A single tear trickled down his mother’s cheek.
Christine Vitiello wiped away the others welling in her eyes. Tears of gratitude. Tears of heartache. Even she cannot tell them apart as she told her son’s story, a story that is part miracle, part tragedy.
A cadaver bone and titanium hold Tyler Vitiello’s spine together.
Two rods. One plate. Ten screws.
One rebuilt life.
It is a life Tyler nearly lost five years ago — on Nov. 5, 2011 — in a helmet-to-helmet collision on the Saddle Brook football field. He broke his neck. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Then one day some two weeks later, he started walking again.
But his story was just beginning. The life he was given back had irrevocably changed.
“I could have folded and melted away,” said Tyler, his long, blond hair pulled back from his face. “I wanted to rise above it.”
As the five-year anniversary of his injury approaches, the graduate student’s journey defies a convenient narrative.
It represents the complex existence for the small fraternity of former football players who regain feeling and movement after suffering a spinal cord injury, but then struggle with constant pain, numbness and other serious health issues that will plague them the rest of their lives.
The specter of catastrophic injury amounts to the worst fear held within America’s Game as another high school football season kicks off Friday night. Tyler, 22, is the personification of that fear.
He has risen above the injury. But his recovery has come at a very steep price.
“He’s my miracle,” Christine Vitiello beamed, sitting at her dining room table and watching a pot of pasta boil on the stove. “A walking miracle.”
He walked across the Prudential Center stage in May to accept his psychology degree from Montclair State. He now is a graduate student there working toward a doctorate in neuropsychology and starts an internship next week at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation – the very institution that helped him walk again.
He is thankful. He is living.
But it is a life that includes constant pain and significant medical issues.
There also was a mountain of medical bills that “easily” surpassed $1 million, the Vitiellos said. And the family pays $1,000 to $1,500 a month in out-of-pocket expenses for pain management and physical therapy.
“People see them out there. They look good. They look healthy. They’re walking,” said Eddie Canales, director of Texas-based Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Foundation. The non-profit provides immediate and long-term support to individuals who suffered catastrophic spinal cord injuries playing football.
“They think everything’s OK. There are so many things involved with this injury that people are not aware of,” continued Canales, whose son, Chris, is a quadripelgic after breaking his neck playing high school football. “I’ve talked to moms [in this situation]. ‘Eddie, nobody knows what we’re going through. He looks good. But they don’t know what he has to go through every day just to be out there.’”
Before Tyler’s miraculous recovery came the tragedy.
He suffered three shattered and dislocated vertebrae — C-4, C-5 and C-6 — on Senior Day while blocking on a kickoff return against rival Glen Rock. A crushed disk was pinned against his spinal cord.
The former running back was unable to move anything but his head for two endless weeks. The fear that he would remain that way haunted the then-17 year old senior.
But the problems did not go away when the paralysis did.
Tyler suffers from burning, tingling nerve pain coursing down his arms and legs. That pain only escalates in the dead of night.
“It’s just like electric shocks going through your body,” said Tyler, who constantly adjusts himself as he sits, trying to stave off the chronic stiffness that grips him whenever he stops moving. “All day. Nothing takes the edge off. Nothing.”
Numbness in his chest and arms and spasticity also plague him. He often cannot distinguish between hot and cold. His body cannot regulate its own temperature, leaving him susceptible to heat illness.
And he struggles with insomnia, a result of damage to the hypothalamus gland in his brain during the collision.
There has been debilitating pain and glorious healing, an astonishing recovery and constant frustration.
“My body’s not the same by any means,” said Tyler, who does not wear a brace and works out almost every day at a local gym to maintain his health. “A lot of people see me and say, ‘You’ve got to be so happy for all you got back.’ I am. I am grateful.
“And I’m also unhappy for feeling what I feel. It’s definitely constantly there.”
Cursed. Blessed. Wounded, but unbroken. This is Tyler’s story, and it will be for the rest of his life.
“This is permanent,” he said. “It’s a permanent injury. It’s not going away.”
More than 260 high school football players suffered cervical cord injuries between 1977 and 2012, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research.
Tyler was one of six just in 2011.
Fatalities from broken necks in football have dropped precipitously since the period of 1966 to 1975, when 37 players of all ages died from cervical spine injuries, according to the center. The decline is attributed to improved helmets and enhanced tackling and blocking techniques.
