On a rainy day in April, Clayton Matthews sat in the passenger's seat of his mother's car, preoccupied by his cell phone and the news from yet another doctor's visit. As the car started to make its way down Afton Mountain in rural Virginia, Kay Matthews suddenly looked at her son and screamed, "We're sliding!"
Clayton Matthews glanced up and felt their Mercury Cougar drifting across rain-slicked Interstate 64. The car hit the guardrail on the right side of the road, veered left and slid through the ditch in the median. The car spun around 360 degrees and headed the wrong way down the eastbound lanes. Kay Matthews embraced her son and prepared for the worst.
"I just closed my eyes," Clayton Matthews said. "For about three seconds, I thought I was dead. I literally saw my life flash before my eyes."
"How could this be happening again?" Clayton and Kay both wondered. "What did we do to deserve this?"
Until last summer, Clayton Matthews had largely lived a storybook life. A high school football star in Georgia, Clayton went to James Madison University to play for his father, Dukes Coach Mickey Matthews, and immediately became an impact player. He was popular in the locker room and on campus. His mother and older sister, Meredith Anne, were there to watch every game.
But in the span of eight months, Clayton's life was shattered by not one but two tragedies. Improbably, Clayton broke his neck twice in separate car accidents, leaving him paralyzed below the chest. His life is now a struggle to stay focused on walking again, through experimental medicine and sheer determination, and to avoid dwelling on the extraordinary events that took so much away from him.
"We had two bad car wrecks," Mickey Matthews said. "It's like being struck by lightning twice."
'Didn't Have Legs Anymore'
Clayton, 22, was a star quarterback at Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Ga. He had lived the life of a college football coach's son, growing up in Texas, West Virginia and then Georgia, where his father was linebackers coach at the University of Georgia. Clayton wasn't the most athletically gifted player, but college coaches liked his toughness and versatility -- he could throw, catch and kick the football.
He also was a winner, leading Oconee County High to a 15-0 record and the Class AA state championship as a junior in 1999.
During his senior year of high school, after his family moved to Virginia, Clayton was offered football scholarships by Wake Forest and Elon College in North Carolina. But Clayton chose to play for his father, who was named the Division I-AA national coach of the year after leading the Dukes to the Atlantic 10 championship and I-AA playoffs in his first season in 1999. Clayton played quarterback as a freshman and also played wide receiver, punter and kicker as a sophomore.
"My biggest fault was I wasn't great at one thing, but pretty good at a lot of different things," Clayton said. "I moved positions every time somebody got hurt."
Before his junior season, Clayton injured his back lifting weights during the offseason. Doctors discovered that he had a fractured disk in his lower back. "One hard tackle," the doctors told him, "and you'll never walk again."
Clayton spent most of last summer mulling over his future. He considered having surgery to fuse the disk in his back so he could play football again, but his father thought the procedure was too risky. Only a few weeks before the Dukes opened preseason camp, Clayton finally decided to heed the doctors' warnings and stopped playing. The risk of paralysis was just too great.
"I thought my life was over," Clayton said.
With fall semester classes at James Madison looming, Clayton spent Aug. 3, 2003, moving into a new apartment near campus. That night, on the way back to his apartment, Clayton picked up a few friends who needed rides home. He dropped all but Katie Harris, a James Madison student from Fairfax, off at a nearby apartment, and climbed back into his car but didn't buckle the seat belt. "I'd gotten into the habit of waiting for the seat belt light to blink," Clayton said.
It never did.
As Clayton made a wide turn onto University Boulevard, he lost control of his car and the Mustang left the road. His car plunged down a hill and into thick woods. Clayton was thrown out the driver's-side window, and Harris, who was wearing a seat belt, was trapped inside. Clayton and Harris lay in the woods for nearly an hour before James Madison defensive end Jerame Southern, of Hampton, Va., drove by the accident.
"I didn't see a car or anything," Southern said. "It was dark outside. As I was going down the hill headed home, I heard somebody screaming. I stopped in the middle of the road, didn't see anything and didn't hear the screams anymore. So I started to drive away, but I looked in the rearview mirror and saw their car in the woods."
