Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ed Reinhardt: A Look Back

As the Ducks approach their first conference game against Colorado, I am reminded of a story that is both tragic and triumphant all at once.

At the time I was in San Diego, California. I was just finishing Marine Corps boot camp the week before a game between Colorado and Oregon at Autzen Stadium. When I returned to Eugene, the news was everywhere.

Late in the game, trailing by 7 points, Colorado had the ball inside their own 30 yard line and needed to score a touchdown to tie the game. This was, of course, before overtime existed. A young sophomore who was second in the nation in receiving after a 10 reception game the week before, Ed Reinhardt was quickly becoming one of the best players in the old Big 8 Conference.

Reinhardt, from Heritage High School in Littleton, Colorado, was talented both on and off the field. Never one to take anything for granted, Reinhardt had a 3.5 GPA in high school and was a member of the Big 8 All-Academic team. With less than two minutes in the game against the Ducks, Reinhardt caught a short pass from Steve Vogel, turned up field turning that 6 yard hook into a 19 yard first down. The Buffaloes were marching. Reinhardt was tackled by Oregon safeties Dan Wilken and Jeff Williams. The tackle was clean, but as Reinhardt was going to the turf, his head hit the thigh pad of Wilkens before pounding to the turf.

Like many other players in the 80's, Reinhardt felt as if he had his bell rung a little, got up and went to the sideline a little dazed. But then his life changed. Shortly after returning to the sideline, Reinhardt collapsed. Thinking quickly a local neurosurgeon who also happened to be a Duck season ticket holder, Dr. Arthur Hockey rushed to the field to work with the 19 year old tight end.

Within 30 minutes, Dr. Hockey was operating on Reinhardt. The injury, though, was about the most traumatic you can get on a football field. Dr. Hockey remembers that the injury had a very high mortality rate; about 90% of people who were injured this way would die from the injury. Even if he lived, doctors speculated, he would most likely spend his days in a persistent vegetative state.

Ed Reinhardt, though, was  a fighter. This was a young man who had worked hard to become a promising athlete. The Reinhardt family, far from wealthy, invested all of their love and passion into helping Ed recover from a devastatingly debilitating injury. On a trip to Arlington, Texas, Ed's father, Ed Reinhardt, Sr., learned of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was a specialized facility dedicated to assisting people with brain injuries. But Ed's recovery would be no easy task. The founder of the institute, Dr. Glenn Doman, said at the time that Ed was in a very bad position. He was at a level below that of a child. He was unable to perform even the simplest task that a 6-month old toddler could perform. But Ed Reinhardt kept fighting.

As part of Ed's recovery, the family would travel to Philadelphia twice a year for special week long rehabilitation sessions. The doctors would discuss the treatment and progress with the family and look for possible new alternatives to his ongoing therapy. It was grueling at times, but Ed persisted and moved forward.

Everything, though, had to be re-learned. After 10 years of intensive rehab, Ed Reinhardt, once thought by doctors to have no chance at survival was able to do many things for himself. He could make his own bed, feed himself, dress himself; he could even talk a little. Most of his talking was short bursts. The injury had decimated his short term memory which made it difficult to form sentences. His recovery was inspirational enough that just 9 months after the injury, then President Ronald Reagan sent Ed Reinhardt a note congratulating him on his progress and efforts to reach out to others in need. Ed Reinhardt was succeeding at inspiring others. Sometimes our path is not what we think, but we must always persevere on the road of life.

That day, on the field, a blood vessel in Reinhardt's brain had burst. It was a parent's worst nightmare. But the family worked through the nightmare and used their experience to help others. To the family's credit, this was never about blame; they understood that blame would never make them whole, only love could make the family whole.

Today, Ed Reinhardt, now 46 years old, still lives with his parents, but is truly living a remarkable life. He walks, albeit with a limp. He gives inspirational speeches. He shows that the intelligence never left. He has to memorize speeches word-for-word because the short term memory fails him. Doctors say it is a miracle he survived. But the work ethic he showed to become a promising athlete with NFL aspirations paid dividends in a different field. He has acted in local plays; he sings in a choir. He can even throw a football around.

For those that do not remember, Ed's youngest brother, Matt Reinhardt played college football as well; a tight end for the University of Oregon from 1993-1995. Matt was only 10 years old the day his brother was injured in the game against Oregon.

The Reinhardt's never thought of suing anyone. They were extremely touched by a visit from Wilken and Williams while Ed lay in Sacred Heart Hospital. They knew from the look in the players eyes that they were just innocent young men playing the sport; in some ways, they were victims too.

This week, as the Oregon-Colorado game approaches, Colorado fans are sure to be reminded of Ed Reinhardt's amazing recovery and his family's legacy. Ed Reinhardt shared a room on road trips with current head Coach Jon Embree.

What began as a life threatening injury, became a 62 day coma and a lifetime of rehabilitation. The family, though, has no regrets. They have lived the life they were given and used that life to help others. September 15 marked 27 years since that fateful day in Eugene. What was Ed doing that weekend? Playing catch with a kid at the park. Yeah, he was throwing left-handed instead of right-handed, but he was throwing that ball.

As became the family mantra and title of his father's 2004  memoir; you're okay kid.

He sure is.
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