23: My Super Bowl Highlight

23: My Super Bowl Highlight

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

  
My Super Bowl Highlight

Without the illness I would never have been forced to re-evaluate my life and my career.
~Lance Armstrong

Superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong’s world was famously turned upside down on Oct. 2, 1996, the day he was diagnosed with cancer. Now a survivor, he celebrates 10/2 as the moment his life changed unexpectedly for the better.

I have my own 10/2—as, I believe, do most of us—on 1/26. That was the date of Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego in 2003, which I covered as a newspaper sports columnist. A few hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned the Oakland Raiders into twisted, total wreckage, 48-21, an uninsured drunk driver did the same to my Honda Accord.

Police estimated that he was flying at 65 miles per hour on a downtown street at about 11 P.M. before ramming my car as I waited to make a right-hand turn. The impact was so violent that the driver’s seat was ripped off its bolts. When my wife called the towing company, she was offered condolences; the worker couldn’t believe I hadn’t been killed.

“You’re a very lucky man,” one of the police officers told me after he finished documenting the accident scene.

Lucky, indeed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 17,602 people were killed in alcohol-related accidents in 2006, about the same number as in 2003.

Still, luck is relative. I suffered a ruptured disk in my neck and underwent a two-hour operation called an “anterior cervical discec-tomy and fusion five-six with iliac graft.” Translation: The neurosur-geon sliced open my neck from the front, delicately removed the damaged disk between my fifth and sixth vertebrae without damaging the spinal cord, used a power saw to cut a wedge of bone from my pelvis and then shoe-horned this slice of bone between the two vertebrae to allow them to fuse together.

The surgery left a three-inch scar running across my Adam’s apple that allows me to honestly tell people who ask about it, “Oh, it’s from an old Super Bowl injury.” Unfortunately, I had nerve damage that proved irreversible. Now, six years later, my left thumb and fingers remain numb and slightly uncoordinated. I found that hunching over a keyboard in a cramped press box was tortuous after about an hour.

All the same, I look back on 1/26 as a blessing.

For starters, it forced me to leave a job I loved too much to leave on my own. Sportswriting had me away from home too many nights a week, almost every weekend and most holidays. Yes, I miss the press box, but in return I have not missed so much more. My wife and I recently celebrated our silver wedding anniversary on the correct date, not the nearest night with no game. Instead of covering the Lakers or Dodgers, I attended every performance of two plays my daughter wrote in high school. I have not missed a single one of my son’s high school and college cross-country or track meets. I wouldn’t trade the Super Bowl, Final Four and Olympics for that.

Sports are still part of my life. I write for magazines and am working on a book that includes words of wisdom from athletes I have interviewed over the years. Olympic track champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, for instance, who shared, “When you have hard times or low moments, that just makes the good times more valuable and special.” Or UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden’s adage, “Make each day your masterpiece.” And of course, Armstrong, who told me: “My philosophy is to never waste another day thinking about tomorrow or next week or next year. Cancer taught me that today is all I have. I want to live today like there is no tomorrow.”

I didn’t fully appreciate these insights before having my life spun around by a drunk driver.

Sure, there are times when my fingers feel like they are on fire and I fall into self-pity. I sometimes curse the drunk driver who rear-ended me because my neck aches 24/7. I had to “retire” from playing men’s rec-center basketball and give up tennis. Still, I was lucky. I completed a marathon (3 hours, 18 minutes) two years after the accident, and I didn’t have to do it in the wheelchair division; this year I’ve qualified to run in the Boston Marathon.

As much as I lost because of a drunk driver—a portion of my health, my dream job, income—at least it wasn’t my life. As much as I lost, I have gained much more—such as the perspective that Lance Armstrong’s 10/2 and my 1/26 and so many people’s 9/11 should make each of us realize that our days are numbered.

~Woody Woodburn

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