Kevin Everett: 'He Is a Tiger'

Everett tells Bob Woodruff about his recovery from a spinal cord injury.

December 26, 2008, 12:57 PM

Jan. 31, 2008 — -- He was told he might never walk again. He was told he might not survive.

And then he defied astronomical odds.

Former Buffalo Bills football player Kevin Everett was unable to move his body from the neck down after he was injured making a tackle in the Bills' Sept. 9 season-opening game. But now, less than five months later, Everett is walking on his own, shocking even his physicians with his quick recovery.

Watch the story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

His recovery, a true medical mystery, has captured national attention and caused a stir in the medical community.

On a recent visit to Everett's home in Humble, Texas, ABC's Bob Woodruff asked whether he ever considered giving up.

"That's not me, I don't give up. I don't settle for less," Everett said. "I was thinking the whole time I was going to get better, just like any other injury that I had."

Seventy-one thousand fans watched the Bills' 2007 season opener. As Everett lined up for the second-half kickoff against the Denver Broncos, he told teammate Anthony Thomas to keep an eye on him.

"I was like, 'Show me something,'" recalled Thomas, "And he was like, 'I'm gonna show you. Let me go down there and make a tackle.'"

Expectations were high for the man who wore No. 85. After a knee injury and two disappointing seasons with the Bills, Everett, 25, was eager to make his mark in the NFL.

"It was the year," said Dick Jauron, the Bills' head coach. "We were pushing him. He was the guy that we were going to use a lot."

"We always talked about it. Kevin is very, 'One day, baby, everybody is going to know who I am. I'm Kevin Everett, I'm going to be the best tight end ever,'" recalled Everett's fiancée, Wiande Moore.

The kickoff sent the ball end over end into a gray sky. What happened next would make anyone wish it had never come down.

Everett raced down the field and went in for the tackle of the Bronco's Domenik Hixon. Everett's helmet collided violently with the side of Hixon's helmet and shoulder pads, and Everett dropped to the ground, face-first.

"You knew it was something serious, just the motion of his body and the way he fell, almost lifeless, to the ground," said paramedic supervisor Scott Karaszewski, watching from the sidelines.

Facedown on the field, Everett was desperately trying to lift himself off the turf.

"I was like, 'I got to get up,' because I heard my teammates saying, 'C'mon, get up, let's go,'" Everett recalled. "I couldn't move. I tried."

An eerie silence draped over the stadium, as players from both teams knelt in prayer and the Bills medical staff surrounded Everett on the field.

Dr. Andy Cappuccino, the Bills' spine specialist, was quickly by Everett's side, and recalls asking, "Kevin, can you move your arms and legs?" Cappuccino says Everett's response was, "I am moving them."

"No, Kevin, you're not moving them," Cappuccino told Everett.

"I thought my air supply was going to be totally cut off," Everett said. "I just saw everybody standing over me asking me, 'Can you breathe?' And I was like, 'I can't breathe.'"

"Did you know you were paralyzed?" Woodruff asked.

"Yeah, I knew I was," Everett said.

At home in east Texas, Everett's mother, Patricia Dugas, arrived at a sports bar just seconds before the collision.

"And I'm like, 'OK, he's still on the ground. He hasn't gotten up.' And it was scary, I couldn't even think straight," Dugas said.

"I was just crying," said Moore. "I didn't know what to think, what to believe, what's going on. All I was thinking about was to get to him."

Everett said his first thoughts were of his loved ones.

"The first thing that entered my mind is my family. I mean, my mom, my sisters and my fiancée," Everett said. "And I was like, 'I can't go now because they need me.'"

"Death entered my mind, but I wasn't going to settle for it," Everett said. "I just wasn't going to accept that."

"I felt like my wind was slowly fading away, and I got kind of scared, but, you know, I settled myself down and focused on my breathing," Everett said.

The medical team carefully stabilized Everett's head and neck, rolled him onto his back and secured him on a stretcher.

"It was done like clock work," said Cappuccino. "I don't think it could be done any better than it was."

"Then you could see Kevin's eyes," recalled head coach Jauron. "He looked worried. He never looked scared to me. He looked strong."

"I tried to give my teammates a thumbs up when they put me on the stretcher," Everett said. "I tried my hardest, you know, put all my heart into it. Just to let them know I was all right. But it wasn't all right."

Fifteen minutes after the collision, Everett was loaded into an ambulance and taken off the field to thunderous applause.

"The ambulance started to just vibrate because of all this energy pouring from the stands," said paramedic supervisor Christopher Zemrac, of Rural/Metro Medical Services.

Inside the ambulance, Cappuccino knew the situation was grave, and decided to take the first of several calculated risks.

"I made the decision in the ambulance to throw the kitchen sink at him, to use some not completely tested [therapies], some therapies that have scientific data but are controversial," he said.

