BEREA — Something about the quiet tone of Matthew Sanchez's voice as he talks about breaking his neck in a football accident makes it hard to believe he's only 20.
Even harder to believe, the muscular triathlete who was interviewed wearing spandex after a 90-mile bike ride on Friday was told in 2004 that he would never walk again.
The accident happened at a Friday night football game, when Sanchez, then a sophomore, was playing for his high school team.
"I tripped and hit the other player with my neck out, and I felt a sharp jolt of pain as I fell," Sanchez said. "After that the pain was gone, and I tried to get up. And I couldn't. It's a surreal feeling, telling your legs to do something and they don't respond."
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"I was lucky," Sanchez said. "The other team had a doctor, and he wouldn't let anyone move me off the field. The doctor held my head for 45 minutes until the helicopter came."
Sanchez was eventually taken to Shepherd Center, an Atlanta hospital that specializes in treating spinal cord and acquired brain injuries. "I was fortunate enough to break my neck in just the right place," Sanchez said, referring to the proximity of the hospital.
His C5 vertebra was crushed. On the night of his injury, Sanchez was told he would never walk again, and he might not survive. However, his spinal cord was not severed, and a couple days after his accident Sanchez's C4 and C6 vertebrae were fused with a cadaver bone. Sanchez said he started learning to walk about a week afterward.
Five years later, Sanchez is bicycling across the county with three friends to raise $50,000 for the Shepherd Center's SHARE Initiative. (So far they have raised $10,000 to $12,000, Sanchez said.)
The SHARE Initiative pays for treatment of veterans who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I was considering attending a military academy before I broke my neck, so this cause means a lot to me," Sanchez said. "Also, the doctor who held my neck that night, his son was killed in Afghanistan a year later, so I thought this could be a way to honor him."
Sanchez and his friends began their ride of about 4,300 miles in Oregon on May 24. They plan to reach Yorktown, Va., their final destination, in two weeks.
This fall, Sanchez will be a junior at the University of Georgia, where he is an international business major.
Sanchez said his accident has made him appreciate small things such as riding a bicycle, something Sanchez says he never tires of. However, he also says he hopes he could have accepted never bicycling again.
"I don't know if I could have, but I like to think I could have taken it in stride if I had been paralyzed," Sanchez said. "I would have been a talking head.
"But I've volunteered at Shepherd Center a couple of summers, and I've been amazed by the positive attitude of the patients. People find ways to be happy."