Updated: Jun 25, 2020
| This is the 516th story of Our Life Logs |
I’m an athlete through and through, model year 1983. Football player, college scholarship, pro ball—the works. I was someone always in motion—locomoting with agility, speed, and power of leg was my life force. But what happens when that motion is tested?
I grew up in California where I played every sport that had a ball. I liked them, was good at them, quicker and more coordinated than most, and more competitive than all. Sports became my life very early. I skied, played kickball, soccer, tennis, golf, lacrosse, ultimate-frisbee, and a bunch of others. It streamed down to basketball, baseball, and football in high school. Then, just baseball and football in college, and eventually professional football.
Though it was a good ride and lots of years of fun, it was also a grind. Over time, the toil of it all had me uninspired. After quarterbacking the Berlin Adler to the 2009 German Bowl Championship, I hung up my cleats at 26, ready to leave ball behind and do something new.
But the desire to be in motion did not leave me. After retiring from football, I decided to move to the mountains. I became an avid outdoorsman, exploring the trails in the summer and skiing over 100 days in the winter. It felt good to use my athleticism for pure joy as opposed to having it tethered to numbers on a scoreboard largely out of my control.
I traveled around for a few years as a ski bum just enjoying the freedom. Eventually, I enrolled in a graduate program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, a school within a half-hour drive of a ski resort. Classes went well, but more noteworthy were my adventures in the terrain of the southwest. I explored the red hills of Flagstaff and down into Oak Creek Canyon, the red rock of Sedona, up and into the Grand Canyon. One of the most notable was Flagstaff’s guardian, the Kachina Peaks—12,000-foot mountains that were once a 16,000-foot volcano, a deity the natives still speak of in story.
After finishing graduate studies, I began teaching at the university. Even so, my lifeforce continued to be found through my legs: hiking, running, playing pick-up sports and above all, skiing. When I was flying down a mountain, I felt like an unstoppable force. Euphoria would rush over me. It made me feel invincible. Until one day in 2015.
The day had been lovely. I held three good morning classes and had no office hours or meetings. I was off campus by noon and on the lifts by 1:00PM, making turns in soft snow and smiling that I had this life thing figured out.
Then, as I went down the mountain once more on my skis, I lost control and skied hard off the cliff. I landed stiff on the metallic layer of volcanic rock masked by the camouflage dusting of snow, and my skis ejected. The jolt from the momentum flung my body forward fast and wild straight into a large, angle-sharped boulder. My left thigh struck deep by the igneous lance. I didn’t hear a pop. I’d torn ligaments before and knew the sound. I’d broken my share of bones too but felt no crack. I knew it had to be worse.
In the soft snow, I struggled to get from my belly to my knees. I tried to stand. Nope. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked to the sky, tone and inflection growing grave as I waited for someone to appear, anyone.
I shifted my right leg and body around. The pain in my left leg intensified, somehow expanding and growing more acute at the same time. I breathed deep against the hurt. I thought that if I could just gather my skis, click into them, and ski down to get help, things would be fine. But the lifts had stopped spinning, and no one was around. At 11,000 feet, I knew it would start to get cold fast.
I touched my leg. Firm as stone. The pain and inability to move was becoming scary. The sun disappeared to the west and evening’s cold took its first steps. I listened for sound and heard only silence. I called out for help. No one answered.
After what felt like hours, a volunteer ski patroller looked down from the shoulder of the cliff. I waved and called out for help. He strained to ski around the cliff and made it down to me. The patroller performed field tests on my leg. My pain and his face told me it wasn’t good. He called for help and a sled to transport me.
I lay on a bench in the first-aid shack looking at a leather-skinned patrolman, a white mustache concealing his upper lip. The man cut my ski pants off around the hip with a pair of large metal scissors.
“Well,” he said after some time, “I’d say femur, but you said there was no ‘crack.’ It’s definitely not your knee. I know you’re not going to like hearing this, but I think we should call you an ambulance and get you to the hospital.”
The journey from the ski area to the emergency room was a 20-minute ride in eternity. My leg was getting worse, steadily and swiftly. It could bear no weight and the slightest movement was an ice pick. I knew it was just my leg, but I felt like I was going to die. Getting maneuvered in and out of the truck was the sharpest and most unescapable pain I’d felt in my entire life.
When we arrived at the hospital, a team of nurses hoisted me into a wheelchair and pushed me inside. Due to my shock—and the actions and words I yielded to it, I was told to look at the stick in front of my nose and “inhale when it is snapped in two.”
