Hard work spurs Taliaferro 'miracle'
His right knee might buckle. He won't.
That's what Adam Taliaferro will think tonight, pacing in the home tunnel of Beaver Stadium. There he will lead his former Penn State teammates onto the field for the first football game of the season, almost a year after he was paralyzed making a tackle.
'I want to run now, that's the next thing. I have to ask the trainers,' said Taliaferro, who laughs nervously thinking about the possibility of stumbling in front of 106,000 fans.
Taliaferro, 19, was not supposed to walk again, or jog, or inspire a football team.
He bruised his spine and crushed his C-5 vertebrae tackling a 231-pound player last Sept. 23 at Ohio State. He could blink and bend an elbow. That was it.
'You could do that a hundred times and not have the outcome he had,' said team doctor Wayne Sebastianelli, who had put the odds of Taliaferro walking again at 3 in 100.
'Being a scientist, I knew it was going to be an extreme occurrence for him to walk.'
Half a year ago, Taliaferro's limp body hung in a harness, taking the weight off his legs so he could take exhausting steps on a treadmill at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, a 45-minute drive from his home in Voorhees, N.J.
'That was the hardest part,' he said. 'My legs didn't work.'
Doctors call his recovery a miracle. Penn State coach Joe Paterno called the cornerback 'our miracle' and asked him to lead the team onto the field for the game against the second-ranked Miami Hurricanes.
The story behind the miracle is about fortunate landings, flawless medicine and hard work.
Only a freshman at the time, Taliaferro's neck buckled under the running back he tackled near the Penn State sideline. Sebastianelli and his staff were at the player's side in seconds, stabilizing his neck to prevent further damage and cutting off his face mask, ripping out pads and pulling off his helmet.
'It was one of those things, you had an intuition for some reason, something just said this wasn't a good thing,' Sebastianelli said.
'You know how your foot falls asleep. My whole body feel asleep. There was never any pain involved.'
Moving Taliaferro's neck less than an inch could have caused secondary damage, said Sebastianelli, who has practiced cutting away helmets to prepare for these situations.
Sept. 23 was the first time he had ever done it in on a player who was really injured.
The next step was to give Taliaferro steroids to reduce swelling in the spine, which could cause additional nerve damage.
'They probably started dripping (steroids) within a half-hour,' Sebastianelli said. 'The first loading dose was like a superhuman dose.'
Dr. John Horton, director of spinal cord injury medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Rehabilitation Hospital, said using steroids to reduce swelling is standard protocol, but also risky because it suppresses the immune system.
'They can be good, and they can be bad. If you get it early enough, it's good because it prevents secondary damage.'
Taliaferro had slight sensation near his tailbone, a sign his injury was 'incomplete,' meaning there was a chance, albeit slim, for him to regain some movement, Horton said.
Taliaferro was taken to the Ohio State University Medical Center, where he had his spine fused. They removed C-5 bone fragments, gave him bone from a cadaver, and fused together two vertebrae with a metal plate.
He was transferred to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to recover from surgery, then moved to Magee.
'I didn't anticipate much return,' said Marygrace Mangine, Taliaferro's occupational therapist at Magee. 'I was ready to order him a power wheelchair.'
By then, he could bend his elbows and lift his wrists.
Then there were twitches, a finger one day and a toe the next.
At Thomas Jefferson hospital, Taliaferro had wiggled his left toe but wasn't able to repeat the movement after arriving at Magee.
'He would say, 'I swear to God it moved,'' Mangine said.
However, more body movement occurred each week.
'I had to be patient. It started out with my left toe and it just went up my left side and down my right,' Taliaferro said. 'I think just playing football and sports all my life helped out.'
Mangine helped Taliaferro prepare for school classes by having him walk carrying a backpack filled with five books. Similarly, she had him throw a baseball to her on the hospital's roof as a way to help him prepare for throwing out the first pitch at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game.
'My right hand was so tight, it was tough to let go of the ball,' he said.
Mangine hooked electrodes to his hand that sent pulses to the hand.
'He worked until he was 100 percent exhausted and then he did it again,' she said.
Taliaferro left Magee on Jan. 5, threw out that first pitch in the spring, and started classes about a week ago. He's taking four courses, all general requirements because he has yet to declare a major.
'I've been trying to think about that a lot now,' Taliaferro said, admitting he was dreaming of a career in the National Football League.
When Taliaferro is not at classes, he lifts weights with the team and works as an assistant coach with Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley.
'It's great to be one of the guys again,' he said.
Marc Lukasiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 320-7939.