The Miracle Within

Twenty-three years after an ordinary tackle snapped his spine, Kent Waldrep still pursues a cure - and a measure of justice from the game that abandoned him
By Keith Dunnavant
Dunnavant's Paydirt Illustrated

When the dreams overtake him in the middle of the night, transporting him to a world that exists only in his sub-conscious mind, Kent Waldrep feels whole again. He dances with his wife. He plays catch with his two sons. He even runs with the football, runs hard, fast and without fear.

"I play a lot of golf in my dreams," Waldrep says, the trace of a pained expression rising across his lips. "I can still feel my golf swing. I can still feel it!"

On a rainy spring morning in sprawling North Dallas, the 42-year-old businessman pauses to consider the irony of his words. While discussing his shadowy nocturnal visions, the man sits in a wheelchair parked behind his neatly ordered desk at the Kent Waldrep National Paralysis Foundation, located on the sixth floor of a modern high-rise office complex. Six feet tall and thin, with short brown hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and a slight pallor around his cheeks, he's wearing a starched white shirt and a blue necktie pulled tight to the collar.

"But you know what's the weirdest thing? Sometimes when I wake up, it takes a few seconds for it to dawn on me that, 'Oops. That's right. I can't get out of bed by myself."

Unlike the carefree man in his dreams, Waldrep cannot walk, dress himself or comb his hair. All because of one play in a college football game more than two decades ago - one play that unwittingly launched him on two distinct and equally daunting crusades.

Yet for all the pain and heartache caused by that one horrifying moment, his life is not coursing with bile or self pity. It's filled with perseverance, triumph, and most of all, hope.

As he jogged onto the turf at Birmingham's Legion Field, Kent Waldrep's eyes locked on Paul "Bear" Bryant. It was Oct. 26, 1974, and the Bear, wearing his trademark houndstooth hat and a knowing scowl, was leaning against the goalpost, surveying his team during pre-game warm-ups. For a moment, Waldrep stared at the famed coach, not realizing how his life would become intermeshed with the legend's.

Like most boys in Texas, Waldrep gravitated to football, becoming a highly recruited tailback who matured into a starter for the Texas Christian Horned Frogs. His 4.5 speed and tenacity with the football made him one of the brightest stars on a mediocre team. Of course, when Waldrep and his TCU teammates stepped onto the turf at Legion Field, they never had a prayer against undefeated, defending national champion Alabama. The Crimson Tide, in the midst of one of the most successful decades in college history - and a run of five consecutive Southeastern Conference championships - was a 35-point favorite.

After sustaining a broken collarbone six weeks earlier and playing only one quarter the previous week against Texas A&M, Waldrep's hold on the starting tailback position was uncertain when the team arrived in Birmingham. Just before kickoff, TCU head coach Jim Shofner gave him the nod.

"It's yours," he said. "Have a good 'un."

Early in the second quarter, with 'Bama clinging to a 7-0 lead, Waldrep took a pitch from quarterback Lee Cook, darted right on a weep and immediately encountered a mass of crimson jerseys. He sustained a hit, an ordinary tackle on an ordinary play, and the impact of the collision flipped him into the air.

An instant later, he landed on the turf with a thud. A thousand times before he had gone airborne and landed with just such a jolt. A thousand times before he had climbed off the turf. Not this time. This time, he never felt the impact.

For Waldrep, the whole world shifted into surreal slow-motion. "It was a feeling of such helplessness," he recalls. "I wanted to move my legs but they wouldn't budge."

Thinking only that his bell had been rung, Waldrep struggled to get up, but he couldn't feel his leg, his arms...

Within seconds, the TCU trainers were in his face, grabbing his fingers, asking him questions.

"Can you feel this?" trainer Elmer Brown shouted, moving from place to place on Kent's body. "How about here?"

"Can you raise your right leg? How about your left? Move this foot! Cross your arms! Any feeling here? Don't move your head!"

Struggling for air, with panic gripping him, Kent shouted, "I can't breathe!"

Soon after he was transported to Birmingham's University Hospital, TCU officials tracked down Waldrep's parents in New York City, where the transplanted Texans operated a mortgage banking business. "Getting that call was like having all the wind knocked out of you," says his mother, Denise Waldrep. "We packed a suitcase and caught the next plane to Birmingham. Then when we got there I discovered that there was nothing in the suitcase. I was so distraught I didn't know what I was doing."

The paralysis, which resulted from a twisting of the vertebra near the edge of the neck, left Kent completely numb below his head. "It was like being decapitated," he says. "When the doctors and nurses were poking around at my body, it felt like I was looking at them doing that to somebody else."

A month at University Hospital and another three months at a Houston rehabilitation center convinced the doctors that Waldrep would never walk again. In fact, walking was just the tip of the iceberg for the quadriplegic. They told him he would never be able to father children; drive a car; urinate without a cathater; write his name. Implicit in all the straight talk was the end of Waldrep's life as a productive human being.

