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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Pearl City alum 'reborn' after frightening injury

By Leila Wai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Steven King, a defensive back for Grossmont Junior College, was injured while making a tackle in December. He is surrounded by siblings, from left, Ata, Heimiti and Waine in this Jan. 18 photo.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Steven King

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The following football players suffered broken-neck injuries:

• Rich Gannon, Oakland Raiders quarterback. Injured in 2004 while being tackled by Tampa Bay’s Derrick Brooks.

• Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers receiver. Injured in 1999 while returning punt for Utah against Brigham Young.

• Dennis Byrd, New York Jets defensive end. Injured and temporarily paralyzed in 1992 after colliding with teammate in a game against Kansas City.

• Mike Utley, Detroit Lions guard. Injured and paralyzed in 1991 after hitting his head on artificial turf in Pontiac Silverdome.

• Darryl Stingley, New England Patriots receiver. Injured and paralyzed from waist down in 1978 after hit from Oakland’s Jack Tatum in an exhibition game.

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Steven King began lifting weights a few weeks after a stabilizing halo was removed. Niece Ilaisaane Hopoate watches last Monday.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The spine is divided into three major regions based on the position that the vertebrae occupy within the spinal column:

• Cervical Spine (Neck), C1-C7

• Thoracic Spine (Upper Back), T1-T12

• Lumbar Spine (Lower Back), L1-L5

The cervical spine (neck) consists of seven vertebrae (C1 through C7), which lie between the skull and the thoracic spine. The vertebrae in the cervical region of the spine (neck) carry the weight of the head. The atlas (C1) and axis, the first two vertebral bodies in the cervical spine, allow the head to rotate, making the cervical spine more mobile than the other regions of the spine.

The higher on the spinal cord the damage occurs, the more the body is affected.

Source: WebMD.com

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Out of the corner of his eye, Steven King could see and feel every movement a doctor was making as he untwisted a pin from his forehead and he began to scream.

"I just felt every little thread coming out of my head," he said.

The doctor was removing four pins from King's head two on his forehead and two in the back of his head that were holding in place a stabilizing halo that helped keep his head steady while his broken neck healed.

King, a Pearl City High alum, broke the C1 vertebrae the same injury that paralyzed the late actor Christopher Reeve as he was making a tackle while playing for Grossmont Junior College in December. Earlier this month, doctors removed his halo after the bone "grew back stronger than it was supposed to," King said.

The first thing he did when he returned home?

"I sat in the shower for about 45 minutes," King said. "It felt like I was being reborn."

Even with his halo still on, King began working as an assistant librarian at 'Aiea High School last month.

Except for a doctor's appointment in a month, he won't receive any additional mandates. Besides a warning to "take it easy" and stay away from the beach, he has received no instructions regarding physical therapy.

He lifts weights lightly beginning the day after his halo was removed hoping to regain the weight he lost. He dropped 25 pounds to his current weight of 160 pounds in the months following his injury, which occurred while tackling a tight end in a California junior college state championship football game Dec. 10 in Fresno, Calif.

"I went to hit him with my shoulder, and he cut back, and I hit him with my head instead," he said. "It was pretty harsh."

He knew he injured something, but the first thing out of his mouth when the trainers arrived at his side was, "Did he score?"

He tried to re-enter the game, but the trainers held him out because he was experiencing a piercing pain down his spine.

"I got back up, I wanted to get back in," King said.

He said the player he tried to tackle was about 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds. King, a defensive back, was 6-1 and 185 pounds then.

Derek Hinkley, a Punahou alum and King's Grossmont teammate, said: "There was a pass, an out route on his side. Steven read it and came up, the guy caught the ball, and Steven just ducked his head, and he kind of speared the guy, and he fell to the ground, and he didn't get up after that."

King was able to move and walk, and didn't know the extent of his injuries until he saw his X-rays.

"They said I blew it out," he said. "I was hit on my right side, and the bone was shattered, and on the left side, the bone was cracked."

"If the spinal cord is injured at that level, where the skull attaches to the spine, most people don't survive," University of Hawai'i physician Dr. Andrew Nichols said. "Sometimes bones are pulled away from the spinal cord, and fortunately, that type of a fracture can spare the individual from any neurological problems. He's a lucky guy."

King was consumed with fear after the injury.

"At night, I wanted my parents to stay with me," said King, 19. "I was just paranoid all the time. It sucked, because all they did was give me morphine. I would always ask the nurse, 'Am I going to wake up tomorrow?' I would ask them to always check my pulse, shake me and wake me up. Some were really nice and they helped me out."

He was fitted with the halo Dec. 11, and was bedridden for five or six days after.

"I learned to humble myself more, that maybe God has given me a second chance for a reason," King said. "I didn't know anything about my situation until a nurse came in one night and asked me, Are you really grateful?' And I was like, 'Yeah I know.'

"And she asked if I really knew what happened. And I said I broke my bone, I'm not paralyzed but I still could be, and I'm laying in a hospital and I want to go home. She said, 'I want to tell you what happened. Most people in your case are paralyzed or in a coffin.'

"From there, I just really changed my mindset. I was more thankful for things."

On the sixth day, he attempted his first steps, but couldn't manage more than a couple.

"When I figured I couldn't do it, I sat back down and started to cry," he said. "I said 'What if I can't walk again?' "

The doctor told him if he could walk he could leave the hospital, and "so I said a prayer and walked," with the assistance of a physical therapist.

The nurses asked if he wanted to stop and rest, and he told them, "This is something I haven't done in a week. It's the greatest feeling in the world right now."

Even after receiving clearance from the hospital, he was still shaky and adjusting to his halo.

"I remember I went through the metal detector and the guy said he had to check me," King said. "I was like, 'I'm walking one mile per hour; you think I'm actually going to hijack something?' "

When he got home things weren't any easier.

"At first, my mom had to help me shower, because I had no strength," King said. "Before, I couldn't get up in the morning by myself. I couldn't pick my body up. When I first brushed my teeth, it was so sore. When I had to turn my head, it was sore."

After the doctor removed his halo, he brought it home with him, using it as a constant reminder.

"I kick a soccer ball now, I just have to take it slowly," King said. "My neck is still kind of stiff. I can turn my head to the left and right.

"When I duck down to get into cars, I still put my hands on my head (to protect it). It feels weird, but it feels good," he said. "Now when someone says, 'Hey look at that chick, I can turn my head.' "

Reach Leila Wai at lwai@honoluluadvertiser.com.