PHILADELPHIA -- Nothing portended what was about to happen. The sun was beating down. It was just another beautiful August day at Bethany Beach and Tim Strachan had just finished playing volleyball. He dropped his baseball hat on his mother's beach blanket, then his wallet.

She asked, "How'd you play, son?" and he smiled and said, "Awesome, Mom." Then he and Katie Ellis, his girlfriend of six months, started toward the ocean for a swim. As they got near the surf, Tim started running.

Soon the 6-foot-3, 215-pound DeMatha High School quarterback hit full speed.

By the time Ellis caught up to him, Strachan was floating face down in waist-deep water. At first she thought nothing of it. Then a few seconds passed. Strachan didn't stand up. Knowing his penchant for jokes, Ellis said, "C'mon, Tim, stop." When she tried to nudge him to his feet, Strachan screamed: "Help me! Help me! Get the lifeguard!" And some nearby swimmers smiled, thinking he was kidding. Ellis again said, "C'mon, Tim, get up." Then she saw Strachan's mouth agape and said, "Tim, your tongue is bleeding."

Strachan, swallowing water now, gasped: "Katie, I broke my neck. ... Get the lifeguard. ... Help me."

Ellis began to run and scream.

The lifeguards came. An ambulance was summoned. An emergency medical helicopter was called. When Mary Strachan saw Ellis rushing back toward the family's blanket, shouting something about Tim being hurt, she jumped up and started running toward the ocean too.

Only two or three minutes had passed since her son had left the blanket. When Mary Strachan was close enough to see him being carried out of the water, her legs buckled and she fell to the sand. For the next 40 minutes, she could no more will herself to stand up than her now-paralyzed 17-year-old son.

"I don't know why, maybe a mother just knows," she says. "The minute I saw his face, I said, 'He dove into the water, didn't he? He dove into the water.' Then I could ... not ... move."

Her husband, Rich, was at the beach house the family had rented for the week. When he rushed to the spot where a crowd had gathered, Tim was already strapped onto a wooden body board with his neck immobilized. He looked up and said, "I did it this time, Pop."

That was Thursday, Aug. 5, at about 3:30 p.m.

Tim's life, which had seemed mapped out with such certitude, was suddenly scrambled. He was airlifted to a hospital in nearby Lewes, Del., then transferred quickly -- again by helicopter -- to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

His parents immediately rented an apartment one block from the hospital. They returned to their Kensington, Md., home only once, for about 12 hours, to visit the Washington, D.C., hospital Tim hopes to move to this week. His dad took leave from his construction business. Life for both parents is now a daily orbit: Mass each morning, lunch with Tim from noon to 1, then back again for 4-8 p.m. visiting hours.

"When Tim has a good day, we have a good day," Mary Strachan says.

For all the Strachans, this was supposed be a fairy tale year of senior prom pictures and graduation cake, laughs with friends and memory-making Saturday afternoon football games starring Tim -- "T" for short -- the baby of the family, an honor roll student, a strong-armed quarterback whose team was going to try to improve on its 11-1 championship run of a year ago.

Football powers such as Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State were wooing him. A college coaching acquaintance whom Rich Strachan asked to evaluate films of Tim excitedly called back this summer and said, "Our entire staff watched the film. And Rich, he's the best quarterback we've seen!"

Seven weeks have blurred past since the accident, buried beneath an avalanche of tests and X-rays, pain offset by progress reports, two stints in intensive care and on a ventilator. Strachan had pneumonia, then pancreatitis. Two frightening surgeries totaling 19 hours.

Already it's been a journey through the rarely mentioned side of medicine -- the hushed horrors that must be endured inside hospital walls on the way to the healing.

Even now, Tim's prognosis remains unsure.

"The doctors can't say I'm going to walk again," Strachan says now, "just like they're not going to tell me I'll play football again. But I'm going to say I am."

In 'Bruised' Category

Even as Strachan lay on the beach, his sense of touch and pain was returning. He has feeling below the area of his neck injury, which doctors say is a good sign. He can bend both elbows. But, for now, he's still waiting for voluntary movement in his fingers, his toes and his legs.

Medically, he's classified as having an incomplete spinal cord injury to the C-5 vertebra in his neck, the same generic injury suffered by New York Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd. Strachan's cord, like Byrd's, wasn't severed -- "only" bruised. But no one can say with any surety that Strachan will regain the motor skills needed to walk again, as Byrd did.

And no one can say Strachan won't.

Recovery could take weeks. Or months. Or a couple of years.

"When I first got here, I thought I was going to whip right through this," Strachan admitted last Thursday, sitting up in his hospital bed. "I didn't even think that I was not going to make this football season."