The instantaneousness and profundity of the numbing intoxicant cannot be overstated. Ten seconds or twenty minutes later I do not know, but a doctor approached. He was hurried but in control. He looked at me behind his white coat, a clipboard in one hand and an eight-inch needle from science fiction in the other.
“I need to stick this needle into your leg to find out how severe the pressure is. If it reads above a 30, you have a serious condition called compartment syndrome—in which case you will need an emergency surgery to prevent amputation of the leg.”
“It’s not off the table,” he looked away before returning his gaze. “I need to do this test before I can take any further course.”
I think I said “okay,” but I am not sure.
The doctor inserted the needle deep into my thigh. “Sixty,” he said as he removed it. “He’s at 60. Prep the O.R.”
They gave me the requisite waivers to sign for surgery, the ones acknowledging you can die from the upcoming procedure and that if you do you will not blame the hospital. “Can I wait to decide?” I asked the doctor.
“Not if you want to keep your leg.”
I must have not seemed to understand.
“Your thigh has basically imploded like a crushed Coke can and there is a lot of dead tissue. If that tissue gets into your heart, you will die,” he took a breath. “If it escapes the leg and gets into the abdomen, there is nothing we can do. Amputation is the last line of defense.”
The doctor’s eyes narrowed. “Jon, this is a matter of life and death. This operation is all we can do on our end to ensure that you don’t die…and it gives you a decent chance at keeping your leg.”
I signed the waiver in a frightened hand.
As I lay on the gurney in tubes and a gown, the anesthesia about to be administered, I did not know much, but what I knew, I knew well. When I woke up, I would have two legs or one; or I may not wake up.
I came to in a room of beeps and nurses. The moment of not knowing where I was or what had just happened came and went when I realized I was here. I was alive.
I reached for my legs.
“Two,” I exhaled deeply; I couldn’t move one of them, but I still had two legs. I’d made it. And I knew in that moment, my life was going to be forever changed.
I had to learn to walk again and slowly get back into daily life.
Before my injury, I’d still got the itch to play football—wondering if I had quit too soon and what more I could have accomplished. When I was 31 and in the best shape of my life, I felt like I could still play. I kept a regular eye out for the perfect situation with a team in Europe that would still know my name and give me a shot. I was not deaf to football’s glory call. With my accident, however, all those dreams of playing again were dead. My leg couldn’t withstand the grind that is a full season of football. Whatever sliver had remained open in my window as a professional athlete was shut firm after that.
The future lay along a different path. But, my spirit was not broken.
Knowing I could no longer play football eliminated any doubt of my life’s trajectory. My injury freed me, allowing me to evolve as an athlete, fully out of the professional realm and into a Zen-like pursuit movement in the out of doors as an eager and enthusiastic amateur. This accident only reinforced the idea that my devotion to movement was a part of who I was, even if it put me in danger. The thrill of it outweighed the risks.
It wasn’t about being the best anymore. It wasn’t all about winning. All that mattered was you and the mountain, you and your mind. Skiing, and my overall new devotion to athletic movement, never became my job, but it became my being.
And it still is.
It’s been five years since the fall. I’m still getting after it on mountains all over the west. My leg has healed considerably, but I know it will never be the same and will always require rest and diligent care. The muscles are actually still reforming.
As am I.
I will always be an athlete, yet know, now, after all I have been through, I would be even if I only had one leg.
This is the story of Jonathan Richard Grant
Jonathan currently resides in California, where he continues to ski and live a life in motion. Growing up, Jonathan loved to be active in all kinds of sports and eventually fell in love with skiing. However, when he flew off a cliff, his life he knew and loved was put in jeopardy. Coming out from this experience showed Jon the value of life, and that his purpose as a man in motion will be a part of him no matter what happens. Jonathan is a former professional quarterback and an avid outdoorsman and skier. In his free time, Jonathan plays the guitar, dances, writes, teaches, hikes, and camps a ton. He devours all chocolate-based Ben N’ Jerry’s Ice Cream. He plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail before he’s 40, ski in Alaska before he’s 50, and still be moving around in the great outdoors in his 80’s. Peruse Jonathan’s website and see how his writing and editing expertise can help you: jonathanrichardgrant.com.
This story first touched our hearts on March 15, 2020.
| Writer: Jonathan Grant | Editor: Kristen Petronio |