Strike Your Gait and Win

By Ramzy Nasrallah on May 15, 2012 at 1:00p
25 Comments
Taliaferro in 2001, reclaiming his strength (Hermitt/Patriot-News)

Given the choice of seeing a college football game in person or on television - and I've been fortunate to have the choice often - I'll go to the game every time. There is no adequate substitute for being in the stadium.

It isn't a guarantee, but sometimes the game is too good for the rigid confines a television screen: Keith Byars could run out of his shoe. Big Daddy could blow up the Washington Huskies' vaunted offensive line. Eddie could go for 314.

Less often but equally memorable, a devastating injury takes your breath away. In any circumstance, being there means it's impossible to look away. You cannot simply change the channel.

The Big Ten home opener 12 seasons ago was against 1-4 Penn State. Despite their record - which included a 24-6 mortification courtesy of Toledo - the Nittany Lions were still one of those no-substitute-for-being-there tickets.

Making that ticket slightly less-attractive was the unwelcoming Columbus weather that morning: Downpour accompanied daylight and refused to yield for the balance of the pregame. Regular ambient tailgating noise was dominated by the sound of rainfall.

As a result, our treasured and normally open-air September festivities heading up to the noon kickoff were instead held beneath tailgating tents, large umbrellas or five dollar red-hooded ponchos. It was a minuscule price to pay for the experience of a precious College Football Saturday.

The game itself - a 45-6 laugher for the Buckeyes - crept back into my consciousness last week upon reading the news that Adam Taliaferro, now a successful attorney practicing not far from where he grew up in New Jersey had just been elected to the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Taliaferro led all balloting, garnering more votes than were cast in the same election last year. Sure, there's heightened interest in the PSU BoT these days, but it's not as though he was the only candidate for the choosing.

And yes, he has name recognition, but not simply because he's one of thousands of men to have played for Joe Paterno. It's because he made his name synonymous with resilience, which is exactly what his beleaguered alma mater is actively seeking.

The cruelest element of weather-related game delays is that those who brave the elements are usually the last to find out about them. The people on their couches learned first that lightning was going to postpone kickoff.

We found out about the delay only after we arrived, dripping, at our seats; cowering inside of our five dollar red-hooded ponchos listening to the drops slapping on our hoods.

Once the delay was lifted the Buckeyes went to work quickly, scoring two touchdowns inside of the first nine minutes. At one point there was a tremendous thunderclap which the crowd curiously received with a roaring cheer. YEEEEAHHH! GO CLOUDS!

The rain completely stopped and the sky had cleared by the third quarter when it was 24-6 Buckeyes. Ohio State had the ball and scrimmage was right in front of me on the northeast hash as the Buckeyes drove down to score again.

For at least one play I would have the best seat in the Shoe.

That play was a pitch-sweep right, to Jerry Westbrooks - and the white shirts read it perfectly. Ohio State's third-stringer had his legs taken out by #43, the right corner.

I wasn't familiar with that number, and Penn State makes it more difficult to do so by deliberately keeping its jerseys nameless. My game program had long been destroyed by rainfall. It now resembled a pile of oatmeal beneath the bench.

Westbrooks and everyone else picked themselves up off the turf to return to the huddle. Everyone else except for #43, who stayed on the ground with his right arm awkwardly flapping briefly before going still.

Later he would say that immediately following the whistle he thought he had broken his arm because it was strangely dangling at his side. Then he quickly concluded that he had a stinger, since his arm did not hurt.

Suddenly dawned on him that nothing hurt. He could not move. His teammates told him to get up, but his body didn't instinctively respond.

Taliaferro being attended to in Ohio Stadium on 9/23/2000.

Number 43 was the freshman Taliaferro, who had been playing what could be best-described as spot-duty up until that point in his first semester at college. The Nittany Lions were rebuilding his side of the ball in their first year without a now-notorious retired defensive coordinator.

This created the opportunity for him to see the field as a freshman, and early in the season he was already exploiting it. Tom Bradley, a defensive back who had played for Paterno during the 1970s before joining the staff as a graduate assistant was now in his first year as DC following 19 years as an assistant.

He informed the freshman on the eve of the Ohio State game to prepare for playing time. Taliaferro then did what any good son would do and excitedly called his parents Addie and Andre to tell them the news.

Upon hearing that their son was going to play against Ohio State, they decided not to attend the game: For all the times they had seen him play football in person, they had never watched him play on television. They decided to take in that experience rather than head to the Horseshoe.

The blue coats from the Penn State sideline gathered around #43 lying on the ground. Soon they were joined by staff from the Ohio State sideline. Players began removing their helmets and dropping to a knee as it became evident that this wasn't an ordinary injury.