And now? To his left, a monitor hummed. An IV feeding tube was stuck into one of his veins. His parents and one of his three brothers, Pooh, were out in the hallway greeting visitors. And every so often, Tim -- still held rigid by the metal vest and halo brace he's been wearing since his second day in the hospital -- asks someone to lift a cup of Gatorade to his lips.

"Now," he says, "I understand this is going to take a long time.

"It doesn't seem like I'm progressing the way I want to progress. I mean, I want to get these motor skills. I want to get them now. But I had to stop thinking that way. I had to start thinking work with what I have. ... Having the sensations but not being able to move my leg makes it a bit frustrating. But I'm just waiting. Waiting for the brain waves to go down, to open up those legs, to send messages so I can move.

"That's all I can do is wait. And hope."

Missed at School

At DeMatha, the all-boys Catholic school in Hyattsville, Strachan's absence is felt. He has an easy smile that leaps off the yearbook page. A self-assured, amiable way of talking that attracts friends. A work ethic that's always lauded. And a sense of humor that's famous.

The first time lifelong buddy Andrew O'Connell visited him in Thomas Jefferson's intensive care unit, Strachan still had a ventilator tube stuck down his throat, which prevented him from speaking. When O'Connell tenderly tried to fix one of the taped-down tubes attached to Strachan, Tim started flailing his arms, pantomiming convulsions. And O'Connell's heart seized with fear -- until Strachan's girlfriend, Katie, said, "Tim, you're horrible."

Strachan broke into a smile.

O'Connell panted: "You jerk!"

At DeMatha, the kids and coaches miss everything about him. His voice in the huddle. The way he studied game films until he could pick apart defenses. He took leadership and hard work seriously, pointedly conducting his football weight-room workouts at school, pushing himself until he was bench-pressing 285 pounds. "I figured if other kids saw a quarterback lifting more than them, maybe they'd get embarrassed and lift more too," he reasons.

He comes from an athletic family. His father, Rich, was Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach's backup at Navy in the 1960s. One brother, Beau, now 26, played football at Washington and Jefferson (Pa.) College. Brett, 25, was a quarterback at North Carolina. Pooh, 23, was the starting point guard for St. Francis (Pa.).

When DeMatha's team reconvened on Aug. 11 -- just six days after Strachan's accident -- the mood was predictably morose. Longtime coach Bill McGregor used advice he solicited from the Jets about their handling of Byrd's absence. Yet DeMatha running back Andre Waters said, "I'm pretty much devastated." Standout wide receiver Brian McCarthy, probably Strachan's closest friend, says, "I found myself asking, 'What am I doing here? Why am I even here if he's not?' "

Harkening back to all the heart-to-hearts he and Strachan shared, McCarthy now says: "We said we didn't want to lose at all this year. We weren't going to lose."

With Strachan, it was entirely possible the Stags would go unbeaten. The highlight tape DeMatha compiled for college recruiters shows Strachan backpedaling like a classic dropback passer and rolling out to throw darts on the run. There are plays where he threads passes through traffic, touch passes he drops over a faraway receiver's shoulder, passes that blur across the breadth of the field.

Though DeMatha's McGregor discourages scholarship talk among his seniors until the season is over lest they slack off or feel the pressure, Penn State Coach Joe Paterno was so smitten with Strachan he verbally offered Tim a scholarship over the summer. And Tim, knowing McGregor needed to be told, went to his coach and promised he'd dedicate himself body and soul to this season.

Right through to the day he was hurt, Strachan set his alarm for 8 a.m. to get in his early morning run.

The first time McGregor visited him in the hospital, Strachan apologized for getting hurt. And the coach, fighting tears, said don't be silly.

Then Strachan urged McGregor to check his hospital chart. His heart rate was a very fit 52.

"I told you I'd be ready, coach," Strachan said, "and I was ready. I was in shape."

Byrd's Been There

Among the things that comfort Strachan now, along with the warm embrace of his family and friends, is having Dennis Byrd's new book, "Rise Up and Walk," as a road map through the unknown and the fears, the myriad experiences he's endured and the thoughts he has when his family leaves for the night, and the lights in his hospital ward are turned down low and he's alone.

At times Byrd provides graphic detail about the medical procedures a spinal cord patient goes through. The sickening sound of screws crunching -- not just squeaking -- into a patient's skull as doctors attach the halo brace. The claustrophobic terror of being rolled into the narrow, cylindrical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. The way each patient enters spinal cord surgery hoping to awake and walk -- and the concurrent fear he could be worse off when the anesthesia fades away.

