DIETRICH RILEY, 22, safety with UCLA, medically retired before the 2013 season due to a neck injury suffered on 10/29/12 in a game versus Cal on a tackle of tailback Isi Sofele. He lunged and his head hit Sofele’s hip, herniating the disc between his C3 and C4 vertebrae—he did not get up as the Rose Bowl fell into near-silence. Riley had spinal stenosis, which had left him vulnerable to this injury. A piece of metal, and bone from his hip, were fused to his spine during surgery. He has full movement.—“Despite medical retirement, Dietrich Riley stays close to football”, inside ucla 9/4/13, Jack Wang
KONRAD ZAGZEBSKI, senior defensive end with Wisconsin, suffered a head-neck injury attempting to tackle LSU running back Leonard Fournette on 8/30/14. Zagzebski’s head hit Fournette’s hip in an awkward collision that caused the defensive end’s head and neck to snap back to the left, sending him face down to the turf, the entire left side of his body numb. He wasn’t knocked out, but doesn’t remember the play. “When you can’t feel that, it’s a scary feeling…Everything just flashes through (your mind)…I just started praying at that point.” Horrified, his parents, Dan and Dana, watched from the stands before being escorted to field level where they met with their son. Dana rode with Konrad in the ambulance to Houston Methodist Hospital, where the feeling returned to his body about 2 hours later. Zagzebski was diagnosed with nerve damage that doctors don’t believe will be permanent, and practiced the next week.—“Badgers football: Konrad Zagzebski eager to put scary situation behind him”, Madison.com 9/6/14, Jim Polzin/Wisconsin State Journal.
ANTHONY CONNER, 26, cornerback with the University of Louisville, broke his neck on 10/21/11 with a head-down tackle on Rutgers pass receiver Mohamed Sanu, whose knee/thigh area hit Conner’s helmet, causing everything to go black and silent for him–he was knocked out. When he came to he thought, “This play is taking forever.” He could move his toes and fingers and thought he just had a cramp in his neck. Rutgers players came on the field and knelt in support of Conner as he was treated and strapped to a backboard. One season before, Rutgers player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed by an in-game collision. LeGrand later phoned Conner, who was inspired by the joy in LeGrand’s voice. Conner never played again, his hopes of going pro ended, but he was not paralyzed and can walk and move freely now. He does motivational speaking.—“Anthony Conner—A Story of Recovery”, CardsandCats.com 4/10/12, Connor Gale. “Anthony Conner Discusses His Injury and Life After Football”, TheCrunchZone interview with Connor Gale 4/10/12, video on YouTube. “Louisville Player Anthony Conner Breaks Neck Making Tackle,” ESPN game footage uploaded by TheWinningDrive 10/23/11.
ADAM TALIAFERRO, 32, cornerback with Penn State, exploded the fifth cervical vertebra in his neck and bruised his spinal cord with a head-down hit on an Ohio State running back on 9/23/00. Before a national TV audience including his parents, he could not move. Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli of the Penn State medical staff quickly aligned Taliaferro’s spine and ordered a shot of methylprednisolone. While being carted off the field he tried to give a thumbs-up signal for his parents, but could not. Though people with his injury have only a 3% chance of walking again, his father, Andre, told him he was going to walk. After successful fusion surgery and 8 months of rehab, he was able to walk—and run. He has become a lawyer and public official in New Jersey, and has started a foundation to raise money to help people with spinal cord injuries: www.taliaferrofoundation.org.—“What Still Ails Penn State”, SI 5/20/13, David Epstein. “FIRST STEPS BACK; Taking Purposeful Strides”, NY Times 2/20/01, Jere Longman. YouTube Videos: York Dispatch & GOPSF.com.
ERIC LeGRAND, 24, defensive tackle with Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, was paralyzed on 10/16/10 making a tackle on a kickoff on Army’s Malcolm Brown. He fractured his C3 and C4 vertebrae. “I thought I was going to die.” He underwent a 9-hour surgery to stabilize his spine. Though doctors gave him a 0 to 5% chance of functioning neurologically, he can sit up and balance himself, can move his shoulders and upper body, and can walk with assistance on a treadmill. In a wheelchair and needing 24-hour a day care, much of it provided by his mother Karen, he can’t feed himself and it takes 2.5 hours to prepare him for his day. He rehabs 5 days a week and graduated from Rutgers.—ESPN video on YouTube 10/7/13.
