Wednesday, September 01, 1999

Linebacker sidelined, but not out of the game

An inspiration for Thomas More College

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Adam Collinsworth, paralyzed in a diving accident, has returned to Thomas More as a football coach.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        The strongest guy on the sidelines Saturdays this fall won't be wearing a helmet. He'll be the one in the Thomas More College baseball cap, earring in his left ear, smile on his face.

        In the wheelchair.

        Strength is a relative term, and in Adam Collinsworth, there are few equals. Paralyzed physically by a broken neck and then emotionally by his mother's death, the Thomas More junior has emerged with inspiring spirit.

        He is taking a full courseload, carrying a 3.3 grade-point average as a Thomas More President's Scholar, and is now helping coach his former teammates.

        “He has got more willpower than anyone,” linebackers coach Chris Wells said. “He's had the roughest year I've ever seen anyone have, and he has shown nothing but persistence and toughness.”

        Mr. Collinsworth was a star linebacker for the Saints, the team's second-leading tackler as a sophomore, but broke two vertebrae on Aug. 9, 1998, in a diving accident at a friend's pool.

        He went into cardiac arrest, his heart stopping twice. He spent three months in the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down, and was initially told he would need either a ventilator or oxygen tanks the rest of his life in order to breathe.

        After a month and a half, he was able to breathe, and then to speak. It took months to regain any feeling in his hands, and only now can he raise his hands to his face.

        “It's been a long road,” Mr. Collinsworth said. “I think I've made pretty good progress, but I've got a lot of hard work ahead of me.

        “This is my second chance. I'm trying to take advantage of it.”

        It was after football that Mr. Collinsworth, 21, found his biggest fans.

        Jeff Ruby, owner of the Waterfront restaurant where Mr. Collinsworth had worked, raised more than $200,000 for the family. Many companies donated their services to renovate the Collinworths' Taylor Mill home to make it accessible for Adam. Neighbors, parents of friends at Scott High School and parishioners at St. Patrick Church took turns cooking for the family.

        “The support has been tremendous,” Mr. Collinsworth said.

        He needed all of it in January, when his mother, Diane, died from cancer. He, brothers Neal, Keith and Craig, and father Edgar pulled together tighter.

        “Everything just became very much harder,” Adam said. “We're all trying to make the best of things.”

        Adam wanted to stay busy, so he returned to school last semester, taking two classes. He uses a tape recorder to take notes and has a voice-activated computer to do assignments and take tests. A headset acts as a mouse. He clicks on files by blowing into a tube.

        He got an A in Accounting II and a B in Business Ethics, so he has upped his courseload to four classes this fall. He is two years from his business degree.

        “Hopefully, I can go into the business world after college,” he said. “Live a normal life.”

        That life includes football. Mr. Wells, whose previous player-coach relationship with Mr. Collinsworth bloomed into friendship, asked him to be an assistant.

        “I knew I needed some help coordinating,” Mr. Wells said. “He's a guy I trust.”

        Mr. Collinsworth has been tireless. There he is analyzing film with coach Dean Paul. In the weight room, encouraging players to lift one more. On the practice field, standing behind Mr. Wells, whispering suggestions.

        “He is really football-smart,” Mr. Wells said. “He sees a lot I don't see.”

        Said Mr. Paul: “He has been invaluable.”

        The Saints admit Mr. Collinsworth's accident haunted them last fall, when they stumbled to a program-worst 3-7 finish. His return has heartened everyone.

        “We're a team working for each other,” senior defensive end Marc Broering said. “He's dealing with problems most of us never encounter. Watching him instills the motivation to never give up.”

        Mr. Collinsworth got his first taste of game-situation coaching last Saturday in a victorious scrimmage against the College of Mount St. Joseph.

        “The linebackers had an outstanding game,” he said. “It was a real enjoyment to think I helped them do that. It made me feel so good.”

        Mr. Collinsworth said he had been considering coaching before his accident. Because of his handicap, he said he might have to drop the idea to focus on a business career, but hopes he won't have to.

        Meanwhile, he has relished the careers of Keith and Craig, who both play football for Scott. Last Friday, he watched them lead the Eagles to a first-ever victory over Lloyd.

        “I was still geeked up three hours after the game,” Mr. Collinsworth said.

        He continues therapy twice weekly at HealthSouth Northern Kentucky Rehabilitation Hospital. Using a stabilizing device for his elbow, he can now feed himself. He fights for every breakthrough.

        “I want to try to be independent,” he said.

        Football heroism is often overblown. Real-life courage, the kind shared by countless others facing Mr. Collinsworth's fate, is a rare and quiet nobility.

        “After the accident, now I really realize he's somebody special,” Mr. Wells said.

        “We don't really even know about ourselves until something trying hits us. But if you find guys who get knocked down (in football) and get right back up, those are the same people that in life get right back up.”

        After the toughest year of his life, he is back on the Thomas More sidelines, still sharing his gifts.

        Coach Collinsworth.

        Only the strong find a way to help others when they can hardly help themselves.

        “Adam always has a smile on his face,” Mr. Broering said. “He's a bright shining star on this planet.”


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