Already a starting cornerback for the University of Indianapolis, the nation’s 13th-ranked NCAA Division II team in preseason polls, Nick Wehby was set to return kicks for the Greyhounds this year, as well.
After all, the double duty had worked magnificently a few years back when he was at Mason High School and won All-Greater Miami Conference honors in part because of the way he moved once he got his hands on the football.
There had been that interception against Hamilton that he returned 50 yards for a touchdown. There was a 99-yard kick return for a score against Colerain and one for 86 yards against Lakota West and another 83-yard scoring burst against Lakota East.
And yet all of that has been eclipsed by what the 21-year-old did with his legs at the UC Health Drake Center on June 26.
That’s when he took 142 slow and wobbly steps through the hospital hallways as his dad counted with happy disbelief and the medical staff watched in utter amazement.
“It took me a couple of minutes and I know it sure didn’t look pretty, but it definitely was as exhilarating as getting a pick-six or being able to return a ball 100 yards for a touchdown,” Nick said Wednesday.
“It’s one of those moments you’ll never forget, especially when you’ve been told you’ll be a quadriplegic the rest of your life.”
And that was the initial prognosis after a devastating late-night swimming pool accident at a graduation party June 22.
“I was there with my parents and some of us were hanging out in the hot tub,” Nick explained. “I was getting too hot so I decided to jump into the pool.
“We were at a house — and a pool — I didn’t really know. It was dark and I couldn’t see the bottom, but I looked to my left and saw little kids at that end so I assumed they were in the shallow part. So I dove to the right into what I thought was the deep end.”
He had assumed wrong. The little kids were paddling in the deep. He had plunged headfirst into the pool’s shallow end.
“Our friend Tim White had just gotten into the pool and he actually felt Nick’s head hit the bottom,” said Fred Wehby, Nick’s dad. “His head hit so hard Tim felt the vibration and then said, ‘Nick just hit the bottom … real hard.’”
Nick remembers the impact: “I hit with the top of my head and I knew it was serious right away. I stayed conscious the whole time and it felt like a bad stinger you get in football, but at the same time I couldn’t move anything. There was pain in my shoulder, but I couldn’t move my arms or my legs. There was no doubt in my mind — I was paralyzed.”
Fred recalled the sight of his son floating to the surface a couple of seconds later: “It was horrible — there’s no way to sugarcoat it. You go from having a good time to seeing your son floating in the water face down.”
Linda Wehby, Nick’s mom, was inside the house when the accident happened. “Someone ran in and said ‘Nick’s in trouble,’ ” she said. “I just felt panic. We all did.”
Friends helped stabilize Nick and get him to the edge of the pool. A rescue squad was called and Nick was taken to University Hospital, where the initial prognosis was dire, Fred said:
“Once they did an MRI, they told us he was going to be a quadriplegic most likely for the rest of his life. There was no hope.”
‘Prayed and prayed’
Linda Wehby said her son suffered fracture/dislocations of the Cervical 3 and 4 vertebrae in his neck.
Dr. Steven Agabegi, a UC Health orthopedic surgeon who operated on Nick, had seen plenty of similar injuries and the prospects were almost never good:
“When patients come in with the injury Nick had — when there’s no movement in the arms and legs — the prognosis is almost always very bleak. In most cases these are devastating injuries and people don’t recover. There is no cure for it now.
“But when we put him in traction (soon after he arrived in the hospital) he got some movement back in his left leg, which meant it was an incomplete spinal cord injury. That gave us some hope.”
A couple of hours later Agabegi began what Fred said ended up a six-hour operation on their son: “He went in from the front and put in a plate and screws. He made some tremendous decisions — some of them maybe out of the box in the thinking — and we ended up with nothing short of a miracle.”
Initially Agabegi said he wasn’t sure what the outcome would be: “Sometimes it takes months to see even slight movement.”
But soon after the surgery, Nick showed some movement in his legs and one arm and the family had hope that he might be able to function better than first thought.
I just prayed and prayed and tried to visualize him walking,” Linda said. “People were praying for him all over the country. Our friends and family, the community, people we don’t even know, they all reached out to us in so many ways. Our neighborhood is decorated for Nick, so is our house. It’s been overwhelming the way everybody pulled for him.”
In return, Nick gave them a performance they won’t forget.
He regained more and more movement and finally came that 142-step debut. Since then he’s continued to improve, and though his football days are over and he still wears a brace around his neck and up under his chin, he can walk — “I’ve regained about 80 percent of my walking,” he said — and has use of his arms, the left more than the right.
“It’s rare for it to turn out like this, but Nick has had a near miraculous recovery,” Agabegi said. “But that’s the only way to describe it. It really is a miracle.”
After spending 18 days in the hospital, Nick finally was released at midday Wednesday. Although he’ll have to continue to return to the Drake Center for rehab sessions a few times a week, he was anxious to go home to familiar surroundings.
And it would be familiar, Fred said: “At first we thought we’d have to put in ramps and an elevator and make a lot of changes at home. But with the way Nick has improved, we haven’t had to do a thing at our house. Well, except maybe buy more food because he’s going to be around with us awhile.”
A redshirt junior at Indianapolis, Nick has two years of eligibility remaining. Although he can no longer play contact sports, he said he plans to return to school and help with the football team any way he can.
Before that, though, he wants to help on another front:
“The message I want to come from this is to be careful in the pool. I made an honest mistake, but I didn’t know the pool, didn’t know how deep it was. You can have fun, but it’s gotta be: ‘Think first, feet first.’
“Every year — every summer — you hear about the same kind of swimming pool accidents as mine. I was fortunate enough to make it back out with movement in my arms and legs. A lot of people aren’t as lucky as me.”
Much of his luck, he said, came because of the surgical efforts of Agabegi: “I’ll never be able to thank him properly. He gave me my second chance at life.
“Because of him I was able to move a little more and then a little more after that. That’s when I started to get some hope and then I just tried to grab it and run with it.”
And what a run it’s been.
He’s managed to overshadow those 80- and 90-yard TD sprints of high school.
Of course, back then he was just toting a football. Now he’s got his arms around a miracle.