how tightly he's gripping the pen. He just signs. One after another, after another. He's unsure whether he will ever regain full feeling in his fingers, and tying his shoelaces can be strenuous. Buttoning his shirt is a chore. Writing his name requires concentration. But the opportunity to do these things is a gift. I ask him what he thinks a miracle is.

"A blessing, a gift from God," he says.

He appreciates everything because he knows how fleeting it can all be. When he collided with Domenik Hixon, Everett fell to the field. It was like a switch had been flipped. His mind was working, but everything else had been turned off. Everett thought his respiratory system was failing him, and breathing "felt like I was sucking air through a coffee straw."

And yet, today, six months later, he walks. A miracle man. Those aren't my words. That's what Oprah Winfrey called him on her show last month. I don't know what a miracle is. Is it something that defies reason? Or merely explanation?

Can Everett credit both God and doctors? Is the fact that he walks today a miracle of faith or a miracle of science?

"Both," Everett says.

What continually impresses me is Everett's demeanor. There's not a hint of remorse or regret. At 26, he essentially had spent a lifetime preparing for one thing: to play football. Now, as he is starting over, he refuses to allow his story to become one of despair or disappointment.

I tell Wiande Moore, Everett's college sweetheart, that I'm simply amazed at the upbeat attitude Everett and everyone around him has maintained. There must have been some bad days in there, though.

"No, not really," she says. "We just stayed positive."

Everett interrupts. "Let's quit with the lies," he says. "I was sad, depressed. I couldn't go on ... "

I quickly realize I had inadvertently asked some version of the same question three times.

"That's what everyone wants to hear anyway," Everett says with a chuckle.

I try explaining that Everett's injury - actually, his recovery - is the type that forces introspection. Seeing Everett - miracle or not - you're forced to question your own constitution. Trapped inside just your head, would you fight, grumble, moan, complain, live, die or simply feel sorry for yourself? While Everett could have easily illustrated the limits of the human body, instead he's a prime example of how limitless the human spirit can be.

Perfect medical storm
Is he a miracle, though? Experts say Everett's treatment was a perfect storm of resources. First, the Bills are one of few NFL teams with a spinal-cord specialist on the sideline. While many credit Dr. Andrew Cappuccino for his quick thinking and fast actions, league officials say a specialist isn't necessary. (Such medical care in the NFL isn't guided by uniform rules and varies from team to team. The Ravens, for example, have two general physicians, two orthopedists and three trainers at each home game, but no spinal-cord specialist.)

In addition, the Bills' staff had undergone a training drill for spinal-cord injuries just nine days before the game against the Broncos. When Everett was hit, everyone knew exactly what to do.

Most early media reports credited Cappuccino for his use of hypothermia to immediately lower Everett's body temperature. Hypothermia slows the metabolism and allows oxygen-deprived cells to survive longer.

The technique has divided the medical community, and many experts in the field have since noted that hypothermia probably wasn't a leading factor in Everett's recovery.

Dr. John McDonald is the director of Kennedy Krieger's spinal-cord injury program and was the lead neurologist who cared for actor Christopher Reeve. He says proponents of hypothermia overemphasized its impact on Everett's recovery and the real miracle that day was all the resources on hand.

"In today's world, when things are done exactly right, like what happened on that field in that first half-hour, it's a testament to the system," McDonald says.

Most spinal-cord injuries don't occur within an earshot of medical personnel. Car-accident victims, for example, typically, wait several hours before receiving an important steroid called methylprednisolone; Everett was given it within 30 minutes.

McDonald also credits Everett for taking the attributes that made him such a determined athlete and applying those to the rehabilitation process. His body and his spirit were up to the task of a major recovery.

Moving forward
For his part, Everett makes certain to give credit to the family and friends who surrounded him each day, especially his mother, Patricia, and Moore.

Everett and Moore had dated for a few years. She ran track at the University of Miami, where Everett played on the football team.

Three weeks into his hospital stay - before he walked but after he started feeling sensation in his arms and legs - Everett proposed marriage.

"I knew it was going to happen," she says with a smile.

Everett points out that some people question the environment.

"Why?" Moore asks.

"Because I asked you in the hospital," he says.

"So?" she says.

"People got the whole concept twisted," Everett says. "They get mixed up in the fairy tale, rose petals, some scene on a beach or a fancy restaurant. Man, things aren't like in fairy tales. The important thing isn't the rose petals, it's the two people and how they feel about each other."

Life has been busy. From Oprah's set in Chicago to the bookstore in Buffalo to an awards banquet this week in Baltimore. In between, he still does three days of rehabilitation near his Houston home.

Everett gets asked about the future every day. And football. Do you think about the game still?

"I think about it," he says. "I imagine what it'd be like to be out there, but that's all I can do is imagine. I'm not going to make myself go crazy by thinking and dwelling on it. I know my limits."

As if he were a graduating senior, everyone wants to know what he'll do next. There's no concrete answer. He has invested in a business with a friend, selling plastic sheets that guard against soap scum, and he talks about maybe opening a restaurant. But Everett knows there's something bigger for him out there.

"I meet people all the time who went to college to be engineers and now they're firefighters. Or they went to law school but now they're police officers," he says. "You've got to do what you feel, and sometimes you might have a change of heart. I'm not the first one who's had to make a big change."

But yours wasn't simply a change of heart.

"No, but I don't have a choice," he says. "You deal with it and move on."

He keeps signing his autograph. About midway through the line - after 250 autographs or so - his hand has cramped. He takes a break and Moore massages his fingers. Then more fans, more autographs, more blank expressions of amazement.

From a woman whose friend was paralyzed in a car accident. A man who saw Everett motionless and prayed for the first time in years. A mother whose son wore a sticker of Everett's No. 85 on the back of his youth league helmet.

That, Everett says, is his job now. To meet people. To show them that you can fall and that you can get up. There's a bigger purpose attached to Everett's life than football now. Maybe he's a miracle.

Maybe he isn't. Regardless, he's a source of inspiration.

"Everybody will always know about the hit," says Everett, who has watched it himself dozens of times on YouTube. "I can't take that away from people's memories. It happened.

"But this happened, too," he says, casting his eyes down toward his legs and then at either arm. "This happened for a reason."

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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