Only a couple of hours earlier, rain was pouring out of the skies and tens of thousands were screaming in delight as thunder shook the stadium. Now the rain had gone, the skies were clear and there was no screaming.

There was just a single set of clean, white football pants lying motionless on wet green grass.

I was close enough to the field that day to hear all of the cheers, shouts and hits - the normal sounds of any football game. As he laid there, oddly half-twisted onto his left side I didn't hear any screaming or cheering. I heard exactly what he was feeling: Nothing, and it was frightening.

Given the choice of seeing a college football game in person or on television, I'll go to the game every time. There's just no substitute for being there. That September Saturday I didn't anticipate having a front-row seat to a tragedy.

There are no commercial breaks during extended timeouts when you're in attendance; just a lot of waiting. That wait is a lot worse during injury timeouts. There's no channel to change. A whole lot of people are uncomfortably quiet for far too long.

Then you see the ambulance slowly make its way out to an unpaved place where no vehicles should ever be, especially that kind of vehicle. Ambulances look normal racing down the highway. They make sense parked in front of the emergency department.

Ambulances don't make any sense on a football field amidst 98,000 empty gazes. None of us could change the channel. Like #43, none of us could move.

The Taliaferros were trapped in front of the screen watching their son play on TV for both the first and last time, listening to the somber tones of Brent Musberger delicately improvising his narrative against the backdrop of their son's still-undiagnosed injuries.

Concussions have recently taken football's spotlight away from spinal injuries, but a dozen years ago - even now, actually - the fan's first instinct when a player goes down is to look for movement. Even the slightest hint of muscle control tends to bring a calm over the spectators. If he can just move a little he's going to be okay.

Part of the reason head injuries are making news these days is because their effects linger for years. We don't fully understand their implications. They seem to get worse with time, at least sometimes.

Taliaferro with wheelchair-bound Buckeye WR Tyson Gentry.

Injuries to the vertebrae don't clinically present nearly the same way. Unlike the brain, the spine rarely keeps any secrets. A bleak future is often determined immediately.

Taliaferro didn't move, even after the gurney he was strapped to exited the stadium. After a delay that lasted longer than the one caused by lightning to start the afternoon, #43 left the football field as a player for the final time. It was the sixth game of his freshman year.

The Buckeyes finished that drive a couple of plays later with a touchdown that was cheered meekly, if not with a palpable sense of guilt. Ohio State would go on to hand Paterno the worst loss of his career (the following season they would hand him the historic victory that would vault him past Bear Bryant in career wins).

Taliaferro was given a 3% chance of ever walking again. He stayed at the Ohio State University Medical Center and then was airlifted to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, not going home until Thanksgiving nearly two months after the game.

Ten months later, he led his team out of the tunnel - skipping, actually - for Penn State's 2001 home opener. His return to the Horseshoe - on foot - prior to the 2002 meeting produced some of the loudest and most genuinely boisterous cheering for an opponent in Ohio Stadium history.

Taliaferro graduated both undergrad and law school and is the standardbearer for coming back from spinal injuries to players who have suffered similar crippling setbacks like Ohio State's Tyson Gentry and Rutgers' Eric LeGrand. There are no limits to who should be inspired by the well-documented return of his gait.

Now Taliaferro is one of his alma mater's trustees, chartered with making decisions that can affect his school for decades. Change the pronoun on the cheer: He is Penn State.

I've been fortunate enough to attend about 200 college football games, conservatively estimating seven games a season since 1980 when my father simultaneously introduced me to the vitality of season tickets and Big Ten football.

A handful will always stand out: Byars running out of his shoe. Big Daddy going full-wrecking ball. Eddie summoning his name to be chanted repeatedly. Ken Dorsey eating turf in the desert. Beanie ruthlessly paving Ann Arbor with sun-and-blue-colored blood.

That soaking wet Penn State game 12 years ago is in that handful of prominent memories; less because of the game and more because of its improbable aftermath.

Kids routinely project themselves as the burgeoning hero up at bat in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, or taking the last shot in a championship game, or dropping back to pass with the title on the line down by five.

Any of those fantasies serve as a nice platform for backyard big-game gallantry. Any kid will take those odds for a shot at pretend-immortality.

No kid ever fantasizes about coming back from paralysis or overcoming physical devastation. No one wants those odds. They're best kept to the rigid confines of a television screen on someone else's' shoulders, not inescapably in front of your face.

Taliaferro's life as he knew it came to a screeching halt that afternoon. His resounding triumph over paralysis makes it impossible to look away.

