The college football coach stood over his sophomore tight end, lying in a hospital bed on a snowy day in late November.
"Ed, how are you doing?" Bill McCartney asked Ed Reinhardt, 19.
Reinhardt looked at him and lifted his left thumb out of a clenched fist.
"Do you know I'm praying for you?"
"Are you mad at God for what's happened?"
Reinhardt shook his head no. That was the only way he could answer. At the time, he couldn't talk; he still cannot respond regularly.
Ed Reinhardt was going to be a star. In his first game as starting tight end for the University of Colorado, in September, he caught 10 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. He was the nation's second-leading receiver. All the local TV stations and newspapers wanted to interview him. "A bona fide, big-time football player," said McCartney.
In his second game, on his fourth catch, a 14-yard pass over the middle with less than two minutes to play in a close game in Eugene, Ore., Reinhardt's helmet slammed into the thigh pad of Oregon strong safety Dan Wilken.
Reinhardt fell to the ground. Moments later, as players and trainers encircled him, he insisted he could get up. He walked off with players holding his arms.
On the sideline, he told the trainers his head hurt. He had complained of headaches during the game, but this was worse.
"This is not good," he said. "Something is not good."
Then Reinhardt passed out. He almost died. He was in a coma for nearly 10 weeks after emergency, two-hour surgery to remove a subdural hematoma -- a blood clot, the most common serious head injury in football -- from the left side of his brain.
The day before Thanksgiving, Colorado's 1-10 season now complete, Dr. Mark Cilo of Craig Hospital, a spinal and head injury rehabilitation center in the Denver suburbs, announced at a news conference that Reinhardt no longer was in a coma.
Reinhardt's parents stood beside Cilo. "It's a relief. It's exciting. It's just the answer to something I've been looking for for two months," said Ed Reinhardt Sr., telling of the three times his son smiled at him, the three times he moved his father's hand off his bed, the time he pinched his father's finger.
Then, last week, Ed Reinhardt spoke again for the first time. He finished a piece of apple pie, and, with his mother, Pat, in his room, said, "I'm full." It sounds like great news. But Cilo said the words had no "substantial effect" on Reinhardt's condition. "It's not dramatic. It means more to the newspapers than anything else."
Everything is relative now for Reinhardt, whose injury has drawn the empathy of the football world. His condition has stabilized; his life no longer is considered to be in danger. All his doctors -- he has had three in three hospitals -- remain cautiously optimistic about his chances of learning to talk normally and to walk again. But they all agree it is unlikely he will ever return to normal.
"One hundred percent is too much to ask," Cilo said.
Any optimism is tempered by what Reinhardt can and cannot do. He responds with his left hand or a nod, but, Cilo said, he understands only "some of what we tell him. There are still problems with confusion."
When he is put in a wheelchair, he paws at the ground with his left foot (his right side remains paralyzed due to damage to the left side of his brain) and is able to move along.
But he sometimes forgets where he is going. "His attention span is 10 to 15 minutes," Cilo said. "He might aim the wheelchair one place, then might get distracted and aim it somewhere else and go the other way."
Yet, Reinhardt now is able to brush his teeth, and therapists are beginning to teach him how to dress himself.
Cilo was reluctant to talk about Reinhardt's condition, at the request of Reinhardt's parents, who did not want to be interviewed for this story. They speak publicly only at news conferences, otherwise tenaciously guarding their son's privacy. "We are just overwhelmed with our responsibilities to our family," Pat Reinhardt said, explaining their decision.
"They would like the story to be positive," Cilo said.
The story began in Eugene Sept. 15, at the end of Colorado's 27-20 loss to Oregon. When Reinhardt passed out on the sideline, Arthur Hockey, chief of the neurological section of Sacred Heart General Hospital and an Oregon season-ticket holder, was rushing down the stands toward the Colorado bench.
Hockey's wife had noticed a commotion on the sideline, so he took off. Within minutes, Hockey was leaning over Reinhardt. "Both of his pupils were fixed and dilated," Hockey said. "Most of the time, that means there is an irreversible injury to the brain."
