Buffalo Bills tight end Kevin Everett is unlikely to walk again and faces life-threatening risks from complications, doctors said Monday after four hours of emergency surgery to stabilize his spine.
Although Everett showed some leg movement Monday morning, the outlook for a full recovery is not good.
Everett, who was injured in the Bills' season-opening loss to the visiting Denver Broncos, was placed in a heavily sedated, cooler state to discourage swelling and encourage the survival of damaged nerves. Doctors will not evaluate the extent of his injury again for about 48 more hours.
"This young man suffered a potentially lethal and grave injury," said Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, an orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist who helped perform the surgery. "We are still greatly concerned. I want to emphasize that this was a potentially catastrophic injury."
"Full recovery is a long shot. But the possibility of significant recovery is quite real, although we remain very concerned," said Dr. Kevin Gibbons, the consulting neurosurgeon involved in the operation at Millard Fillmore Hospital.
Everett showed no ability to move Sunday night, although he was responsive to pressure on his skin. Cappuccino, joined in a news conference by Bills physician John Marzo, stressed that the leg movements seen the next morning, although a good sign, did not guarantee recovery.
Everett suffered the injury to the upper part of his spinal cord, where nerves control the limbs and breathing. He faces potentially fatal complications -- including infection, blood clots and respiratory collapse -- during a recovery that is likely to have its ups and downs, doctors said.
"Kevin's injury is significantly high in the cervical spine that it made [death] a real possibility -- the possibility he could succumb to respiratory failure, need respiratory support, could be ventilator-dependent for whatever life he has left, however long or short that might be," Cappuccino said.
>Care is critical
Postoperative care now becomes central to Everett's recovery.
"The management of care after surgery and in the [intensive-care unit] to prevent secondary injury is just as important as the surgery," said Dr. Elad Levy, another neurosurgeon at Millard Fillmore.
The 25-year-old Everett was rushed to Millard Fillmore moments after colliding with Domenick Hixon on the second half kickoff of the Bills' 15-14 loss to the Broncos in Ralph Wilson Stadium. He was in the intensive-care unit Monday, where he remained closely monitored on a ventilator.
Doctors said the collision caused Everett's third vertebra to collapse over the fourth vertebra, like two bent boxcars in a derailment, severely compressing and damaging the spinal cord. The surgeons realigned the bones and stabilized them in the front and back with plates and screws.
The brain and spinal cord make up the central nervous system, which controls most of the functions of the body. The cord carries a bundle of nerve fibers about the thickness of the thumb through the protective vertebral bones of the spinal column like lead in a pencil.
Everett's injury was described as "incomplete," a technical term that means he has some bodily function below the level of the injury.
Cappuccino was mildly encouraged after Everett took several voluntary breaths Monday, but warned that false optimism frequently accompanies such injuries.
Before the surgery, doctors described Everett as alert and responsive. He understood the severity of his injury but was more concerned about the effect it would have on his family, Cappuccino said.
Everett's mother, Patricia Dugas, was with her son after traveling to Buffalo from Texas.
"He was certainly frightened, but he was concerned about his mother and how she was going to respond to this," said Cappuccino, who described his patient as having a "warrior's mentality."
"He told her that he loved her. He told her that he loved his sisters. He told her that he was going to get better and he didn't want her to worry," Cappuccino said.
Everett suffered the worst injury in the history of the organization. His condition was foremost on his teammates' minds. It was anything but a typical postgame day along One Bills Drive. Players mostly spoke in hushed tones about their teammate and friend while waiting for updates about his status.
The Bills visit the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
"Football is a part of your life, but it's not your life," wide receiver Lee Evans said. "When you're dealing with a situation like this, all you can do is hope that things work out. It makes you more grateful for the things you have and the ways you've been blessed. I think everybody will take a personal step back. Hopefully, it will bring us together as a team."
Bills coach Dick Jauron was solemn while addressing the media. The loss, which came in the final seconds of the game, seemed minuscule compared to Everett's plight.
"It wasn't anything that remotely resembled what happens after a football game," Jauron said. "It does to a great degree move to the trivial, the game. The effort to play the game, the effort to build a team and the feeling teammates have for each other, all of those things are critically important. [But] the outcome of a game was really put into perspective."
The sobering reality about the dangers of playing a physical, often violent, sport quickly filtered through the Bills' practice facility and across the National Football League.
In the United States, there are an estimated 11,000 spinal cord injuries each year, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Motor vehicle crashes account for 46.9 percent of the cases, followed by falls, acts of violence and then sporting activities at 8 percent.
How often spinal cord injuries occur in football is unclear. Reports of the frequency of serious neck injuries in football players vary, from 1 quadriplegic injury in 7,000 participants to 1 in 58,000, according to a review of medical information published this year in the Journal of Athletic Training.
Several players said they had problems sleeping Sunday night. The lasting image some of them had was of Everett lying motionless on the turf in the moments before medical personnel arrived. His right elbow twitched slightly but, otherwise, he stayed in the same position.
"I was standing right there on the field waiting for him to move, but he never moved," safety Donte Whitner said. "It's scary. We play a game, and it's a game. You never want to see anybody get hurt like that. It's reality. This hits home."
Players are repeatedly told, from youth football and all the way to the NFL, to keep their heads up when making tackles. A sign hangs in every locker room telling players to see what they hit. Everett appeared to lower his head just before making impact with Hixon. Jauron thought Everett's head was in proper position.
Everett's injury was a stern reminder how careers can end on a single play. Detroit Lions lineman Mike Utley, New York Jets lineman Dennis Byrd and New England Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley all were left paralyzed from football injuries.
"It's crushing, absolutely crushing," Utley said by telephone from his home in Washington State. "I do not want to wish this on my worst enemy, for God's sake, especially being a [quadriplegic]. You lose your hands. You can't feed yourself. You can't go to the bathroom by yourself. It's brutal."
Everett was the Bills' third-round pick in 2005 and was looking toward this season as a critical one in his career. A knee injury in minicamp wiped out his rookie season. Last year, he was slowed by groin problems that hampered his development and left him behind in the offense. He had one catch for 3 yards in the first half before he was injured, but the Bills had big plans for him this season.
"He's like a brother," wide receiver Roscoe Parrish said barely above a whisper.