Cappuccino injected steroids and ran a cold saline solution through Everett's bloodstream, trying to lower his body temperature to protect his spinal cord from further damage.

"It was the concept of trying to use the body as an ice bag around the spinal cord," Cappuccino said.

The effect of the decision to cool Everett is still being hotly debated today.

One thing is clear: When Everett arrived at the hospital his life was in danger and his prognosis was grim.

"We've got some tough decisions to make here," Cappuccino told his patient. "This is bad." On the phone with Everett's mother, Cappuccino described the injury as "catastrophic."

Everett's neck was dislocated between the third and fourth vertebrae, and the bones were pinching his spinal cord. "The ligaments are destroyed, the tendons are destroyed, so the only thing holding his head on his shoulders really is the skin on his neck and the big muscles," said Cappuccino.

Cappuccino teamed up with neurosurgeon Dr. Kevin Gibbons to perform an emergency, four-hour surgery to realign Everett's spine.

"After the surgery we feel somewhat better," said Gibbons. "We have taken the pressure off. We have given him a chance to get better."

"It was scary," Dugas recalled.

"[He was] just laying there with tubes everywhere in his body," said Moore. "He didn't even know we were there. When we first saw him, all we could do is just cry."

But as early as the next morning, Everett showed the first sign of hope.

"He was able to gently, against gravity, pull his thighs together on command," said Cappuccino. "Well, certainly, I was incredibly excited."

Still, Cappuccino was cautious when asked in a news conference later that day whether Everett would ever walk again.

"I have to tell you that the chances of that occurring are very small," he said.

After Everett's first subtle movement, his body temperature began to rise and Cappuccino gambled again. He used a cooling machine to lower Everett's body temperature in a controversial technique known as moderate hypothermia.

"Dr. Cappuccino wanted to cool him for spinal cord protection. I wanted to cool him for neurological protection from a fever, because fevers are devastating for patients with neurological injury," said Gibbons.

The next morning Everett was moving not only his thighs, but his feet, his toes and his arms. And suddenly, his prognosis changed dramatically.

"If you ask me 'will he walk again,' I would say, 'I wouldn't bet against it,'" Gibbons said at a Sept. 12 news conference.

But was it the cooling, the surgery or the steroids that gave Everett the chance to recover? Or was it the swift response of the Bills' medical team? Opinions differ, but no one can say for sure.

"People can say that I overstepped my bounds," Cappuccino said. "They can call it human experimentation. I want them to talk to Kevin Everett, and if Kevin Everett is unhappy with the job I've done for him, then I'll feel bad."

Everett points out that very few thought he would recover as quickly as he has.

"He promised me that he would do anything and everything that he could possible, to make sure that everything worked out," Everett said. "Nobody thought I would be recovering like this."

Less than two weeks after his injury, Everett was flown to a rehab facility called Memorial Hermann TIRR, the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, in Houston.

"When he arrived in our facility he was actually moving his legs, barely moving his arms, couldn't even take care of himself," said Dr. Teodoro Castillo, the co-director of the spinal cord program at TIRR.

"The first couple of weeks he would sit in darkness in his hospital bedroom," Rafferty Laredo, the manager of occupational therapy at TIRR, recalled. "I think it was extremely discouraging for him to know what he was like before, and at this point not able to do anything."

But he's made progress since those first weeks.

"The rest of this story is about Kevin Everett and the warrior that he is and his mom and his fiancee not giving him one ounce of slack," Cappuccino said. "I have never seen one come this far, this fast."

And the milestones kept coming.

"He couldn't move his arms or legs at all, and I'd look at the weight that he is picking up now — it is a huge difference," said Laredo.

With his family looking on, Everett took his first steps at TIRR exactly one month after that terrifying collision in Buffalo.

"I was so proud of him. I was laughing and crying at the same time," Dugas said. "He's a tiger, you know, he's strong. His inner strength … they can't tell Kevin what he can't do."

Dugas said the very best day was when she got her first hug from her son. "I'd been waiting on that like a buzzard," she said. "It wasn't a strong hug, but it was good enough for me."

For Moore, a special day came in the form of a proposal Sept. 29, just weeks after the injury. Everett and Moore are planning their wedding later this year and looking forward to eventually starting a family.

Everett knows he will never be 100 percent again. He still battles decreased sensation and strength, as well as fatigue. And while he will not play football again, coaching is not out of the question.

This week, the story of Everett's life and recovery will be published in a book called "Standing Tall: The Kevin Everett Story," written by Sam Carchidi.

"It was probably God telling me, you know, trying to tell me something," Everett said.

"Do you think God intended for you to do something different in your life?" Woodruff asked.

"I think so," Everett said, but he doesn't know yet what that is.

"I'm still trying to find that out," he said with a laugh.

For all his life, Everett's goal was glory on the gridiron.

But as the legendary coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That's real glory."