‘I FEEL LUCKY’: Oil City Senior Hayden Wilson Set to Play Football Again Just Two Weeks After He Was Temporarily Paralyzed During Game
Wilson hopes to wear it again this Friday for the Oil City football team when the Oilers and the senior tight end/linebacker take on Northwestern.
Just two weeks ago, the thought of putting on any jersey was unfathomable.
(Pictured above, Oil City senior Hayden Wilson makes a catch against Franklin last season/photo by Richard Sayer of Eight & 322)
On September 8 in the third quarter of a game against North East, Wilson lay on the Oil City turf, staring up into a pitch-black sky, his neck throbbing and unable to move his legs. A nurse had to be cut the jersey off his body so doctors could work on him.
“I’ve always grown up with, ‘Expect the worst and prepare for the worst, but hope for the best and pray for the best outcome,’” Wilson said. “I have to admit, I was very upset. I didn’t even know what had happened.”
What happened was a play like any of a thousand others on a thousand football fields.
ANATOMY OF AN INJURY
Wilson was pulling to block on a running play, but stumbled.
He smacked his head on the shoulder pad of an opponent and then slammed his head again as he tumbled onto the turf.
Wilson tried to stand, but felt nothing in his legs, especially the left one. He fell to the ground as the athletic trainers from both schools came onto the field.
The severity of the injury was quickly apparent and an ambulance was summoned onto the field.
“When we got into the ambulance, the medical staff was running tests on my legs to see if I had any feeling and I didn’t have any,” Wilson said. “That’s when (they) decided that they wanted to life-flight me.”
Wilson’s mother, Kelly, was not at the game. She raced to the field.
Wilson was loaded onto the helicopter and took the 30-minute flight to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where he was admitted to the intensive care unit with a spinal cord injury.
“When we landed on the helipad, I had immediately 10 to 15 doctors and nurses with me at all times,” Wilson said. “They were the best. They took so many precautions for my neck.”
One of the nurses cut Wilson’s jersey off his body with scissors. She promised she would sew it back together for him.
(Wilson wears the sewn-together jersey after it was cut off by a nurse while he was being treated for his neck and spinal cord injury/submitted photo)
And she did — with purple thread in honor of Karns City senior football player Mason Martin, who was seriously injured the week before in a game against Redbank Valley.
Martin is still in critical condition at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, fighting for his life with a severe brain injury.
Wilson said he feels fortunate. Things for him could have been much, much worse.
It was hard to feel that way, though, in the hours that passed while he was in a bed in the ICU, unable to move his legs.
FEAR OF PARALYSIS
“We honestly thought I would end up paralyzed from the waist down,” Wilson said.
He underwent a battery for tests. MRIs. CT scans. He became sick during one of them because of the cocktail of medicines he was given.
“That was fun,” he said, chuckling.
That time he spent unable to move his legs felt like years, not hours.
He was barraged by his thoughts.
The wondering. The hoping. The fear and dread. The questions. What will happen next? How much is my life going to change?
It played in a loop in his mind.
All those tests came back clean, so the hope was once the swelling from the trauma subsided, the feeling would return.
On Saturday, he still had no sensation or movement.
But on Sunday morning, he began to feel tingling in his toes. He was able to wiggle them. Then, he could move his legs. He stood on Sunday evening and took a few steps, an overwhelming emotion he couldn’t quite put into words rushing over him.
“I was excited,” Wilson said. “I was so excited to know that I wasn’t gonna be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of my life. I was so happy I could walk. I was just happy I could go home.”
Doctors told Wilson he had suffered a rare double whammy of spinal cord injuries.
The first trauma was when his head hit the shoulder pad of the opponent, wrenching his neck and causing neck and arm pain.
The second trauma came to his spinal cord as it received a jolt when he landed awkwardly on the turf.
“It was just a really bad stinger and temporary paralysis,” Wilson said. “And now, I’m getting ready to come back on the field this week, hopefully, and get us moving along to get us a win.”
After a few physical therapy sessions, Wilson was walking normally again.
Then his thoughts and the thoughts of his family shifted to a profound question.
Should he play again?
‘I OWE IT TO MY TEAM’
“I will admit, at first, when I first was able to get back home, I had doubts about coming back,” Wilson said. “I didn’t want to get injured like that ever again. I don’t wish that for anybody. But you know, it’s part of the sport. Football has always been heavy contact sport and it will always be. There’s nothing we can do to change it. I’ll admit, it’s a dangerous sport.”
Wilson, though, has been playing it since he was a little boy.
(Wilson returned to the sidelines last week to help and cheer on his Oil City teammates. This week, he hopes to join them on the field/photo by Richard Sayer of Eight & 322)
He had taken thousands of hits — and delivered just as many, too — with nothing rising nearly to the severity of what happened to him on Sept. 8.
Wilson promised his mom he wouldn’t play if his body didn’t respond.
It did. And she left the decision to him.
“My last physical therapy session, I was doing great,” Wilson said. “I felt great. I was like, ‘You know what? I owe it to my team. It’s my senior year. It’s my last year ever. I need to be on that field with my friends.’
“My mom, she was a bit worried at first,” Wilson added. “I’ve played football my entire life. I’ve had injuries in the past. She was like maybe you should leave football and just stay a part of the team, but not on the field. She’s my biggest supporter and she pushed me through physical therapy when it was hurting. My mom was going to support my decision no matter what.”
Wilson is unsure if he will be able to wear that sewn-together No. 44 home jersey.
He hopes he can, for several reasons.
He wants to wear it as a reminder of the frailty of life.
He also wants to wear it to honor the rash of serious high school football injuries that have occurred across the state this season.
Martin was injured on September 1. Max Engle of Jersey Shore died on September 15 from the injury he suffered in a game the same night Wilson was hurt.
Michael Egetoe of Shenango suffered a concussion and swelling around his cervical vertebrae, also on the same night. He has since recovered. And, Antwan Black of Laurel Highlands was also flown to Children’s after a hit caused him to temporarily lose feeling in his extremities.
“All of us players, we know what we’re playing for,” Wilson said. “You’re playing for your team. You’re playing for yourself. You’re playing for your city. Mason Martin, I feel so bad for him. We are still praying hard for him. I’m hoping he pulls through and I’m hoping for the best. He deserves the best.
“I ask that everybody prays for Mason. I’m praying for that kid. I hope I can wear that jersey and represent Mason in any way possible.”
When Wilson does put on shoulder pads and a jersey again and runs out onto that field, under those Friday night lights, he isn’t sure what emotions will be coursing through him.
Gratefulness. Happiness. Relief.
But also a little sadness for the other injured players, like Martin and Engle, who can’t do it themselves.
“I don’t know what I’m going to feel,” Wilson said. “Lucky, I guess. I’ll feel lucky, and I can’t wait to make that first tackle against Northwestern.”
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