25 Comments

Comments

bassplayer7770's picture

Thank you for this story, Ramzy.

hodge's picture

Got chills reading that.  Still remember watching that game at my grandparents' house.  Surreal.  Exceptionally written as always, Ramzy.

AJBor41's picture

Excellent.  Thank you!

UFest57's picture

I remember watching this game...it was just a sad sad moment that I will not forget. Its great to see how far he has come in his recovery and career.

doodah_man's picture

This is a credit to tOSU...tOSU Medical Center (now the Wexner Medical Center). They are doing true magic there. Not to minimize the work at Magee in Philly either.
I like to brag about my team and my school, but I also like to brag tWMC!

Jim "DooDah" Day
It is hard to play dirty against a man who picks you up.

BrewstersMillions's picture

I was at the 2002 game with my dad-He and I were talking prior to the game about the 2000 game in which this injury occurred and how we never knew much about what happened afterwards. When it was clear the guy we were talking about only an hour prior was on the field, both of us couldn't help but well up a little. It was a really awesome moment.

4-6 seconds from point A to point B and when you get to point B, be pissed off

UrbanDreamz's picture

This game was actually my first ever in the Shoe.  The first time I had an opportunity to score one of those Scarlet ponchos.  I can remember sitting in C-deck not sure what was going on down on the field.  It just so happened I returned 2 years later when he came back. 
Awesome story Ramzy.  We could all learn a lot from Adam's life.

"Twelve months ago on Jan. 9, my mom's birthday, I made the decision to come back. I had one goal in mind and that was to win a national championship."  ~Mike Doss

scrappled's picture

Fantastic writing.  The PSU people, from Adam's family to the football team's medical staff and Paterno himself were quick to praise the medical personnel out there.  I'm amazed that he was able to get through rehab and do so much with his life, and it's nice to see it get recognition from a non-PSU site.
Here's a look back at the immediate aftermath:

The impact of the ground and Taliaferro's body weight rolling over his spine complicated the injury, Sebastianelli said. The immediate concerns were immobilizing Taliaferro's neck and removing his equipment without causing further damage.
`He had medical attention within 15-20 seconds of hitting the ground,` Sebastianelli said. `If it's not in the right environment, that injury could be much more devastating.`
...
Paterno called this the `worst thing I've been involved in` during his 60 years in football. He visited Taliaferro and his parents Andre and Addie in Columbus on Sunday.
`He's a great kid and would have been maybe there will be a miracle,` Paterno said. `He's one of the better young players we've had around here in a long time.`
Sebastianelli took the situation hard, too. He met Taliaferro during preseason practice, when he treated the freshman for a broken thumb that required surgery. He spoke with Taliaferro's family at length over the weekend.
`His dad is so proud his son is a Penn State football player and in the worst way wants him to get back to school,` Sebastianelli said. `He knows Adam can't play. He just wants him to be a Penn State person.
`Adam's in the middle of a deep forest, but he has a plan, he has a compass in his hand, and he'll try to get through it. Hopefully it will be the outcome everyone wants.`

 

scrappled's picture

Also, I cried like a baby when Adam skipped out of the tunnel ten months later.  Then we got utterly pounded by maybe the best Miami Hurricanes team ever.

Denny's picture

I went to see Ty Gentry in Dodd Hall about three weeks after his injury in 2006, and it came up that Ty had heard from Taliaferro quickly after he was stabilized. I've always been very impressed by that.
Thanks for writing this, Ramzy.

Taquitos.

Baroclinicity's picture

There doesn't seem to be much in the way of recent updates on Gentry.  What is his status?  Does he have use of his arms at all?

Denny's picture

He's doing well, he's got arm movement, though fine movement is still tricky. Still upbeat as hell though.

Taquitos.

thatlillefty's picture

true story of courage... thanks for sharing Ramzy

Buckeyeneer's picture

The moment Taliaferro went down was a moment of disgust and pride for me personally as a Buckeye. I was in my junior year and was at the Shoe watching with my roommate. Adam lay there motionless for several minutes and was being attended to by medical staff. Suddenly some obnoxious, loud-mouth OSU fan started jawing, "Get off the field you bum! Let's get this game going! If he can't get up, kick him off the field! You can fix his boo boo on the sidelines!" etc. etc. etc. Everyone was just silent as this moron kept shouting asinine garbage. I couldn't believe what this guy was saying and I was very disappointed that a Buckeye would behave this way (that said, based on his age, I am guessing he was a student too, and was probably drunk). Anger began welling up inside and I began having the internal dilemma of doing nothing versus telling this guy off and having to sit akwardly two seats way from him for the next hour or so. My roommate had no such qualms and shouted the guy down, telling the kid about handling himself with a little dignity and class. The loud mouth started to protest but the entire section turned on him and he slowly sat down and kept his mouth shut the rest of the game.
While I suspect the kid was just caught up in the moment and trying to be cool, even if his timing and the situation were contemptable; I am proud of my roommate for putting him in his place and the masses of proud Buckeyes reminding him what we stand for.

