The play was over, the pile had cleared, and the rest of the team was jogging toward our sideline. I told my arms to push off the ground, but nothing happened. Instead, I lay there facedown, motionless. Panic struck all at once as I realized I couldn’t feel my arms or my legs. I couldn’t feel the ground underneath my body. I couldn’t feel anything below my neck.
As it turns out, I dove to make what would be my last football tackle. My head collided with the ball carrier’s thigh, breaking my neck instantly and severely compressing my spinal cord. A helicopter was called immediately to fly me out. At that moment, my life changed forever.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons since that day, lessons I write about in my book, The Seven Longest Yards. The most important of these lessons to me—the one that truly saved me—was the realization of just how powerful our attitude can be. That with enough effort, a transformation of our attitude has the power to completely reshape our reality.
I always imagined my first helicopter ride would be a fun experience, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was just me and two EMTs in the back of a chopper taking off for the nearest trauma center.
I couldn’t look around the cabin, much less out the window. Instead, I lay there, immobilized, staring straight up.
As we were taking off, the flood gates in my mind burst open and the thoughts came crashing into me. Will I ever play football again? Will I ever walk again? Will I ever move my hands again? What kind of woman would ever want to be with a guy who can’t move? Will I be alone for the rest of my life?
Will I ever be happy again?
It was too much. My heart was pounding, my mind racing. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough air. I tried to take a deep breath, but nothing happened. I began to panic. I tried again for a couple short, rapid breaths—still nothing. I was suffocating. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was going to die.
“Help,” I wheezed, but I couldn’t tell if I had made any noise.
The roar of the chopper blades drowned out everything. If I couldn’t hear myself, how could the EMTs hear me? “I can’t breathe!” I said, but no one moved. “Help,” I called again, but neither EMT turned towards me. My only hope was to make eye contact with one of them. But both were looking the other way.
Forgetting for a moment the predicament that had gotten me into this mess in the first place, I tried to wave my hands at them to get their attention—they sat like stones cemented to the gurney. Surely the heart monitor will alert them that I’m struggling, I hoped, but I didn’t have much time.
An overwhelming sense of helplessness overcame me. I was on my own.
It was in that moment, the moment I hovered between life and death 10,000 feet above the border between Minnesota and Iowa, that I made a decision to take back control. I decided to change my attitude and stop viewing myself as the victim of my circumstances. I thought back to football and the tools I once used to play the game I loved.
Before every snap, I used to visualize where I would run, where I thought the ball might be, the positions on the field the other players would be in. In just a few seconds, I could take the complexity of a football play and break it down into small, manageable parts.
I forced from my mind all the other questions that had consumed me moments before. I closed my eyes and visualized my mouth opening, sucking in air, and my lungs filling with oxygen. I imagined my chest rise and fall as the breaths circulated through my body. Then, I counted. One breath. Two breaths. Three breaths. The breaths were small, but they were something.
I began to focus on the air I was able to breathe in, rather than all the air I couldn’t get.
With every positive thought, each breath got a little easier. “I’m going to make it,” I told myself. “I’m going to be fine.”
From the moment my body hit the ground after the tackle I had focused completely on what I could not do. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t feel; I couldn’t breathe. The obstacles kept getting bigger and bigger until they completely overwhelmed me.
However, my reality began to change when I switched my focus to what I could do. For the first time, I realized that my attitude had the power to transform the world around me. The lesson I learned that day in the helicopter proved invaluable. In the coming years, I would face more than my fair share of obstacles and challenges, no matter how complex or scary they were, I chose to tackle them with the exact same attitude.
Nine years later, I’ve found the answers to the questions that haunted my mind as the chopper was taking off. I’ve made huge strides in my path to mobility, I have a speaking career, I married the love of my life, and we have a beautiful family together. It was never easy, but it started by forcing myself to only focus on the things I could control at that moment.
It’s easy to see me in my wheelchair and think that I should be miserable. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
I owe my happiness to the fact that I’m consistently pointing out to myself the things I have instead of the things I don’t; the things I can do rather than the things I can’t.
I have never allowed my physical paralysis to paralyze my mindset. In fact, some people call me crazy, but being in a wheelchair isn’t so bad. You may not realize it, but there are some major perks.
1. No standing in line. Ever. While everybody’s complaining about the wait or their feet hurting, I’m just chilling.
2. You don’t feel mosquito bites. I can be at a campfire and have 30 mosquitoes on my legs and I don’t feel a thing.
3. You can never lose a game of musical chairs. I am undefeated since my injury. My kids get so frustrated they even try pushing me out of my chair sometimes, but they always end up disqualified.
4. You’re less likely to be kidnapped. Good luck getting me into a getaway vehicle or unless your safe house has an ADA accessible wheelchair ramp, you’ll have a tough time getting me up and down the stairs. It’s just not worth the hassle.
5. You get the best parking. Everywhere I go I have reserved spots in the front row. Unfortunately, in Florida, it is really competitive.
It’s natural to focus on what we can’t do, the things we don’t have, or what we’ve lost. However, when we only focus on what’s wrong, we will never see what’s right.
To change your reality, you must choose to transform your attitude—to focus on the positive things you have control over. For many, taking these steps may seem like a daunting task, but I’m here to tell you that oftentimes the first step isn’t a step at all, sometimes it’s as simple as slowing down and taking one deep breath at a time.
To learn more about Chris’s journey and how life’s lowest moments can be the source of our greatest gifts, check out his book “The Seven Longest Yards.” It is available everywhere books are sold.