Southern called police and reported the accident. He didn't find out Clayton was the driver until teammates told him the next day.
"I probably would have bled to death if he hadn't found me," Clayton said.
Doctors called Kay's cell phone and told her that her son had been seriously injured, but that it seemed Harris was hurt worse.
"It's hard to believe as I drove to the hospital that night that I was mad at Clayton," Mickey said.
When Kay and Mickey arrived at Rockingham Memorial Hospital in Harrisonburg, they saw that Clayton was not all right. When they arrived at Clayton's room, he asked his parents to straighten out his legs because they were "all crumpled up." Clayton's legs were straight, but he couldn't feel them.
Clayton had broken his left ankle, left femur, six ribs and his jaw and punctured his right lung. He had long cuts near both of his eyes. Worst of all, doctors told his parents they feared Clayton had broken his neck and suffered a spinal cord injury. X-rays confirmed fractures of the T-4 vertebrae in his upper back and the C-6 vertebrae in his neck. Clayton was paralyzed below his chest, and doctors told his parents there was a chance he would not survive.
"He was really in bad shape," Mickey said. "I just prayed to God to let me have him back in any way that I could get him."
Harris broke her nose but avoided more serious injuries.
Clayton underwent eight hours of surgery to insert two steel rods and screws in his broken neck. He had surgeries to set his broken leg and jaw. He needed plastic surgeries for the lacerations near his eyes. Clayton was in intensive care for three weeks, during which he spent most of his time in and out of consciousness.
"After I finally woke up, it took me about 24 hours to realize I didn't have legs anymore," Clayton said. "I just sat there staring at the ceiling every day because I couldn't move. I just cried myself to sleep every night."
Hope, Then Crash
Clayton was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, a catastrophic care hospital where he began his rehabilitation. Kay and Mickey were determined to find more than rehab for their son; they went searching for a cure for paralysis, regardless of the odds against Clayton walking again. They perused the Internet and talked to the parents of other paralyzed children.
They kept coming back to stem cell replacement, a controversial medical procedure that has become a political hot-button issue in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved the procedure in the United States, and President Bush opposes stem cell research because it often requires the destruction of human embryos to obtain cells. Some doctors and scientists believe stem cell replacement could be the link to finding cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, cancer and paralysis.
The Claytons' research uncovered Emilio Jacques, who spent 20 years at Boston University Hospital and now performs stem cell procedures in Monterrey, Mexico. On Feb. 22, Clayton visited Jacques, who removed scar tissue from his spinal cord and injected millions of new stem cells into Clayton's spinal cord. Jacques told Clayton that the procedure had mixed results on other patients. Clayton met a woman who was once paralyzed but could now pedal a stationary bicycle after having the treatment. The procedure had no effect on some patients. Just a few days after the surgery, Clayton noticed improvement. He was breathing easier and could catch a ball while sitting, without losing his balance.
Encouraged by the results of the stem cell treatments, Clayton enrolled in classes during spring semester at James Madison, and was about two years from finishing a bachelor's degree in business management. Although Clayton could no longer play football, he still remained a part of the Dukes program by helping his father as a volunteer assistant coach during spring practice. Life would go on, with or without his legs, Clayton had decided.
"I was just glad I wasn't in a hospital anymore," he said.
In April, Kay scheduled a doctor's appointment for Clayton in Charlottesville because he had been sweating profusely for a few weeks, and she was worried that he had another infection. Clayton had already had emergency surgeries for a ruptured gall bladder and acute kidney failure, conditions caused by calcium buildups from his inactivity. Bladder infections were common because of the catheter he used. The doctor's visit was four days before Clayton was scheduled to have another stem cell injection in Mexico.
But he never made it down Afton Mountain.
