Less than four months after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury on the turf at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Bills tight end Kevin Everett made a triumphant return on Sunday to the scene of that awful September day when his career ended in the blink of an eye.
Everett addressed his teammates about two hours before their game against the New York Giants, then left the locker room in a wheelchair and, on his own power, climbed into a covered electric car. He was driven to team owner Ralph Wilson's suite at midfield.
When he arrived at the suite, Everett was immediately recognized by fans and concession workers, who began applauding as he exited the vehicle. Everett smiled and waved, but didn't say anything.
That Everett's improbable return came just two days before Christmas made the moment even more poignant.
"I think it's wonderful," said Holly Lopez of Orchard Park, who volunteers with her husband Richard in concessions for St. Bernadette's Church. "I'm amazed."
Everett, accompanied by family and friends, parked at one end of the box's front row and watched the pregame festivities from a wheelchair, munching on a candy cane and acknowledging fans with a wave.
A smile creased Everett's face when fan Rick Rosenswie of nearby Olean, N.Y., walked past and gave him a thumbs-up before taking his seat overlooking the 20-yard line at the west end of the field.
"Everybody wants to see him and welcome him back. It's absolutely amazing that he's back. Anybody that's ever played knows injuries like that are catastrophic," said Rosenswie, who played offensive line in college at St. Leo's in the 1970s. "We saw him go down. We heard the hit from up here."
Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold said Everett, who has spent the past 2½ months rehabbing in Houston, where he makes his offseason home, would not be available for interviews.
Everett's attendance is the latest step in a remarkable recovery. Doctors initially feared Everett would never walk again after what was described as a life-threatening injury suffered while making a tackle on Domenik Hixon on the second-half kickoff in the season opener against Denver on Sept. 9.
Everett was paralyzed from the neck down when he arrived at Buffalo's Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital and spent the first few days on life support.
Everett is now walking under his own power, and continues his rehab as an outpatient at Houston's Memorial Hermann/TIRR. He indicated to his teammates last month that he hoped to attend the game.
Everett returned to Buffalo at the invitation of the team and Nike paid for a full-page ad honoring Everett in Sunday's Buffalo News with this simple message: "9/9/07 Kevin Everett is carted off the field with a spinal cord injury. 9/10/07 Medical experts say there's only a 5-10 percent chance that he will ever walk again. 12/23/07 Kevin Walks Back onto the Field today."
Everett did not go on the field to address the fans during halftime because of the inclement weather. Winds were already gusting at more than 30 mph and there was a persistent drizzle falling two hours before gametime. The rain changed to an icy, wind-driven snow early in the second quarter.
His presence spoke volumes, nonetheless.
"I played ball myself. I understand the violence of the game," said Mark French of Saratoga Springs, a lineman at West Virginia in the late 1980s who was at Sunday's game with his 11-year-old son Nicholas. "It's an awesome thing that he has the will and fortitude to actually get himself back on his feet and move on."
Everett also was reunited with Bills team doctors, including Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, the team's orthopedic surgeon, who immediately attended to the player on the field when he was hurt and operated on him.
"What a great testament for our nurses and doctors seeing him," Millard Fillmore Gates hospital spokesman Mike Hughes said. "He is a shining example of their great care. And we have a standing offer to Kevin and his family to visit anytime. The staff here would love to see him again."
"We've gone through this whole thing with him," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "He's never not been part of our team."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press