But six players died from 2006 to 2015.
For those who suffer spinal cord injuries, life is far more complex.
“This is a devastating injury,” said Dr. Barry Kosofsky, a pediatric neurologist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. He has not treated Vitiello. “The fact that he’s not in a wheelchair and paralyzed from the neck down, he’s lucky.
“He will have to deal with this the rest of his life.”
The nerve damage is permanent. Pain is his constant companion. Treatment options are limited.
Tyler has weaned himself off the painkillers and prescription drugs he took in the years after the catastrophic injury. The side effects far outweighed the benefits, he says.
There was Lyrica for nerve pain. Dilaudid for pain. Baclofen for stiffness and muscle spasms. Ambien for insomnia.
“When you feel what I’ve felt, pain isn’t really anything anymore,” Tyler said. “You’ve maxed it out after feeling that. I don’t think there’s anything that could top that.”
Infuriating battles with the health care establishment only exacerbate that pain.
Vitiello’s medical plan finally granted him weekly massages to alleviate the spasticity and pain nearly four years after doctors deemed it medically necessary, the family said.
Then April 1, the benefit was cut without warning.
After more than two weeks of wrangling, insurance approved massages of only 15 minutes, the family said.
“We keep fighting,” Tyler said. “Insurance did pick up a lot. But it took me four years to get a damn massage a week approved. It shouldn’t work that way in health care.”
The kickoff sailed high and deep.
In the five-year-old game film, it is still the first quarter, and Tyler is just 17. It is his final regular season game for Saddle Brook.
As a junior, he recorded 67 tackles and nine sacks in 10 games. He rushed for 7.5 yards per carry in limited duty, and although he had only four receptions, one went for a 55-yard touchdown against Waldwick.
As a senior, he was chosen a team captain.
On that crisp day in November 2011, he stands in the second row of blockers. Tyler — No. 34 — is positioned near the 30 yard line, hard against the Glen Rock sideline. The visitors had just taken a 7-6 lead. Then he lines up a Panthers player and engages him with a block.
It is just an ordinary play in an ordinary game.
Suddenly both helmets snap back. Vitiello drops to the turf on his back, his arms falling limp at his sides.
“It felt like I took a wooden Louisville Slugger with Mark McGwire swinging it, directly to the forehead,” Tyler said. “The feeling was… you can’t imagine it. It was like hitting your funny bone, but times 10 million.
He was trapped in his own body. He could not move, but was far from numb. His body was wracked with “burning everywhere.”
“Every nerve is going… through your legs, arms, neck,” Tyler said. “My neck was on fire.”
Christine and her husband Tim watched in sickening disbelief.
“I knew something was so wrong,” Christine Vitiello said. “I hate to talk about it.
“It haunts me every day.”
Tyler quickly realized this was far more serious than the stinger he initially thought he suffered.
Saddle Brook’s then-trainer, Brendan Byrnes, arrived and asked him to move his hands.
Then he asked Tyler to move his legs.
“His eyes opened up big,” Tyler said. “Then it hits you.”
The young EMTs who responded weren’t sure exactly what to do. Then came the frightening ambulance ride to Hackensack University Medical Center that Tyler remembers as short but bumpy.
Saddle Brook football coach Leo Ciappina did not respond to requests for comment.
True panic began to rise in Tyler when he was confined in an MRI tube for what felt like “three hours.” Electric pain continued to scream through his body. Strange mechanical beeping from the machine and doctors conversing in urgent tones filled his head.
“It was very dark. Very bleak,” he said. “A lot goes through your head. The worst.
‘I’m crippled now... Who’s going to want to marry me? Kids? What is my future?’”
The results of the scans were dire.
The damage was catastrophic.
“I almost severed it,” Tyler said of his spinal cord. “It’s a very fine line when you’re messing with this.”
HUMC surgeons told his parents they needed to operate immediately. The Vitiellos’ insurance company told them they needed to wait, the family said.
“Everything is about money,” said Tim Vitiello, who works for the Saddle Brook school system.
Christine and Tim chose emergency surgery.
A mother’s desperate prayers were answered that night.
Twelve hours of surgery — which ended just before dawn — realigned and stabilized Tyler’s cervical spine. His C-5 and C-6 vertebrae were fused together.
