Twenty years ago this month football fans watched in horror as Detroit Lions linebacker Reggie Brown suffered a serious spinal cord injury during a game that left him paralyzed, unconscious, unable to breathe, and near death. Brown, who lives in Houston now with his wife and two sons, recently discussed that fateful December day, what happened in the hours, weeks and years that followed, and how he still enjoys watching the game that almost took his life.
The final quarter of the regular-season finale against the New York Jets set up to be a dream finish to the 1997 football season for the Detroit Lions. The Pontiac Silverdome crowd of more than 75,000 roared with excitement as the Lions clung to a 13-10 advantage on the verge of victory and a berth in the playoffs. Adding to the intrigue, running back Barry Sanders was just yards away from eclipsing the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the season—a feat only achieved twice before.
Then, on one play late in the contest, disaster struck. The dream turned nightmare in a matter of seconds.
Reggie Brown, the second-year linebacker from Texas A&M who had started all 16 games, dove in to tackle Jets running back Adrian Murrell on what appeared to be a standard running play. Replays showed Brown wrapping his arms around a diving Murrell while the crown of Brown’s helmet simultaneously crashed into the back of a falling Jets lineman, Lamont Burns.
“It was very routine,” Brown said matter-of-factly. “I just saw the running back getting the ball and I came out of my break running full speed to make the tackle like I’ve done thousands of times. And then I just felt a pressure at the top of my head, which I never saw coming. I remember falling back on my back.”
“We stopped him. Come on. Get up!” Brown said he remembers fellow Lions linebacker Antonio London telling him as he stared up at the Pontiac Silverdome roof.
As much as Brown wanted to get up and join his teammates in the huddle, he couldn’t. He had lost complete control of his body. Nothing moved. He was paralyzed. The paralysis was terrifying; then, things got worse, much worse. He couldn’t breathe.
“I’m trying to gasp for air at that point. I tell Antonio I can’t breathe. I can’t move. I remember his reaction to me and him telling people to come out toward me to help me. A few seconds later everything goes black.”
“He’s not breathing,” London frantically told Lions head trainer Kent Falb, who had rushed out to the middle of the field near the 30-yard line where Brown lie motionless on the artificial surface. “Don’t let him die,” a panicked London screamed.
The veteran trainer knelt on the ground next to Brown on one side while team physician Terry Locke positioned himself on the other.
“Our team physician realized that something was terribly wrong,” Falb remembered. “He said we have to start CPR immediately. He’s not breathing. I stabilized his head and Dr. Locke started the CPR. It was chaos.”
Based on initial observations of Brown’s condition Falb said they suspected it was spinal cord-related because he wasn’t breathing but his heart continued beating. As Detroit’s medical staff feverishly worked to stabilize the unconscious player, two Lions players ran down to the end zone at the opposite end of the field where they commandeered the stretcher and informed the emergency medical technicians of the dire situation.
The Silverdome crowd fell eerily quiet. Players from both teams huddled around Brown. Some players knelt. Some prayed. Some cried.
Those watching the national television broadcast reacted similarly in stunned disbelief. The announcers tried their best to remain calm while explaining an extremely chaotic situation. Regardless of their carefully selected words, an intravenous bag held high over Brown and CPR being performed clearly conveyed the serious nature of what was happening on the field.
After almost 15 minutes the medical staff placed Brown on a backboard, then on the stretcher and loaded him into the back of the ambulance. The crowd offered a somber applause. Falb returned to the sideline in shock.
“I remember walking off the field but I guess I must have had a look on my face and someone asked me if I was all right. I just went back and sat down on the bench. Dear God, don’t let me lose another one,” Falb said to himself.
Falb, unfortunately, had previous experience with tragedy on the football field as he was the Lions trainer when Mike Utley suffered a paralyzing injury in 1991 as well as 20 years earlier when Lions receiver Chuck Hughes suffered a heart attack and is the only player in NFL history to die during a game.
The ambulance drove slowly off the field and exited the Silverdome headed to Pontiac General Hospital. Brown remained unconscious the duration of the trip but woke up almost 45 minutes later after initially losing consciousness.
“I remember it was kind of like a movie with everything kind of phasing in and then going back to black,” Brown said. “The first time I woke up I’m on a gurney and they’re wheeling me through the hospital. I see the lights over my head as they are taking me through the first hospital in Pontiac.”