So much of what goes on remains each patient's chilling secret. But when it is told in detail, as Byrd has told it, it gives an entirely different -- even colossal -- dimension to what Kelley Cosner, Strachan's attending physician, calls, "the bravery, the will, that these people push on with throughout this."

Byrd's book also deals extensively with emotional fallout. The guilt or shame a paralyzed person feels about his new needs. The tedium of physical and occupational therapy. The shock of seeing so many afflicted people in the rehab workroom. The barely controlled paranoia that comes with just changing rooms, leaving behind nurses you've come to trust to care for you.

Like Byrd, the Strachan family has agonized over doctors' inability to precisely forecast their son's future. Though some generalizations about a spinal cord patient's likelihood of walking are possible, each case is different.

Despite it all, Strachan hardly complains. He had one weekend where he suddenly refused visitors. Then he relented. The first time he saw his halo brace, he was bothered. By the next day, however, he told his mom, "I don't mind my halo any more."

Why? "Because my hair looks awful," he joked.

In hindsight, even the story of Tim's roller coaster 18th birthday moves the family to heart-rending laughter. The date was Sept. 3 -- the day of DeMatha's first football game without him. His nurses reserved a ninth-floor hospital room. A huge cake was ordered. Relatives and friends were invited. When Strachan's immediate family arrived early, his father cheerily said, "How's it going, son?" And Tim moaned, "I think I've gotta spit up."

He did. It kept up. Before long a resident arrived with a stomach pump. Tim took one look and yelped, "I know what that is and you're not going to do that to me." But the doctor said he had to.

Strachan, who was sick of being sick, only grew more adamant.

"Well, why don't you get some of the stuff I just put on the wall, huh? Get that. Or hey, I know! I threw up in physical therapy an hour ago. Why don't you go down and get that?"

In the end, of course, the bemused medic prevailed.

Strachan felt immediately better. He somehow made it to his party. But only after sadly saying: "Dad. I'm never going to be 'T' again."

World Turned Upside Down

Strachan's poignant lament "I'm never going to be 'T' again" was nothing less than a contemplation of what constitutes personhood. For any of us. Is it personality? Beliefs? Accomplishments? Or what you're about to do? Is it having a football star's physique? Or only his commendable, unbudging resolve?

One day it may seem like glory does indeed ride on shoulder pads. Then a wave crashes down. A boy is pulled from the water, paralyzed. Within two months, his grief is accompanied by an epiphany.

"There was that point where I said, 'I'm not me' " Strachan says. "But after talking with my parents, I realized it is me. It's my body {but} there's nothing changed about 'me.' I'm still Tim Strachan, the same person I was before."

And his mother softly says, "His handling of this, all of this, leaves me in awe."

Like Byrd, Strachan has taped a Bible verse, Romans 8:18, on a beam above his bed so it's the first thing he sees when he awakes. It reads: "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed."

He works so hard during therapy sessions that doctors have advised him to ease up. And, of course, he doesn't listen. Not even when he's back in his bed. "I sit here and I try to will myself to move until I'm exhausted."

In the course of an hour's visit, the only hint of regret comes when Strachan's asked about his last day at Bethany Beach and he says, "If I thought back to it, I could pick up more details. But I don't want to. It was just a freak thing. I think of it as a stupid accident -- not stupid, but something I could've avoided."

Yet none of the Strachans -- including Tim -- has ever asked why this happened. Rich Strachan says: "If we asked 'why' regarding this, then we'd have to ask 'why' about all the good things that have happened in our lives too." Mary Strachan adds: "To me, it's in God's hands."

Already, glory is revealing itself in different ways.

Even opposing prep players who Strachan had burned for touchdowns or bowled over with a lowered shoulder have streamed north to his bedside. Nearly 50 visitors came the first weekend. Forty the next. A steady flow continues.

Penn State's Paterno said the scholarship offer to Tim stands, whether he plays football again or not. DeMatha is putting together The Tim Strachan Foundation to coordinate the landslide of offers to help the Strachans. Several events are planned, and donations are being accepted at DeMatha.

Tim is also determined to graduate with his class. "And not just graduate, but be there for it," his mother says, beaming.

For now her son sits. But he works hopefully. And he waits.

Most nights sleep still comes fitfully for Strachan. Someone comes in to turn him every two hours to prevent bed sores. But he still dreams occasionally. And in his dreams, what the doctors can or can't say has no claim.

"I don't remember too much," he begins, "because I don't sleep for long periods of time. But a couple times I'd see myself in therapy and I'd just stand up -- just stand up, out of the blue, bolt upright."

And then?

"Then," he says, "I just start walking around saying, 'Hey everyone, I'm walking. Look at this!' "