WHEN BRAD URSCHEL awoke from his coma the day before Christmas 1983, he awoke to a world beyond his ken. His body, which had been trained and hardened over the years by his decathalon training, was shrunken, inert and unresponsive. The unknowable journey from the automobile accident through the coma to the bed in Baylor Hospital’s intensive care unit had taken all his physical strength. Now, even the familiar landfalls of his mind and memory would come and go. Memories would sometimes be clear and require no effort to recapture; at other times, they would be irretrievable, hidden in a rolling, impenetrable fog. In that hospital room, on that day and in the days to come, the possibility of death had become a flat, cold fact that no one could evade.
Upon awakening, Brad remembers his first thought being that his privacy had been invaded, that he was in a crowd of strangers -except for his family-and his dependence on these people was total. His mother remembers that he wanted to come home for Christmas. He was upset and didn’t want to open his presents in his hospital room. He did not yet know the extent of his injuries.
Brad was in the hospital for seven months and seven days following the accident that he and his father, Dr. Hal Urschel, had been involved in on November 30, 1983. For the first three months, his mother and father lived in the hospital. There were serious complications. Two major operations had to be performed, one of which removed a 3-foot-long blood clot from his leg. A problem with his throat that affected his breathing required another major operation, and his father performed that.
In mid-March, Brad walked-with assistance-for the first time since the accident. On April 2, he was moved to the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation, where he relearned the ordinary skills required to function independently. On Thursday, June 7, he came home. Brad Urschel’s college thesis, completed in the spring of 1983, had focused on writing and illustration for children. In his dedication, he wrote, “I dedicate this to all those who tread the path and heed the impulse to greatness, which demands one’s best and most creative efforts.” When we talked, Brad said, “I don’t really feel the greatness anymore-at least not on the same scale.” Then he paused and said quietly, “I’m still striving for it, whether I feel it or not.”
The fury and frustration of head injury victims is often manifested in the most profane manner, but Brad’s anger has been largely contained. In hospital therapy groups, he was exposed to the hostility other victims felt about their injuries; he said he didn’t feel it. In my conversations with him, he spoke almost matter-of-factly. But in a tribute he wrote to a head injury victim, there was a ferocity that did not appear when we talked. In that tribute, Brad’s language employed all the power that four-letter words can generate.
When did he allow it to sink in that life might not resemble the way it was before the accident? “I was out of the hospital. I was watching the Olympic trials on TV. I got up and walked over to the TV set to adjust the audio, and I just fell. And then I knew. It was awful.”
What’s the biggest difference between now and before the accident? “Nothing’s really perfect anymore. Before, everything I did was perfect. Now, 90 percent of what people tell me has to do with what I’m doing wrong.” But he understands, as only an athlete would, the necessity of being pushed. In fact, he has refused to dissolve his dreams of athletic competition. To one of his college roommates, August Wolf, this came as no surprise. “With Brad, everything is possible. Part of the reason I was drawn to him was that he didn’t see obstacles.” Wolf was in Germany training in the shotput for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team when he heard of Brad’s accident. The message he got was straightforward: Brad is probably going to die. “Why does he mean so much to me?” Wolf wondered to himself. “He made no apology about his life, and he went for it, whatever it was, without an eye on the odds. I never felt, on the face of it, that he really had a chance to make the Olympic team-he was shorter than the ideal and slower as well. He didn’t look at things objectively, because he told me-and he meant it-anything ’s possible.”
Today, between his extensive physical therapy appointments, Brad writes short stories, poems and the beginnings of a book for head injury victims. Children’s author Maurice Sendak encourages Brad’s work in children’s literature. Brad says his writing parallels his athletics. “I can make it better; I can change it. I realize when I write that I can see myself.” In a sendup of the poem In-victus, Brad replaced “I am the master of my fate” with “I am the captain of my head.” There, in his head-or wherever his remarkable will resides-are the reserves from which his recovery springs.
A psychologist, in assessing the extent of Brad’s cognitive functioning recovery, wrote, “I have never evaluated a person who was more determined to excel and come to terms with his limitations.” Brad may come to terms with his life, as we all somehow must. Coming to terms with his limitations is something else entirely-that is something to be resisted. Out of that resistance, Brad is remaking himself.
His mother now dares to wonder how long the recovery will take and how far it will go. She talks of the dedication he brings to the recovery process. “He has never worked harder,” she says. When some seventh- and eighth-graders met with him and asked about his participation in the 1988 Olympics, Brad said, “We’re going to play it by ear.” Any-thing’s possible.
The therapy continues. Brad lifts weights.He jogs. He writes. The light has returned.Brad is back.