Loss of leg, coma doesn’t stop track star’s dreams

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Detroit — As the high school runner neared the finish line Wednesday, the stadium rocked like he was about to set a world record. Instead, Sean English was finishing dead last.

The roughly 100 people in the stands stood to cheer while the entire opposing team rushed to the side of the track to shout encouragement.

The lanky Sean, 17, whose prosthetic leg caused him to run with an unsteady gait, felt like he couldn’t lift his knees anymore, he said later. Pain shot through every muscle. Somehow, something willed him across the finish line. 

Sean English competed Wednesday in his first race since a tragic car crash injured him last year.

Is it possible to win a race without finishing first?

Sean the competitor would say no. Sean the survivor of a horrific car wreck contemplated a different answer.

“I said I was going to finish, and I did,” he said, tired and sore. “I’m in a lot of pain, but it’s the best pain I ever felt.”

Sean, a senior at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, finished sixth in the 400-meter dash Wednesday as the school competed against De La Salle Collegiate High.

The loss began and ended with the race result. The victory encompassed a whole lot more, said supporters.

It included everything he persevered to get to this point: 10 surgeries, 13 months of grueling physical therapy, the loss of his right leg.

But Wednesday’s run was all he had thought about since losing his leg in a traffic crash last year.

A year after resuming walking, nine months after getting a prosthesis, five months after learning how to run with it, he was once again racing for the team.

He went from walking to running to flying, all in a year.

“I will do anything unless somebody (a doctor) tells me not to do it,” he said.

He wasn’t alone Wednesday as dozens of friends and relatives cheered him on.

Among them were Durand Miller, a mental health counselor from Birmingham who also works at the school.

Miller keeps a photo of Sean in his private practice office. When a patient is going through a tough spell, Miller points to the picture and says Sean was able to handle a lot worse.

“He’s an inspiration,” Miller said.

After finishing the race, Sean collapsed into the arms of his mom, then his sister, then his dad.

“You made me so proud,” said his tearful dad, Sean English Sr.

The joyous homecoming was far removed from the April 2017 morning when Sean and his parents stopped to help an overturned car along Interstate 96 in Detroit.

He and cancer doctor Cynthia Ray, who also had stopped to help, were struck by a car. Ray died from her injuries.

With Sean lying on the pavement, screaming in pain, his crying mother sat on his chest to prevent him from seeing his partially severed foot.

His right leg would be amputated below the knee. His left leg suffered a broken femur and torn ligaments in the knee and ankle.

Last month, Keith Martin, 18, whose car struck Sean and Ray, was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison.

“I didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” Sean said.

Sean’s dreams of following his dad’s lead and running track for Purdue University were gone.

The older Sean competed in the Olympic trials, but the younger Sean was better, said father and son.

The younger was a natural athlete who had been running competitively since kindergarten.

He is captain of U-D Jesuit's track and cross country teams and, as a sophomore, nearly ran the fastest mile in school history: 4:29. He figured he would break the record in the next two years.

“I’m over here thinking I’m going to go to college for this (running),” he said.

Despite his dashed dreams, Sean remained relentlessly positive.

After awakening from a medically induced coma, he delivered the same message to everyone: He would run again.

But the assurances didn’t mean it would be easy. He couldn’t bend his knee. Moving to the edge of the bed filled him with pain.

After all the operations and seven-day-a-week physical therapy sessions, he received a prosthesis in July.

He immediately began to pester the therapist to let him start running. She told him to slow his roll.

But she didn’t know Sean.

“I wanted to get back to what I love,” he said.

In a concession to his health Wednesday, he competed in 400 meters Wednesday instead of his usual mile, circling the oval once rather than four times.

Besides being his first race since the crash, this also was his last for the high school team. The injuries are still too fresh for him to compete at his old level.

Still, it felt great to run again, he said after the race. It’s nice to have his legs back.

He wore his father’s old U-D Jesuit jersey for the race.

“The bad times make the good times better,” he said.

He hasn’t lost his competitive zeal. If he was fully healthy, he has no doubt he would be winning races, literally and figuratively.

As it turns out, Sean will be following in his dad’s footsteps, after all.

He was accepted by Purdue, which he will attend in the fall. While he won’t be running for the college team, he’ll be blazing trails in other ways, thinking about going into media and communications. If that doesn’t work out, business school is another possibility.

After the crash, doctors told Sean he could try to keep his partial foot or undergo the amputation. The amputation, combined with a prosthesis, would allow him to do whatever he wanted, said the doctors.

Sean has proven them right.

He has resumed playing basketball, dribbling the ball between his legs and sinking shots from outside the 3-point circle.

He continues to slow dance with his girlfriend, Emily.

And, of course, he is still running. He’s thinking about competing in the Paralympics one day.

“I’m looking forward to the future,” he said. “I keep hearing it’s going to be bright.”