He wanted none of that. "Early on there was a certain immaturity to [my outlook]," Waldrep says. "It was never, 'Oh, no! I'll never walk again!' It was more like, 'OK. Whatever it takes, I'll teach myself to walk again."

But the most painful blow was delivered by his own school.

Eleven months after the accident, TCU washed its hands of Kent Waldrep. As the medical bills mounted - and the prospect of expensive life-long care loomed - the university and its lawyers made a strategic decision to renounce any further financial liability for his injury. The news was devastating to the middle-class family, who thought their son was covered by TCU's insurance policies. It was an even greater jolt psychologically.

"TCU completely abandoned Kent, treated him as if he'd never existed, never risked his life for that school," says his father, Al Waldrep. "How do you imagine that made him feel?"

At the same time, Alabamians smothered the Waldreps with affection and cash for his medical bills. "The people of Alabama really took us into their hearts," Waldrep says. "I hate to say it, but I feel a lot closer to the University of Alabama than I do to TCU, because I stopped having an alma mater the day the people at TCU turned their backs on me."

Out of the tragedy came a special relationship with Alabama's legendary coach, who would arrange for a special tribute at halftime of the next season's Alabama-TCU game. Bryant visited him repeatedly in the hospital, once even showed up with baseball owners Charley Finley and George Steinbrenner.

"I can remember so well waking up in intensive care...and seeing Coach Bryant's face," Waldrep says. "It was a real shock...and he kept saying, 'We wanta see you get outta here real soon now, son.'"

While waiting in the hallway, Waldrep's mother saw the Bear fighting back tears.

The white van zooms along the LBJ Freeway, bound for one of the city's most popular barbecue joints, where we will feast on a lunch of brisket, sausages, french fries and pinto beans. Waldrep, who was never going to drive again, is driving...and telling me about how he met his wife.

"Her mother was one of my first volunteers with the foundation," he says, twisting the specially designed toggle with his right hand so we can pass a slow car. "And she kept saying she wanted me to meet her daughter."

He gives me one of those looks.

"My first thought was, 'Yeah, right. Another mother trying to push her daughter. I cant't wait to see what she looks like.' And then I'm thinking, 'She must think her mother is crazy, pushing a guy in a wheelchair as a potential beau."

In the autumn of 1978, Waldrep gained international attention for traveling to the Polenov Institute in Leningrad to receive experimental treatment on his spinal chord. While all of his American doctors told him he was crazy to seek help in the primitive Soviet Union - and chided his parents for allowing him to buy into false hope - the combination of physical therapy, hyperbaric chamber therapy, and enzyme injections actually increased his level of physical awareness. He returned from the Soviet Union able to drive a retrofitted van and use his right hand in other limited ways. A limited amount of feeling returned to his extremities.

"There was this incredible resistance to trying something in Russia," he says. "Everybody said, 'Oh, no. They're at least a decade behind us.' But going there was one of the best things I ever did."

Several months after Waldrep returned to Dallas, Lynn Burgland, a pretty, 25-year-old producer at the city's CBS television affiliate, was assigned to report a feature story on his exploits. Turns out, she was that girl, the volunteer's daughter, and Kent was immediately smitten. Their first date was a disaster: Lynn invited him to a TCU media function, held in a second-story bowling facility without wheelchair access. But neither one gave up.

"I told a buddy of mine after that first date, 'That's the girl I'm going to marry," Waldrep recalls.

Fourteen months later, in December 1980, his prediction came true.

Soon after the accident, Waldrep had summoned his courage and asked the most painful question of all, the question any man must ask with a combination of fear and defiance: What about children? The doctors assured him that children were out of the question.

Bu Kent and Lynn were persistent, struggled through years of tests and disappointments, and just before Christmas in 1987, they were blessed with the birth of Alvis Kent Waldrep III, whom they decided to call Trey. Charley followed in 1991. Both were conceived by natural means, despite Kent's low sperm count, and both were born completely healthy.

For Waldrep, no victory was sweeter than seeing his wife holding his son. His son.

"So much was taken away from me physically," he says. "I just can't explain how it felt..."

In many ways, Kent's relationship with his boys is straight out of the American norm. He cheers for them at their baseball games, reminds them to clean up their rooms, jokes with them. If they do not totally understand his disability, they have learned to deal with it. "To us it just seems normal," Lynn says.

In contrast to the early days, when he was completely numb from the neck down, Waldrep now has slight feeling in both hands and both legs. The result is periodic sensations of muted pain. "It's like hitting your funny bone," Waldrep says. "That kind of tingling is...what I have all the time."