Following an initial round of tests including one that determines the severity of spinal cord injuries, physicians determined Brown’s injury required a higher level of care and decided to transfer him to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
That first night in the hospital the news was encouraging. Tests to determine if any vertebrae were out of place came back inconclusive and Brown began to get back some limited movement in his extremities. Despite the positive signs, doctors opted to fit Brown with a metal halo device designed to stabilize his head and spine. He would have to wear the contraption 24 hours a day for the next three months.
Turn for the worse
The next morning, however, news wasn’t as positive as the second round of tests determined that Brown’s top two vertebrae had, in fact, been displaced in the violent collision. Doctors performed surgery that day to fuse the first and second vertebrae in his neck to stabilize the spinal cord.
Over the course of the next two weeks, Brown endured an arduous process trying to regain mobility and more importantly, relearn the most basic functions of life such as walking and brushing your teeth. Just a couple days after surgery doctors put Brown through his first real test when they asked him to stand, and much to his surprise, take a few steps.
“They wanted me to get up and see if I could stand on my own body weight because at that point I could move my legs and my arms to a certain extent. They got me on my feet just to see if I could stand and I was pretty comfortable with it. Then he asked me to take a couple steps and I walked maybe 10 feet to the wall and 10 feet back to my bed. It felt like I had just run a marathon.”
While those steps clearly showed Brown’s improvement and were a positive milestone early on in his recovery, Brown said frustration didn’t loom too far behind.
“I had to relearn all these things a five- or six-year-old could do. I knew what to do. I was just trying to get my body to remember how to do it. That was probably the toughest part as far as the mental challenges. I have vivid memories of trying to scratch my face and I’m basically coaching my hand, watching it, but I couldn’t control it to reach my face. The next thing you know I’m slapping myself in the face once gravity takes over.”
Adding insult to injury Brown watched numerous reports on ESPN from his hospital bed indicating that his football playing days were over. Fortunately, due to a variety of reasons including his heavily medicated state, the gravity of the situation never totally registered.
“Honestly, at that point, I was just thankful I was still alive and still here,” Brown acknowledged. “Plus, we had just finished the season so I wasn’t yet in the mode of missing the game at that point. It was so fresh.”
Almost two weeks after the injury and making steady progress in his recovery, doctors held a news conference to update the media and public on Brown’s condition, which at that point no one knew with any certainty. After several minutes of doctors explaining what physically happened during the injury as well as describing Brown’s rehabilitation regimen, someone in the packed room of more than 200 asked about his condition. Right on cue the door on the opposite side of the stage opened up and a nurse rolled Brown on to the stage in a wheelchair. It was the first time the public had seen Brown since he disappeared into the back of the ambulance. What happened next no one could have expected.
‘No dry eye’
“He got halfway across the stage in the wheelchair, the nurse stopped, reached down and locked the brakes and lifted up the foot pedals. Reggie got up and walked over to the podium,” Falb recalled. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. People were cheering.”
A couple days later Brown and his parents flew back to Texas where he entered a rehabilitation facility in Houston and stayed for several weeks before returning to Austin to continue his recovery in an outpatient program.
Throughout the rehabilitation process, Brown impressed doctors and physical therapists with the accelerated progress of his overall improvement. His excellent physical condition prior to the injury plus his tremendous work ethic as a first-class athlete both contributed to the expedited recovery period. On March 17, Brown achieved another milestone moment when doctors removed the halo from his head.
With the halo a thing of the past Brown had most of his physical restrictions lifted and could now resume his new “normal” life. He decided the first chapter of his new life would be spent at a place in which he was most comfortable and very familiar. He returned to College Station to finish up his degree and spend time with his girlfriend, Kerrie Patterson, who was a Texas A&M basketball player.
“Once I finished my rehabilitation I went back to the environment I was used to being in. I had left just two years prior to that and it was more of my sanctuary. It just felt more comfortable there and she was going to be there so it made perfect sense to me.”
Although his body had improved physically to a point where he could attend school, Brown soon discovered his mind still lagged behind.
“I took a business math class. Everything flew right over my head. When I went to take my first test, I wrote my name on it, went through the entire test, and then went and turned it in blank. I told the professor I couldn’t do it. I dropped the class.”
Despite his understandable frustration, Brown never gave up. In fact, he enrolled in the same class during the second summer session and passed. Unfortunately, that same month Brown passed his class he had to watch helplessly as many of his former teammates returned to their respective NFL squads and training camps around the league. He was quickly learning the recovery process was a mixed bag of progress and setbacks. Two steps forward. One step back.