"Because the rules won't let you go for three." - Woody Hayes
THE Ohio State University

BeanvilleBuck's picture

Great story, I too was at the game. My roomie's and I had debated back and forth until we  had shotgunned enough Nattie Lights that the weather wasn't going to stop us from watching our beloved Bucks stomp Penn State in person. Turned out to be a sad sobering day for all sports fans.

"Winning takes care of everything. - Woody Hayes"

Doc's picture

Another wonderful read Ramzy.  I remember watching that game on TV.  You are right looking for any sign of movement makes things better.  I was there when he came back in 2002.  I too cried when he walked out.  What a great story.  Good luck to him in his new position.

"Say my name."

Maestro's picture

Great story.  A beacon of hope.

vacuuming sucks

Olemissbuckeye's picture

I was in the north stands that day and will never forget it. Having witnessed that injury and with the long term health risks from head trauma I worry about letting my son play. I love football and I know he could get hurt as badly or worse riding his bike but it still gives me pause. I cant imagine what his parents went through.

Abe Froman's picture

I remember the day well.  Walking from the parking lot at King with my friend whom had just tore his Achilles about a month earlier.  As we hobbled through the rain, we searched for a pancho for each of us to no avail.  I remember the rain.  I remember the slow walk to the stadium, but mostly I remember the slow walk after we left the game, right before the incident. We both stopped walking about at the grove, turned around and wondered if each and every fan had suddenly disappeared.  The stadium was dead silent.  That is what I remember, the total absence of noise.

Basking in the wake of mediocrity.....

Abe Froman's picture

By the way, my friend was in a boot.  Maybe it was more than a month?

Basking in the wake of mediocrity.....

Poison nuts's picture

You'll have to pardon my language but this article is a piece of Goddamn artistry. Thank you. Like many - I watched it on TV. I love the game of football & specifically I love my Buckeyes. I remember very distinctly that this scared the hell right of me. As much as I love the speed, action, & even violence of the game - I hate seeing injuries. Seeing a severe injury, whether in person or on TV always brings me back to the realization these kids are only human & on a weekly basis in the fall - risk a whole lot. I too was very happy the following year when he lead the team out of the tunnel...Until now I'd almost forgotten. Truly great stuff - thank you again!

"Death created time to grow the things that it would kill" - Detective Rustin Cohle.

German Buckeye's picture

Ramzy Nasrallah, PLEASE do not ever leave this site for greener pastures.  I look forward to reading each and every article you publish.  Keep em coming!

Boxley's picture

As always Ramzy, your prose evoked many strong emotions in me. Sorrow, fear, joy, admiration.
You Sir have been blessed with the gift to put emotion onto paper, stringing otherwise mundane words into a sentence, phrase , or paragraph that transport us to higher levels of awareness for others.
Thank you, once again.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

Lee in Altoona's picture

Living at a distance with small kids, I wind up watching most Buckeye games in TV. That 2000 Penn State game was the last I saw in the Shoe. I still have the rain poncho I bought that day from concessions -- I'll occassionally wear it to irk the local PSU fans when its raining. I still have the plastic soda cup from that day here in my office. I was way up in C Deck, but I distinctly remember three things: the crowd cheering the rain, the PSU fans complaining about Coop running up the score afterwards, and the dead silence while Taliaferro laid there. C Deck was silent, except for the occasional shouted question to the guys who had field glasses if they had seen any movement yet. There were no jerks in my section. Just fans worrying for a kid.
Yeah, I'll get back to a game soon... 

NC_Buckeye's picture

Ramzy, just finished reading the exchange you got into with the BSD commenters on the linked article over there. There really is no middle ground between our fanbases, huh?
Scrappled, don't know if you're still following this thread but I wanted to tell you that I appreciate the fact that you don't engage in the knee-jerk hyperbole that I've come to expect from PSU commenters when discussing the Buckeyes. I respect your feedback much like I appreciate M Man's.
Anyways Ramzy, I got your explanation of the Paterno tweet although I think it was wasted effort. The hazard of instant communication is that there is no cool-down period between thinking something and the Save button. Everyone posts or tweets things that we later regret. Apparently, just not BSD commenters.
BTW, I'm pretty sure that Octashields got on 11W after Tressel got fired/retired specifically to gloat a little. If the search facility was a little more robust, I'm pretty sure I could find his comments. Anyways I thought it was kind of ironic that he's the one who took you to task on the tweet.