DEVON WALKER, 24, safety with Tulane University, was paralyzed trying to make a tackle on 9/8/12 in a game at Tulsa, OK, as a teammate 100 pounds heavier accidentally barreled into him. He struggled to breathe as his blood pressure plummeted, went into shock and thought he was going to die. His C3 and C4 vertebrae were fractured and he was given CPR on the field just before halftime. He had gone from walk-on to team captain as a senior. Everyone involved with the game, players, coaches, announcers and fans, wanted nothing to do with the second half, but it was played out.—“Tulane family won’t ever forget Devon Walker’s injury: a year later”, The Times-Picayune 9/6/13, Tammy Nunez, NOLA.com. “Devon Walker Inspires From The Sideline”, ESPN video 9/7/13 on YouTube.
MARC BUONICONTI, 46, linebacker with The Citadel, was paralyzed after diving to hit East Tennessee State tailback Herman Jacobs headfirst in October 1985. He was rendered a quadriplegic, spent 7 months on a ventilator, and lost 100 pounds. His medical bills come to $500,000 to $600,000 per year, paid for by his father’s catastrophic insurance policy. Buoniconti sued The Citadel for $16 million, claiming he should not have been allowed to play because he missed practice that week with a neck injury. He settled for $800,000. “I went through those classic stages. You go through the denial, you go through the anger, you go through depression. There’s one at the end, they say ‘acceptance’—you accept your situation, and it helps you deal with it and move forward. And I always hated that word. To me, it’s defeatist in a way. I’ll never accept this injury. I think as soon as you accept something like that you’ve lost.” Along with his father, NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, and neurosurgeon Barth Green, he co-founded The Miami Project, which has raised over $500 million to find a cure for paralysis.—“Marc Buoniconti paralyzed on the field, but not in life”, USA Today 9/24/10, Erik Brady.
BUDGE PORTER, 58, defensive back with the University of Nebraska, then 20, was paralyzed in spring practice on 4/21/76 making a tackle on teammate I.M. Hipp. He was left quadriplegic with 5% use of his arms. When his father, Mort, himself a former Nebraska player, was told that his son was paralyzed he collapsed to the floor. After months of therapy in Colorado, Budge returned to school at Nebraska and graduated. He’s the only Nebraska football player ever to be paralyzed. He wooed his wife, Diane, from his wheelchair off and on for 5 years, much of it long distance. Told they couldn’t conceive children, they did so through in vitro fertilization and have 3 children, including twins. Due to financial problems stemming from a bad investment and the real estate crisis of 2008, he had to file bankruptcy and move his family out of their house, on which they owed more than it was worth. Saddled with astronomical medical bills from long hospital stays in his mid-fifties, one for neck surgery and the other for an infection, he also had to retire due to osteoporosis after 25 years as a stockbroker. Though urged by some to sue the university, he never has. Budge and his brother, Scott, are part of the only three-generation Nebraska football playing family. His friends are helping raise money to build a handicap-accessible, barrier-free home for him and his family through The Budge Porter Project on facebook.—“Paralyzed ex-Husker rebuilds his life after hard hits”, Omaha.com 4/9/12, Michael Kelly, World Herald Columnist.
CHUCKY MULLINS, 21, defensive back with Ole Miss, had 4 vertebrae shattered on 10/28/89 while tackling Vanderbilt fullback Brad Gaines, who was 50 pounds heavier. Mullins was paralyzed instantly. He was airlifted to Memphis, where doctors saved his life. He was left a quadriplegic and, stricken with a pulmonary embolism, died on 5/6/91. Gaines returns to Mullins’ grave 3 times a year–on Christmas, the game’s anniversary, and the anniversary of Mullins’ death. Gaines says it took years to get over his deep sense of guilt. “All I know is I’d look at Chucky, not being able to move, and it just killed me inside…I think Chucky could sense the way I felt. He always had that smile…He always tried to make me feel better about myself and what had happened.” Gaines will occasionally watch the play. “It doesn’t look that bad. You see the same kind of play every Saturday. It’s not helmet to helmet…But…” The late Mississippi author Willie Morris told Gaines that Chucky’s injury and the response that followed had done more for race relations in Mississippi than anything. Chucky was black and Gaines is white.—“20 years after Ole Miss tragedy, Mullins’ legacy lives on”, USA Today 9/30/09, Rick Cleveland, Jackson Clarion-Ledger.
KYLE AMBROGI, 21, senior running back with Penn, died on 10/10/05, committing suicide by shooting himself in the head. Dedicated to his family, the positive, popular finance major had a 3.5 GPA in the prestigious Wharton School of Business. He became depressed in 2005, broke up with his long-time girl friend without giving a reason, and considered jumping off the Walt Whitman Bridge. He was diagnosed with depression and put on anti-depressants, but didn’t like taking medicine and stopped because he thought it wasn’t helping him. He scored 2 touchdowns in his last game and his teammate brother, Greg, scored one.—“Tragic Turn”, ESPN.com 2005, Wayne Drehs. “Suicide Reveals Signs of a Disease Seen in N.F.L.”, NY Times 9/13/10, Alan Schwarz.