“There was definitely a depression. It was an emotional roller coaster going from realizing how fortunate I was to being angry at the situation to asking why me. There was a mourning period to the person I formally was; the football player side of me. It was almost like I came close to dying on the field but a part of me did die that day,” Brown reflected.
Brown said what made accepting life after football even more challenging was not only how it ended, but that it ended so abruptly. He didn’t get a chance to leave the game on his own terms.
“It’s much different being cut from a team and knowing you can no longer play at a certain level than being on that level, knowing you can play fairly well at that level, to immediately getting shut off. It was taken away from me and it was in the blink of an eye. Gone. I retired at 23.”
Despite the disappointment, Brown refocused his efforts on other goals outside of football and in the spring of 1999 he earned his degree in agriculture economics from Texas A&M. With the degree, Brown had a variety of options to choose from including three that had been specifically arranged by Lions owner William Clay Ford.
Ford had told Brown in the weeks following the injury if he wanted to stay connected to the game he was always welcome to become part of the Lions organization as a scout or coach. If Brown wanted to get away from the game, Ford offered him a position in the Ford Motor Company’s dealership training program where he would learn the ins and outs of the auto dealership business with the hopes of one day running his own.
Brown returned to Austin the month following his graduation where he opted for a trial run scouting in the Lions organization. It was short lived.
“It was a way for me to get back close to the game, but I don’t think that I was psychologically ready to evaluate other players. Even that amount of travel and everything that went into it, I just wasn’t ready,” Brown admitted.
A short time later he enrolled in the dealership training program where he completed it in the required two years. Over the course of the next five years he eventually worked his way up to general manager and assistant to the dealer at one Austin dealership. In that same time he married Patterson.
In 2009, however, Brown decided it was time for a change. He stepped away from the auto business and back into a line of work in which he was most familiar —sports. He began teaching at Manor Excel Academy, an alternative high school in Manor, a community just a few minutes east of Austin, and began coaching football, basketball and track at Manor Middle School.
“I wanted to try something different and I knew a little bit about it. It was fun. It was my first time dealing with middle school kids. We had fun doing it and they had fun with me because I think they really believed everything I tried to teach and show them. It was a good experience.”
After a couple years in Manor, Brown and his family, which now included two sons, moved to Houston where Kerrie began formulating plans to open a charter school that focuses on the business of athletics. Brown had plans of his own; in particular, he wanted to go into full retirement mode.
“My wife wouldn’t let me,” he laughed. “Anytime she needs help with the school I try to put in my two cents with my ideas of certain scenarios or certain situations. I spend a lot of time as a stay-at-home dad and a chauffeur taking the kids to school. I also tell people I go to the doctor for a living. I got a neurologist. I got an orthopedic doctor. And I got a psychologist. I kind of rotate all three of those to keep my body in one piece.”
Brown said his limited ability to turn his head from side to side is really the only remaining visible sign from the injury. But it’s definitely not the only lasting effect from that fateful play two decades ago.
“Every day is kind of a mystery. Once I wake up, I know how the day is going to go pretty quickly. Sometimes I can just be driving and get like an electric shock in my neck. My doctor describes it like a light bulb going out. It flickers, then it goes out and you replace it. With your neurological system you can’t just unplug it and plug in a new one. When your body sends these signals all over the body; those wires get crossed. Sometimes I can have pain in certain areas I’ve never had an injury. I know I didn’t do anything to hit my ankle but my ankle can hurt and you’ve got a lot of pain down there.
“There are other times where parts of my body will go numb. Ever since the injury from my elbows to my fingertips and from my knees down to my toes, they are fairly numb. It’s very crazy, but over time it’s become my normal.”
Despite his “normal” and the pain he endures daily, Brown continues helping his wife with the charter school, which is scheduled to open in 2018. He also worked this past football season with his oldest son Reggie Jr., who is now a 6-2, 230-pound high school sophomore that started as a tight end on a team that made a deep run in the playoffs.
When asked if he ever worries about his son getting injured, Brown answered without hesitation.
“No, I truly don’t. My injury was such a freak occurrence, a freak accident. I’m more worried about driving in Houston than I am playing football. I face that on a daily basis.”
Kyle Dalton is a Austin, Texas-based freelance writer