Just past 7 o'clock on the morning after traversing the LBJ in search of good barbecue, the Waldrep home is abuzz with activity. Charley and Trey and gobbling down bowls of cereal while their mom prepares for her day as a volunteer at their elementary school, located two blocks down the street.

The spacious two-story brick home, located in a beautiful upper-middle-class neighborhood in Plano, about 10 miles north of the foundation, is adorned with a Spanish-style column leading to the doorway and surrounded by pine trees. A pitching backstop rests at the end of the driveway.

While the early years after his accident included many financial hardships - "There were times when I wasn't sure we were going to make it," Denise says - the Waldreps have prospered largely because of the success of the aircraft parts business they purchased in the late 1970s. Kent also draws a modest salary from the foundation.

Waldrep's morning routine is grueling. Even climbing out of bed is an ordeal. It takes him two hours to accomplish what the average man can do in 20 minutes. Special care must be taken with his skin, because he is more prone to nicks and bruises than most people. Only recently has the family been able to afford a full-time nurse, who arrives each morning to pull Kent out of bed, bathe him, dress him and, most important of all, style his hair.

"It's an obsession," Lynn says with a laugh. "You wouldn't believe the way he complains if there's a hair out of place."

"I only complain if you don't do it right," he says with a cackle.

While Waldrep has learned to joke about the little inconveniences brought on by his physical condition, the fact remains that he must rely on his nurse or his wife for the most intimate of chores, such as urinating and bathing. "You never get over that," he says, the smile suddenly gone.

If you were to encounter Waldrep on the street, your first inclination might be to pity him. But he neither wants nor needs pity. For all the obstacles in his life - including the intermittent pangs of anger, frustration and helplessness - Kent Waldrep, paralysis victim, is a lucky man. Lucky to have a loving wife and two adoring children. Lucky to have a reason - and the burning desire - to crawl out of bed in the morning.

"As much as he wants to get out of that wheelchair," says Donald Key, a member of the foundation's board of directors and a life-long friend, "I think Kent has accepted his life and has learned to feel good about it. That in itself is a kind of miracle."

Waldrep still reads the sports section first each morning. He never allowed the frustrations brought on by his condition to embitter him toward college football or sports in general. He takes a great interest in the budding athletic careers of his sons ("One of the toughest parts of this whole deal is watching someone else coach my boys") and on Saturdays in the fall, he and the boys often crowd around the living room television set to watch the college games, repeating a ritual he shared with his own father.

But the former college athlete desperately wants to change one aspect of college sports.

Six years ago, Waldrep filed suit against TCU and its former insurance company, seeking worker's compensation benefits. He contends that, according to the law, he was injured while on the job at TCU and should be treated like any other employee with an injury claim. The case is expected to come to trial in state court in October. Armed with a 1993 ruling in his favor by the Texas Worker's Compensation Board, he feels confident not only of winning the case but also of setting a precedent that defines college athletes as employees with all the accordant legal rights.

"Kent isn't pursuing this for the money," insists his lawyer, John Collins, noting that the highest possible award would be less than $100,000. "He feels that college athletes have been treated unfairly and that the system needs to be forced to change."

TCU officials declined to comment on the case.

The grant-in-aid system, which dates to the 1950s, allows college athletes to receive only tuition, fees, room, board, and books. College football players have never been classified as university employees but the quid pro quo of the grant-in-aid system leaves much room for interpretation, especially in light of today's multi-million-dollar college sports budgets. However they are classified, big-time college athletes are providing valuable services for schools which trade on their talents to generate millions.

"If you go down the list defining an employee-employer relationship in the state of Texas, there's no doubt I qualified," Waldrep says. "They controlled my actions. They told me to be in Birmingham, Alabama at a certain time, paid my travel expenses to get there, provided my clothing. The coaches told me what to do, right down to sending in the play I was hurt on."

TCU contends that men like Waldrep know what they are doing and play the game at their own risk. But Waldrep and his parents say that they were misled by TCU. "They led us to believe that if something happened, they would take care of him," Al Waldrep says. "If we had known he wasn't covered, we never would've let him play."

Although the National Collegiate Athletic Association now offers catastrophic health insurance, Waldrep says he is pursuing the case for all those young men who have sustained blown knees, separated shoulders, broken legs and other less critical injuries which nevertheless produce a lifetime of disability and financial strain.

"Today's major college football player is already semi-professional," Waldrep maintains. "He's helping generate millions of dollars for his school and yet when he gets hurt, it's his tough luck. That needs to change."

If his effort is successful, Waldrep foresees a day in which the colleges may be forced to compensate injured student-athletes for the loss of their ability to market their talents in the professional leagues.

Although he seems sincere in attaching a higher purpose to the lawsuit, the issue still reverberates with an angry young man's bitterness. After TCU refused to pay the remainder of his medical and rehabilitation expenses, his parents liquidated many of their personal assets to pay off the bills. But there is an even more basic motivation at work. In abdicating its responsibilities, TCU treated him not like a human being who had risked his life, but like an expendable piece of equipment. He needs them to understand how much that hurt.

