For Bryce Duffy, football practice at Bemidji State University is a little different nowadays. The college senior currently coaches the tight ends as a student assistant. Last season he was a player, until a terrifying injury ended his career.
“I forget the exact play we were running, but I was just basically blocking the guy right in front of me. My head went down, hit my teammate in front of me, extended my neck up, and then that’s kind of the last thing I remember until I woke up in the ambulance,” Duffy said.
‘I couldn’t really feel anything’
Duffy had suffered a spinal contusion, or a bruised spine. In the aftermath of the injury, he was temporarily paralyzed. Team trainers rushed to the field, and though they didn’t know the full extent of his injuries, they knew exactly what to do.
“I knew it was bad when I saw him go down and there wasn’t any movement when he went down. Our quarterback saw it and instantly responded, waving us on and that’s not a good sign,” said Eric Sand, a Sanford athletic trainer, and Bemidji State’s director of sports medicine and performance.
“All of us were talking. The other athletic trainers from the other team came out and helped us. We had the ambulance there and we were just all helping each other and going step by step, doing the process that everyone learned,” said Kayla Hennum, a Sanford athletic trainer and Bemidji State’s assistant athletic trainer.
Duffy was put on a spine board, transferred to the ambulance, and driven just a few miles west from the MSU Moorhead football field to the Sanford Medical Center in Fargo. Sand followed the ambulance and updated Duffy’s parents, who had been watching the game on a livestream from their home in Wisconsin. On the ride, Duffy was finally regaining consciousness.
“I remember when I came to, at least getting to the hospital I was just worried about if we won the game. That was the first thing I wanted to know. At the time that was what was most important to me,” Duffy said. “Then when I got to the emergency room, had a bunch of nurses in the ER, had a doctor come up to me with a scalpel, just basically poking all around my body, asking me if I could feel it. I couldn’t really feel anything at all.”
An MRI revealed the best possible news. The spine was bruised, not broken. Duffy’s paralysis would be temporary. He got feeling back in his extremities about 24 hours after the injury. And he was able to take his first step with the help of a walker two days later. Still, the shock of the injury was not something that would wear off quickly, and his road to recovery would not be a short one.
“It’s kind of hard, like almost impossible to explain,” said Duffy. “It’s super cliché to say, but you don’t realize what you have until it’s taken. So it was really emotional. I cried while I was walking, like I couldn’t believe what was happening, but I’m grateful for it to have happened to be honest, because it just makes me appreciate everyday life even more.”
Rehab with Sanford trainers
Duffy spent five days in the hospital, then another 10 days at Sanford’s rehab facility in Fargo. When he finally returned to Bemidji, the trainers who had put him into the ambulance were there to help him with his next steps: a grueling rehab assignment to get him back to health.
“I’d take videos and I’d have to show him his progress because it was slow. It was really slow for the first few months,” said Sand.
“It was frustrating for him because he’s a guy that’s used to being able to perform at a high level, to run and cut and lift heavy weights, and he couldn’t do any of that anymore. It was hard for him to just walk. When he first started to jog or first started to run … showing him those (videos) and letting him see, it gives him a little bit of sense of confidence that it’s working. ‘I’m getting better.’”
“I’ll never be able to repay them for what they did for me, but they were honestly probably the most key role in my recovery,” said Duffy.
Now Duffy says he’s “96.5%” of his old self. He even ran a half marathon recently. For his trainers, just seeing Duffy at practice is thrilling.
“It’s just amazing to see how well he has been doing. He’s put so much time and effort into getting back to where he is now,” said Hennum.
“It’s awesome to see the progression and see him out here every day. And he’s a lot happier now that he is out here running around with the team again,” said Sand.
Playing football is not in the cards. Duffy still can’t change direction quickly, and getting hit is out of the question. But after everything he’s been through, simply being on the field again — even if it’s “only” as a coach — is a resounding victory.
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