When Kay's car came to a stop on the side of I-64 -- it came within a few feet of slamming into the mountain -- she didn't think Clayton was seriously injured. She had cradled him during the wreck to keep him from hitting the windshield, roof or door. Her car was only slightly damaged after it brushed the guardrail. Still, Clayton suffered whiplash during the accident, snapping the steel rods in his neck. Incredibly, he broke his neck again and suffered another spinal cord injury, this time between the C-7 and T-1 vertebrae.
Clayton was transferred to the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research in Houston, where he spent two months. Clayton went home to Harrisonburg in late June, and is not yet strong enough to maneuver his wheelchair on his own. He has only 50 to 60 percent of the strength in his hands; he had full use of his arms and hands before the second accident.
"It's like starting all over," Clayton said.
Coping With Wounds
During a Fourth of July outing with his parents, Clayton struggled to eat his club sandwich. Although he threw and kicked a football with his right hand and foot, he writes and holds eating utensils with his left hand, which is weaker than his right. During lunch, Clayton tells his parents he remembers bringing a date to the holiday picnic the previous year. It seems so long ago, he tells them.
"The toughest part is everybody knew me as Clayton, and the only things I worried about were chasing girls and having fun," Clayton said. "I was happy when the sun came up. Now, it's just hard because most of my friends have moved away, and I'm 22 years old and stuck back in my parents' house. You can't do anything for yourself."
On the Fourth of July, Clayton's parents encouraged him to ride in a golf cart while they played golf in a club tournament that afternoon, but he seemed uncomfortable with the idea and chose to go home and sit at a computer in his room. He spends much of his time in his bedroom, when he is not occupied by daily rehabilitation or doctor's visits.
"It has been very difficult for him," Mickey said. "He always played a lot of golf and had a part-time job last summer. He was going to school. He was the kind of kid who always had something going."
While Clayton continues to heal, Kay and Mickey are coping with their own wounds. Like any mother, Kay was overcome by an enormous sense of guilt after the second accident.
"I was the one driving the car," she said. "I did feel very responsible."
She wasn't alone. The night before the second wreck, Mickey watched weather forecasts and knew it was going to rain heavily. He asked Kay if she wanted to drive his sport-utility vehicle because he thought it was safer for the road conditions. Kay drove her car because she didn't think she could lift Clayton in and out of the SUV.
"I think we both felt a lot of guilt," Mickey said. "I've gotten up in the middle of the night, looked in the mirror and said, 'Why didn't I take off from work that day and drive him to the doctor?' She and I had a lot of talks about it. The thing that we determined as a couple is that it was not going to be a positive situation for anyone to place blame. There's no finger-pointing that's going to stop him from having a second broken neck."
Clayton said he hasn't talked to his mother about the second wreck, but doesn't blame her for what happened.
"It's kind of like an unspoken," Clayton said. "You just don't talk about it. You don't want to talk about it. It was nobody's fault. It was just one of those things that happened. You can 'what if' all you want, but when it's done, it's done."
Kay left her teaching job to stay at home and care for her son. Clayton's sister also lives in Harrisonburg and helps care for her brother.
On Saturday morning, Clayton was scheduled to have surgery in Mexico to remove scar tissue from the newly damaged area of his spinal cord. He also received more stem cell injections.
The surgery costs more than $20,000, and the injections are about $3,000 each. Clayton plans to get the stem cell injections monthly, and he and his mother spend two or three days in Mexico during each trip. Insurance doesn't pay for the procedures because they're not approved by the FDA. A charity golf tournament this summer raised more than $50,000 for Clayton's care, and college football coaches around the country have donated more than $25,000.
Clayton's parents say they can't put a price on being able to see their son walk again. "We're going to keep pushing the envelope," Mickey said.
Clayton says his goals are the same as a year ago -- to finish college and possibly pursue a career in coaching. He starts classes (a full load of 15 hours) at James Madison later this month, and will resume his coaching duties when the Dukes open two-a-days this week.
"People say you've got to deal with being paralyzed," Clayton said. "They say, 'Just move on and deal with it.' But I've been taught my whole life not to deal with it. I've always been told to play until the last whistle. I'm going to have hopes of walking again until the day I die."