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Eric LeGrand and the larger trend of spinal cord injuries

I was never allowed to play Pop Warner football. There's nothing I loved more than playing catch in a game of touch or flag football. By no means was I in any sense good mind you, but that's what was so great about those playground games. You didn't need great fine motor coordination or multi-tasking skills. Rudimentary football at its basest level is just running in a straight line for daylight.

In retrospect that looks like a prescient decision, because my scrawny frame would have likely wilted in response to any sort of contact. The growing body of research on concussions (largely brought to light by Alan Schwarz of the New York Times) is enough to scare one off the idea of playing entirely, as we all learned a year ago following Tom Savage's concussion. As terrifying as the thought of degenerative brain injury is, it's hard to fathom a scarier acute trauma than anything involving someone's neck or spinal cord. It really makes you think about supporting a sport fraught with inherent risk and danger.

One conclusion is inescapable: Football is an almost indescribably violent activity, destined only to become more so. Even if one gives the NFL the benefit of the doubt and accepts that it has the health of its players foremost in its thinking, controlling the mayhem on the field is an almost impossible enterprise.

Yesterday I was caught up in the day's game, and did not want to speculate, especially with the school requesting privacy and patience. At slightly after three today, when the athletic department announced that Eric LeGrand was presently paralyzed from the neck down, I started bawling momentarily lost it. This tragedy should not happen to everyone. It should not happen to someone of E's upstanding character. It's senseless, and I can't feel any comfort or reassurance in a chaotic world where this can happen. Rutgers can only hope that he shows as much bravery and courage off the field as he did every week on the gridiron.

As I mentioned the other day, the earliest football-related memory that I can recall was looking on in confusion after Dennis Byrd's neck injury in 1992, not understanding at all what was going on at the time. Byrd was injured following a helmet to helmet hit (thanks to Bill Barnwell for the link in reference to several serious injuries during today's NFL slate), fracturing his C-5 vertebra in the process.

Frank Ramos, a spokesman for the Jets, said late last night that Byrd had suffered a fractured C-5 vertebra, which is commonly known as a broken neck, and that "he is paralyzed from the waist down and has no use of his legs and partial use of his arms." He added that it usually takes 48 to 72 hours for an essentially definitive prognosis on whether such paralysis would be permanent.

Byrd was eventually able to regain the ability to walk through extensive physical therapy.

Another such incident that immediately comes to mind right now is Kevin Everett's 2007 collision with Domenik Hixon, which resulted in the most high-profile incident of this sort in recent memory. Everett's immediate prognosis from a break between his third and fourth vertebrae was deemed dire and life-threatening.

"It brought tears to my eyes," Moorman said after practice. He said the sight of Everett's motionless body brought back memories of Mike Utley, the former Detroit Lions guard, who was paralyzed below the chest after injuring his neck in a collision during a 1991 game.

Utley, Moorman recalled, at least was able to give what's become a famous "thumbs up" sign as he was taken off the field. Everett didn't.

Doctors induced moderate hypothermia in Everett, injecting chilled saline solution to reduce swelling of the spinal column (as a supplement to traditional therapy based on administering anti-inflammatory medication.). He started to show brief signs of progress two days after the accident, which was a welcome sign considering that immediate reports on the preceding Sunday had speculated about his life being in danger.

Everett's surgeon credits "cold therapy" with the seemingly miraculous recovery, although it must be pointed out that not nearly enough research has been done on the nascent procedure to prove a direct causal link to either Everett's recovery, or a general applicability to spinal cord injuries. Everett is no longer paralyzed, now works as a motivational speaker. His doctors at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research in Houston believe that stem cell therapy will one day show effectiveness in treating spinal cord injuries. Update: Ben Doody linked this SI cover story from Tim Layden.

There's one other case that immediately comes to mind, being that of Penn State's Adam Taliaferro. Taliaferro too was initially feared paralyzed after a C-5 fracture, but walked out of a Phildelphia hospital three months later. He eventually graduated, and went on to law school at Rutgers-Camden. Coach Schiano mentioned talking with his mentor Joe Paterno during today's presser, and presumably Paterno was able to share a wealth of experience in dealing with a similar situation.

All concerns for the moment have to be centered on Eric LeGrand's immediate prognosis, with his chances at recovery to some extent going forward highly dependent on showing progress in the critical period over the next few days as the swelling starts to go down. Rutgers neuroscience professor Wise Young has a good primer on what can be expected over the next few days. Everything I've found indicates that these situations are difficult to read initially.

It is important to remain both optimistic and clear-eyed about all of this. Examples like Byrd and Everett receive so much attention is because the historical odds are not good. The success stories capture our attention because the narratives are so powerful and inspiring, but be cautioned that those tales may not be representative. Eric has two factors working in his favor right now. High-profile athletes have access to greater care and resources that may not be afforded to the average patient. Scientific progress is continually pushing forward, and those treatments will be a definitive factor as Eric begins what is sure to be a long and arduous journey.

In the meantime, members of the Rutgers and broader college football communities can send well wishes to him and his family through the athletic department. All readers are encouraged to visit The National Spinal Cord Injury Foundation, the Adam Taliaferro Foundation, and the Mike Utley Foundation to learn more about the topic of spinal cord injuries and donate to the cause, as the medical bills in these cases can often be an awful burden. Another worthy recipient is Rutgers's own Spinal Cord Injury Project at the W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience.

Please use this post's comments section for further LeGrand discussion. As of now, I am undecided about resuming normal posting duties for the time being during this difficult situation.