People gathered as the surgeons pieced him back together. Family. Tyler’s friends and teammates. Their families. Few left before the surgery was completed.
Christine Vitiello sat by herself, away from a group she estimated at 200. And there she prayed.
“I said, ‘Please God, please let him walk. Just let him walk,’” she said. “That’s all I prayed for.
“Those were the worst 12 hours of my life.”
But finally there was hope: Surgeons discovered his spinal cord was bruised, not severed.
Those surgeons, Dante Implicito and Daniel Walzman, saved Tyler’s ability to walk that night, his parents said.
“This was the best possible scenario for patients that we see with this type of injury,” Walzman said a few weeks after the surgery.
Then the real waiting began.
The outpouring of prayer and good wishes began rising from Saddle Brook and North Jersey. The Twitter hashtag, staystrong34, became a rallying cry.
Vitiello remained at Hackensack University Medical Center for only three days. Then he was transferred to Kessler.
The most challenging six weeks of his life awaited him.
He still was paralyzed below the neck. There were exhausting and excruciating therapy sessions. He then contracted a bacterial infection causing a severe gastrointestinal illness.
He lost 40 pounds, as his once chiseled, 5-foot-11 frame withered to 150.
Still the pain coursed through him. A machine-controlled morphine drip offered little relief.
After nearly two weeks, hope began to flag.
Then one rainy, dreary day, Christine Vitiello snuck outside so Tyler would not see her cry.
After some time had passed, she heard a mechanical sliding door open behind her. She turned to find Tyler taking tiny steps with an aide on each side of him.
She swears the rain stopped almost immediately.
“It just turned into the most bright sun on him,” Christine said.
Tyler came home for Christmas, celebrating with his parents and sister, Ashley.
Five years have passed. Some good times, some bad times.
Tyler remains in constant pain.
It burns like fire down his arms to his hands. It blazes down his legs to his feet.
“Nothing gets rid of my nerve pain,” Tyler said. “I can’t tell hot and cold. If I take a hot shower, it doesn’t feel normal. I take things extra hot, extra cold just to feel it. My insides are numb. It’s weird.”
Every morning begins the same.
His body is tangled in knots. It takes more than an hour to work through the stiffness.
“When I wake up in the morning, I’m like a robot. I’m stiff everywhere. Everything’s just stuck,” Tyler said. “If I flex too hard, [my muscles] will lock up and stay there.”
This is the part no one sees but his family. This is just one consequence of an injury that will never go away.
He has lost much of his fine motor skills and finger dexterity. There is weakness in his left side, which suffered more damage than his right. He has balance issues. He has a herniated disk in his lower back, probably related to the injury.
“My doctor says it’s like the disk of a 55-year-old man,” Tyler said.
A young man who once dreamed of playing college football to help pay for his education struggles to type above a tortoise-like speed. He applied for extra time to take the GRE so he was not at a significant disadvantage.
He realizes that as he ages, the consequences of his injury will grow more severe.
“The doctors don’t know what to do,” Tyler said. “You can’t go back in there and repair it. You can’t give me drugs that are going to regenerate [my nerves].”
“All I think about every day is, ‘What is tomorrow going to be like? What is five years from now going to be like? Ten years?’” Christine Vitiello said.
The NCAA offers a Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program to athletes disabled as a result of playing college sports. But there is little to no help for high school football players.
Canales said “the football community has left a lot of these kids behind.”
“Nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to embrace the idea that we have to do something for these kids long-term,” he said. “There’s even less financial help for someone on the high school level. …
“Our [cause] is a reflection of the game itself. They don’t want to get behind something like this that they see as a bad reflection of the game.”
The family sued Schutt claiming the helmet he wore was defectively designed. A Bergen County jury disagreed, finding in favor of the manufacturer.
But more than anything, Tyler is grateful.
The friends he met at Kessler are reminders of just how lucky he is. Most never regained feeling in their extremities or the ability to walk.
“There’s so many people I know who aren’t getting better,” Tyler said. “It makes me sad because I got better and they didn’t.”
Now all that is left to do is to live with the pain.
Tyler has no regrets.
“I’d still play football,” he said. “What happened is just part of life. Stuff happens. It’s just how you deal with it.”