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Five months later, Bills TE Everett is walking, standing tall

CHICAGO -- Kevin Everett slowly unbuttons his suit jacket and sits down.

It hardly seems like a big deal, those three little buttons. For Everett, though, it is nothing short of amazing. Less than five months after the catastrophic collision that doctors said might leave him paralyzed -- or worse -- he is walking and slowly regaining full use of his hands.

"I'm happy people can know me like this," Everett said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press. "They can look at me and see what I've overcome and I'm still trying to overcome, and just see that life isn't that bad after all.

"It could be a whole lot worse."

The Buffalo Bills tight end was playing special teams when he tackled Domenik Hixon on the second-half kickoff Sept. 9. His helmet struck Hixon's helmet and shoulder pad, and he immediately fell face-down on the turf. He lay motionless for what seemed like hours as medical personnel worked on him and the crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium watched in silent horror.

His spinal-cord injury was so severe, orthopedic surgeon Andrew Cappuccino said the next day that Everett's chances of a full neurologic recovery were "bleak, dismal." It was unlikely he would ever walk again.

"He was just going off of past research on the injury. I couldn't expect him to say anything else but what he said because he didn't know the outcome. Nobody did," Everett said. "I was just hoping for the best. We were giving everybody the worst-case scenario."

Everett is telling the story of his accident and recovery, as well as its impact on everyone around him, in "Standing Tall: The Kevin Everett Story," which was written with Sam Carchidi and comes out Friday. Although his main goal in telling his story was to inspire others with spinal-cord injuries, he believes anyone can learn from it.

He and fiancee Wiande Moore are spending two days doing interviews before flying to the Super Bowl, courtesy of an invitation from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Moore said the couple will root for the New York Giants against the unbeaten New England Patriots because they're the underdogs.

As Everett has proven these last five months, never count out an underdog.

"I just saw it as a temporary little injury," he said. "It's not anything that's going to hold me back."

He is, though, trying to figure out where his life will take him next. Though he accepts he can no longer play and already is talking about coaching, there are times it's hard to realize his playing career is, indeed, over.

"I was so used to working out and being around my teammates, that's kind of hard," said Everett, who plans on making an appearance at the Bills' training camp this summer. "But I'll be OK. ... I don't see it as God picking on me or anything. I just see it as one door closes, another one's going to open.

"I just have to figure out what it is."

He is working with The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, and hopes to do more motivational speaking. Before the accident, he and a friend in Houston already had started a business selling special plastic sheets that prevent soap scum in showers, and he hopes to one day open a restaurant. And, of course, there is the wedding he and Moore are planning for the fall of 2009.

"It makes you complain less and be grateful for things you have on a daily basis," Moore said of lessons the couple has learned. "We take those who we love for granted. Sometimes, we forget to say, 'I love you,' every day. But it's the little things that matter. Because your life can go in an instant."

Three days after the accident, Everett already was moving his arms and legs, and doctors were backing off their dire predictions. On Sept. 21, he was transferred to Memorial Hermann/TIRR (The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research) in Houston. Though he had movement in his legs, he could do little more than shrug his shoulders. The big, strong athlete who only a few weeks earlier was a weightroom fiend couldn't even raise his hand.

"I have to be honest, in the beginning ... I was like, 'Wow, why did this happen to me?"' Everett said. "But I just prayed, and God just calmed me and let me accept it for what it was."

With Moore, and mother, Patricia Dugas, a constant presence, Everett attacked his rehabilitation. He had sessions with a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. He worked with a recreational therapist and did rehab in a pool. And there were no days off.

Every day, for at least five hours a day, Everett pushed himself to try to retrain his nerves and muscles to do tasks that were once second-nature.

"He woke up in the morning, and his therapy started," said Rafferty Laredo, his occupational therapist at Memorial Hermann. "He had a pretty full day."

It quickly paid off. A month after his accident, he took his first steps. Two weeks later, he could stand without assistance.

"We never had a doubt, from the moment they said he has a 5 percent chance of walking," Moore said.

By mid-November, Everett had made so much progress that doctors allowed him to do his rehab on an outpatient basis. Within a few weeks, Everett likely won't even have to make the three-times-a-week trip to the hospital. Instead, he'll do his rehab on his own with periodic checkups with the Memorial Hermann staff.

Though Everett seems to walk without any sign of trouble, even that task requires effort, said Dr. Teodoro Castillo, co-director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Memorial Hermann. Everett still has trouble with his balance and must constantly focus on the location and position of his feet. Castillo said it will be many months before Everett will even be able to try running again.

But it's his hands that still give him the most difficulty. Although he can again brush his hair, use utensils and hold a glass, his dexterity and fine-motor skills are nowhere near what they once were. His hands are numb, and he can't tell how hard he is gripping something.

That is something that might return with time and continued therapy. Or, it might not.

"You've just got to go with the flow, just like my whole recovery," he said. "It's a blessing if it does. And it's a blessing if it doesn't because I came this far, I can't ask for much more. I'm up, I'm moving around and walking."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press.

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