Hockey asked Colorado trainer Andy Pruitt if he had a drug called Mannitol, which reduces swelling on the brain. Most college football trainers do not carry it. Pruitt does. Several years ago, a Colorado linebacker named Tom Perry, later an assistant coach at Howard University and now on the Texas Christian staff, incurred a blood clot and was in a coma for two days. Pruitt has carried Mannitol ever since.
"It's very likely that the drug saved his life," Hockey said.
Within 45 minutes, Reinhardt was in surgery, where the blood clot was removed from his brain. It's likely the clot began forming because of an earlier tackle, and finally squeezed his brain so hard he passed out. "The last blow was just the coup de grace," Hockey said.
McCartney, meanwhile, had no idea what had happened. He was busy delivering the usual "Keep your chins up" speech in the locker room when one of the players shouted, "Coach, we better pray for Ed."
"Why?" McCartney asked. When they told him, he raced to the hospital and didn't fly back to Colorado until Monday.
Reinhardt stayed at Sacred Heart until Oct. 16, when he was transferred to University Hospital in Denver, near his family's home in the red-brick suburb of Littleton. Before he left Oregon, he was opening his eyes. Encouraging, but . . .
"A lot of people think that coming out of a coma is like being asleep and waking up," said Glenn Kindt, professor of neurosurgery at University Hospital and Reinhardt's doctor there. "The more usual thing for a patient is a gradual process, becoming in contact with his environment."
During Reinhardt's stay at University, six weeks into the coma, the Big Eight named its all-academic team. Reinhardt was on it. The league explained that the selections were based on last year's grades when Reinhardt, as a freshman, had a 3.24 grade-point average (out of a possible 4.0). His adviser withdrew him from all of this year's classes soon after the injury.
The Nov. 19 move to Craig Hospital, one of the top head and spinal injury rehabilitation centers in the West, was a very good sign. Life and death are not at issue there. The quality of life is.
The Reinhardt family spends most of its day there. This is a football family that will not give up on its sport. John Reinhardt, Ed's older brother, is a senior reserve middle guard at Nebraska. Ed Sr. works the chain gang for little brother Tom's high school games. To escape for several hours, they go to football games, like the Denver Broncos-Seattle Seahawks game Nov. 25.
Hospital receptionist Pat Hannon watches them come and go. "I don't know them, but I can tell who they are. They all look alike. Built."
The Colorado press guide says Ed is 6-5 1/2 and weighs 230 pounds. "You look at the pictures up in the room and the state he's in," said Mark Cooper, an offensive lineman with the Broncos who visited recently, "and that's really tough."
Reinhardt has lost weight, while his height has been a minor problem for the hospital. When hospital officials found out Reinhardt was coming, they had to have an extension built onto his bed.
Cooper and Broncos teammate Keith Bishop visited soon after Reinhardt was moved to Craig. Reinhardt was in his wheelchair in the hallway when they walked up. They went into his room, where Pat Reinhardt introduced them to her son.
"He immediately picked up his CU hat and put it on," Cooper said. "It kind of looked like he was going to cry. It was hard to tell his emotions. I think he did kind of understand, but he couldn't tell us."
The game that put Reinhardt in this condition also is slowly bringing him back. His hospital room looks like a shrine to football. There is a Colorado football poster on the wall, with this year's schedule -- and next year's. A picture of Dallas quarterback Danny White hangs on the wall; the CU hat is by his side. The first thing Reinhardt picked up and threw with his left hand was a Nerf football.
"With a head injury," Cilo said, "you want familiarity." When Ed was in the coma, the Reinhardts encouraged friends and teammates to send messages on tape-recorder cassettes to play near his ear.
The doctors say Reinhardt's recovery is on schedule, but no one knows where it will end. "This can take quite a while," Cilo said. "Months to years." Hockey said, however, that most of the major gains Reinhardt will make will occur before April, six months after the injury.
A sad fact in Reinhardt's situation is that if the clot had formed on his brain's right side, not the left, he might be "close to normal now," Kindt said. "He would be talking (normally) by now." (The left side of the brain controls speech.)
Half the patients with a problem similar to Reinhardt's have a "good recovery," Cilo said. A good recovery means the person can live "independently."
But Hockey presents a more sobering prognosis. "If he has the average recovery, it's not good. The average means there are common mental problems, personality change and difficulty with speech. It becomes a major problem to retrain (the patient).
"It's possible he could come back (to normal), but we just don't know."