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“Spinal Cord Injuries Are No Longer a Hidden Topic”

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On November 1, 2001, Chris Canales, a senior defensive back for San Marcos Baptist Academy, made a routine tackle during the fourth quarter of the final regular season game. After the play, Canales couldn’t move his body below the neck. For the next few weeks, he remained hospitalized with a life-threatening spinal cord injury. He survived, but will remain a quadriplegic the rest of his life.

His father, Eddie (pictured above with Kyle Chandler, who played Coach Eric Taylor in the television show Friday Night Lights), quit his job and became Chris’ full-time caregiver. As they learned to cope with Chris’s situation, they learned about others who suffered similar injuries. The father-son duo created the Scherz-based Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Foundation to help high school football players with injuries similar to Chris’s. In 2011, they were named one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of the Year.

Texas Monthly spoke with the elder Canales over the phone to talk about the foundation’s mission and work, and to discuss their recent fundraising drive, “Road Trip for Heroes.” 

How did Chris suffer his spinal cord injury?

Eddie Canales: It was late in the fourth quarter of the final game of his senior year. He made a touchdown-saving tackle. The player he tackled tried to jump over him and his hip hit the crown of my son’s head. The hit fractured the C5 and C6 vertebrae, which left him a quadriplegic. When we got the X-Rays back, it was horrifying. His neck was stretched as far as it could be without actually being separated. 

It was a very, very tough time. Even though you’re surrounded by people who want to be supportive, when you’re called into a small room and told your child will be paralyzed from the shoulders down, you feel all alone. You never felt so isolated as when you get the word that something like this is happening.

What happened in the aftermath of the injury?

Chris was in the ICU for two months. He was having allergic reactions and breathing problems, which happens to everyone who suffers a spinal cord injury. We almost lost him twice in the ICU, and once after we took him home. After a couple of months, he was finally able to go to rehab at TIRR in Houston. He had to re-learn how to eat, how to drink, how to swallow.

Then comes the adjustment when he comes home. We had to make sure the front door was wide enough so he could get in with his wheelchair, we pulled out all the carpet, and we eventually added a room onto our house. I had to quit my job to become his caregiver, which is a big adjustment because you’re doing what it took three hospital shifts to do to take care of your son. And that’s a scary feeling sometimes as a parent. You have a young man totally dependent on someone else to do the simplest things, like scratching his nose or picking up a glass of water. There’s so much we take for granted that is taken away with an injury like this.

How long did it take to get comfortable with the routine needed to take care of Chris?

I would say two years. There is so much someone with a spinal cord injury has to adjust to. You’re talking about blood pressure problems, urinary tract infections, breathing problems, a symptom called autonomic dysreflexia, which affects their blood pressure. Many of those things can be fatal. They have constant pain in the neck. Their body temperature doesn’t regulate, so they’re either hot all the time or cold all the time. There’s a lot to be on guard with when taking care of him.

What inspired you and Chris to start Gridiron Heroes?

One year after the injury, he was shutting down on me. During that first year, you’ve got a lot of hope that if you work your tail off, you’ll be able to walk again. I think he reached that one year, and realized he was going to be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. I said to him, “If the Lord wanted you by his side, he had three chances to take you. You’re here for a reason, I don’t know why, but you’re here.” I took him to the state championship game here at the Alamodome, and 45 minutes after we arrived we witnessed another spinal cord injury. We sat in the stands watching through binoculars, looking at his hands to see any movement, and we couldn’t see any, and then Chris turned to me and said, “Dad, we have to help him. I know what he’s going to go through. You know what his family is going to go through. We need to help him.” And that was the inspiration behind Gridiron Heroes: Chris wanting to be there for that young man.

Do you feel football organizations are open to discussing spinal cord injuries or are they keeping it at arm’s length?

They’d like to keep it arm’s length away, but right now, football is under attack and under a microscope, because of all the suicides, concussions, brain injuries, and scandals like Bountygate. Gridiron Heroes is getting a lot of attention as well. Spinal cord injuries are no longer a hidden topic. Our documentary, “The Hill Chris Climbed: The Gridiron Heroes Story,” is making the film festival rounds, and we’re hoping it helps raise awareness of how to prevent these injuries. Proper tackling techniques need to be taught at the youth levels, because by the time they get to high school, players have already learned bad habits.

How many families have you helped with Gridiron Heroes and what services do you provide them?

So far we’ve helped out 22 families in Texas. We’ve provided ten wheelchair-accessible vehicles, which run about $75,000 each, and we’re about to give away our eleventh. We’ve provided wheelchair-accessible ramps to homes, pressure-reducing mattresses, and remodeled restroom facilities. People don’t understand the cost of an injury like this. You’re looking at spending anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000 within the first 100 days of the injury. It’s a life-changing event with lifelong costs.

Last month, you and your son went on your first “Road Trip for Heroes,” visiting cities throughout Texas. What was the goal of your trip?

The goal was to raise at least $100,000 to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles. Halfway through our trip, we were able to purchase a vehicle for Chris Sartor of Longview Pine Tree, who is paraplegic, which will have hand controls, so he will be able to drive. It was very successful, and we’d like to make it an annual thing and eventually go across the nation.

If a father came to you and asked whether or not to let his son play football, what would you say?

Yes. Gridiron Heroes has never been about deterring people from playing football. I get hate mail because people see I still support the game. If you ask all our Gridiron Heroes, knowing that they could get hurt, would they still play football? They would all say yes. These kids have the determination, the work ethic, and the attitude instilled in them by their coaches to overcome these injuries. We hear it’s more than just the X’s and O’s, but that’s never more prevalent than when you’re visiting a young man fighting for his life. 

(Photos courtesy Gridiron Heroes)

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