As children, many of us heard a familiar refrain from our mothers when we attempted to climb a tree or retrieve an errant tennis ball from atop the carport: "Be careful! You'll fall and break your neck!"

A broken neck meant spinal paralysis, which meant a life sentence in a wheelchair. A broken neck was helpless.

After returning from the Soviet Union in 1979, Waldrep decided to devote his life to finding a cure, which led him to open his foundation. Like most quests, his has been marred by frustrations, disappointments, setbacks and the occasional random thought that maybe he's just wasting his time.

In the 1970s, most of the small foundations chartered to serve the spinal cord problem seemed more interested in building better wheelchairs than finding a cure. Research dollars were almost non-existent.

More than just a figurehead, Waldrep immersed himself in every aspect of the cause while using his newfound celebrity status to raise large sums from charity balls, golf tournaments and other events. Most of the money was earmarked for research, which was a strict departure. He has appeared on all the television networks, given lectures throughout the country, peddled his cause to anyone who will listen.

"There are a lot of people who, placed in Kent's situation, would've sat around and felt sorry for themselves," says Donald Key. "Kent's reaction was to try to make a difference."

Thanks partially to the efforts of Waldrep's organization and its forerunner, the American Paralysis Foundation - which combined have raised more than $30 million for research - spinal paralysis no longer seems like such a lost cause. In recent years, doctors have succeeded in using steroid treatments to prevent nerve cells from dying and, in some limited causes, halted the process of paralysis.

Over the last eight years, the vast majority of the money generated by Waldrep's foundation has been funneled to the Kent Waldrep Center at the University of Texas-Southwestern in Dallas. The lab now concentrates on discovering the most intricate details of how nerve cells work and how paralysis may be stemmed if the nerve cells can be replicated or regenerated.

"Over the last six or seven years we've gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about the nervous system at the molecular level," says Dr. Luis Parada, the director of the center. "We know an inconceivable amount more about how synoptic terminals specify function...about how nerve cells survive...about what makes nerve cells unique. These discoveries are laying a foundation of knowledge that didn't exist."

How long it will take to build a cure on top of the foundation - if ever - no one can say for sure. But where there once was apathy and resignation, now there is hope.

Through the years, while watching the frustration bubble up in her husband, Lynn Waldrep often has suggested he leave the crusade to others and pursue a less obsessive career, such as sportscasting. "But he'll always say, 'No. This is my cause and if I don't do it, it won't get done.' I understand. He can find a regular job after they find a cure. I just wish they would hurry."

Those wonderful, mysterious dreams have kept him alive all these years. If only in his subconscious mind, if only in the dark, he can be the man he once was and the man he wants to be. Those sweet dreams represent hope, and if one thing has kept Waldrep going all these years, it is his sincere belief that the future will bring a cure.

The shadows in his mind reflect the conscious man's sense of defiance at his circumstances. "When [the accident] first happened, the doctors offered no hope," Al recalls. "They basically acted like his life was over and I think Kent felt like he would show them."

While understandably proud of his status as an advocate for the disabled - he enjoyed a key role in the drafting of the Americans With Disabilities Act under President George Bush - Waldrep bristles at being defined by his disability. In his mind, he never stopped being an independent, strong-willed athlete who, faced with difficult circumstances, proceeded with the business of building a happy life.

Because this business of the chair is only temporary. He just knows it is.

"I don't like sitting in this wheelchair," he says. "It's not fair. I've accepted the fact that sitting in this wheelchair is what I'm having to deal with at the moment. I will never resign myself to the fact that this is my fate."

After all this time, he still believes he will someday walk again.

"Not a doubt in my mind," he says. "I just want it to happen soon enough that I'll be young enough to enjoy it."

But even if that day never comes, the possibility of such a miracle has been a powerful incentive in shaping his life.

"If I ever start having dreams where I'm tooling around in my wheelchair...I guess that will say something pretty powerful," he says. "That will mean I've given up all hope."

One morning before breakfast, Kent is sitting at the vanity in his bathroom, waiting for his nurse to blow-dry his hair. In the adjoining master bedroom, Trey, his nine-year-old, methodically tosses a plastic baseball into the air.

Our conversation returns to the injury, and to the question he surely will face in the coming years.

"Letting the boys play football is something I've thought a lot about," Kent says, using his good hand to manipulate an electric razor around his face. "Lynn and I have talked about it..."

He smiles at his little boy.

"But if it's something they really want to do I'm not going to keep them from playing just because I got hurt. I couldn't do that. As much as you would like to, you can't insulate your kids from every potential danger in life. To do that, you've got to insulate them from a lot of joy."

Copyright 1997 by Keith Dunnavant

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