The scar that begins at the nape of Dakota Sheffield's neck and ends near his lower back is nicknamed "The Question Mark,'' which is apt considering its shape and the uncertainties that followed.
The wound is the result of an 80-foot plunge off a cliff, a fall so horrible doctors feared Sheffield would never walk again let alone play volleyball, his primary sport at Eden High School. A little more than a year later, Sheffield is jumping around like a burst of energy, setting up teammates as a key cog on the powerhouse Eden boys volleyball team.
"I wanted to show people that a little 80-foot cliff ain't gonna stop me from doing the sport I love,'' Sheffield said.
Sheffield's return could lead the Raiders to a 30th sectional championship, something that didn't seem possible after his accident on June 13, 2011.
Sheffield and his friend, Jake Ehrig, were fishing near Belnap Road in Eden, when the ground caved in around him as he was walking. Ehrig reacted quickly and probably saved Sheffield's life.
"My buddy grabbed me from behind because I was falling face first,'' Sheffield said. "He tried hanging onto to me but his wrist broke, and he let go of me and I fell straight down.''
Sheffield landed on his tailbone, and while he didn't lose consciousness he couldn't move. He fractured several bones, including his T5 vertebrae, which was crushed into his spinal cord causing temporary paralysis. He had staples placed in his stomach and internal bleeding caused by damage to his spleen which was eventually removed. Sheffield also underwent surgeries on his back and elbow.
Sheffield's stay at ECMC lasted nearly two months - 11 days in the ICU and another 40 under doctor's care. Slowly, he regained movement in his legs but doctors weren't optimistic about his long term recovery.
"The doctors told my parents I might not be able to walk again,'' Sheffield said. "I proved them wrong by walking out of the hospital on the last day.''
But Sheffield was not only forced to miss his junior season of volleyball, he couldn't compete in bowling or baseball, either, while undergoing rehabilitation.
"I did a lot to try and overcome this horrible, horrible accident,'' he said. "I had to learn to walk again one step at a time. I wanted to play, but I couldn't because I had to let me body heal.''
The test came over the summer when Sheffield played beach volleyball and declared himself fit to play for Eden.
"I wanted to play for my town," he said. "Sure enough I came out and I'm trying to help out all the kids who are on varsity, trying to step up as a leader and I want to win. That's my goal, to win. . I came back because I love the sport, I love my teammates and I came to win. I didn't think I'd ever be able to play the sport again, ever. I thank God that I was able to play the sport."
No one was more surprised, and grateful, than Eden coach Robert Pierce, who values Sheffield's leadership.
"I did not expect him to play ever again for me," Pierce said. "He's a funny kid, he's quirky, and I think one of his gifts as an athlete is he doesn't have a long memory and if he makes a mistake he says, 'I'm just going to go out and try again.' This kid was thrown a serious curve ball but he just went out and said, 'I'm going to do what I have to do.' "
And here he is, the smallest member on the team running around like a near tragedy never happened. This time last year he was in a wheelchair, trying to learn to walk again.
"A lot of kids maybe would have cast blame and not work hard to come back from something like that," Pierce said. "But he said, 'Life's rough and I'm going to overcome it and I'm going to get back and compete.' Determination is his gift and he's really determined to make the most of his senior year."