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Getting Back to Football

Sept. 21, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Young Daniel Stone loves football like nobody’s business, and he’ll be in Bobby Dodd Stadium today to love it up close.

Thanks to a couple Georgia Tech coaches who invited him, the big guy will take a step toward the business of getting back to his life and away from living like an old man.

Stone, 19, has been miserable for a couple years now.

Football was an enormous part of his life for the longest time, and then – in the snap of a strange sound from his back as he went to jog a few laps shortly before his senior year of high school in New Rochelle, N.Y. – football ended and hell began.

Three herniated discs, one surgery, many confounded doctors and countless sleepless nights – many of them consecutive – later, he and his father are revved up. Since it’s been a while, they’re really revved up.

Getting hold of Daniel’s father Friday was like pulling aside a marathoner for a chat at the six-mile mark. Breathless and with a lot of running left, anxiety ruled.

The attorney who moved his family from a Manhattan suburb to Hilton Head a little more than a year ago (after Daniel’s back problems came about) on Friday afternoon just could not say enough about a pair of first-year Tech football assistants – graduate assistant coach Preston Pehrson and staff assistant J.R. Dorman.

They’ve been in touch with Daniel since meeting him during the summer in Hilton Head. They invited him to today’s game against Miami.

“We’re here and we’re really looking forward to it,” David said. “These guys are incredible, Georgia Tech is incredible. My son is a football coach’s dream, but he’s in pain all the time, and he doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t go on with his life. He stays indoors almost all the time, he has no friends.

“The coaches are giving him encouragement because Daniel has basically given up. He’s 19 and he wanted to play college and pro ball. He was built for it, and it was over in a flash.”

David Stone said all of that and more in about 1.4 seconds, with gale-wind force.

Being the way that I am, and especially since I have other work at the Shepherd Spinal Center where I’ve seen that storm clouds do not always pack the punch that their thunder and lightning might portend, I’m not buying that “it’s over” stuff. We’ll see about that.

Yet poke around a little, and it’s not hard to understand how the Stones have sunk.

With Daniel’s senior year lurking, the New Rochelle head coach told his lads to run after a preseason practice. “He went to take his laps, and all of a sudden, he felt and heard something pop in his back, and he went down,” David said. “Hour and half later, he was in the hospital.”

A lot has happened since.

Daniel gutted out the first several months of his senior year – without football — before he just couldn’t do that anymore. Walking with a cane was more than annoying. It was embarrassing.

“The lack of sleep and constant pain, and . . . when you’re 19, you don’t want people to see that, see you walking like that,” Daniel said. “In my mind, I added all that up, and said there’s no reason that I should continue putting myself through this torture.”

He home schooled to the finish line, and had back surgery in May, 2011 at Princeton.

All reports suggested the surgery for decompression of the spine and work on the discs went well. But Daniel never stopped hurting. He rarely sleeps, and pain killers are not exactly available by way of endless supply.

“Unfortunately, all of those medications are narcotics,” Dad said. “I keep them locked up. I am very reticent to give them to Daniel.”

Again, Daniel gutted his way through his freshman year at Springfield College in Massachusetts, but took a leave of absence heading into his sophomore year – which should be now.

Here’s Daniel on Daniel: “In the past, my legs would buckle and they still do, but I know how to deal with it. I have weakness in my left leg, so I’ve learned to put pressure on my right leg. And when we got to the hotel [Friday], I knew I can grab the car.

“The most difficult part is probably the emotional part. I’m 6-7, 310 pounds, and when my friends see me, they say, ‘Why do you limp so much?’ I try to explain to people that when you have a back injury, especially one that affects the spinal cord, your body has its own agenda.”

Some light has come.

During the summer, Drew Hearn, a Tech supporter with a residence in Hilton Head, met the Stones while kicking around the coastal town. He introduced Daniel to Tech coaches.

A relationship was born, and the Stones drove from Hilton Head yesterday. Dorman, Pehrson and Hearn have big plans for the weekend.

“These coaches didn’t know Daniel from Adam,” Papa Stone said. “These coaches said, ‘Your life is not over; there are other things out there for you.’ They’ve kept in touch by phone. We’re not benefactors of the school or anything like that.

“I never knew anything about Georgia Tech. These are people who are part of the football community who’ve said, ‘He’s one of our own.'”

Young Daniel Stone is emboldened for the time. Euphoria will not be permanent.

A question – Are some days better than others? – produces a crappy answer.

“All days are bad, but you have seconds in some of those days where I might be pain free for a few seconds where you think you’re getting better and holding hope, and thinking I might be able to play sports again,” Daniel said.

“Then, my leg is giving out, and my back is killing me. You have those instances … it’s like playing a trick on somebody. It’s quite infrequent.”

He’s not talking about the misery there. Daniel’s last pain-free seconds were about a week and a half ago, he said.

Today, however, he has something to look forward to as part of what hopefully will be a longer-term push.

“Just the feeling of them supporting me is great,” he said of the Tech coaches. “They’re fantastic.”

I’m the furthest thing from an expert. Yet as I’m engaged in work on a story for the Shepherd Spinal Center about two – yes, two – families here in Georgia who each have two children who’ve suffered debilitating spinal injuries separately (as in four total accidents), I’ve seen in early research great, great results.

There can be no guarantees. There should always be hope. Tech’s coaches are doing what they can to provide some.

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