GREENWOOD, Ind. – The linebacker didn’t come out of his coma to stay on the sideline. He wanted to hit somebody, because that’s what football players do. Patrick Brickley was a football player before the coma. He’d be a football player after it, too.
He’s a senior at Center Grove, it’s Senior Night, and the Trojans are four minutes from beating Lawrence North 16-0. Center Grove scores a late touchdown and coach Eric Moore calls for his seniors who haven’t played yet to man the kickoff team. Up goes the kick, and down the field goes Patrick Brickley. His job is to avoid blockers and tackle the return man, but the kick is going to the far side of the field. He won’t get there in time, and he knows it, but he didn’t come out of that coma to walk off the field on Senior Night with a clean uniform.
So he’s looking for a blocker from Lawrence North. He’s going to hit somebody if it’s the last thing he …
“And then the referee blows the whistle!” Patrick is telling me, reliving the moment, and while he doesn’t often get animated, he’s animated now. Three weeks later, he still can’t believe it.
“I was trying!” he says, still animated, but letting it go.
So now he switches the topic of Senior Night.
“We won the game and that’s all that matters,” he says. “I like being out here with my teammates, even though I don’t play that much. It’s great seeing my teammates on Fridays, knowing I can cheer them on. And the stadium was full that night. It was great, knowing people were here to support the team.”
The Center Grove football family will be out in force Friday when the Trojans visit Franklin Central in the Class 6A Sectional 8. Football is family around here, in the southern tip of this south-side town, and they support their own at Center Grove. Not so long ago, this community supported Patrick Brinkley and his family. Patrick isn’t sure exactly what was happening, but that’s OK.
The linebacker was in a coma, remember?
Ed Brickley was in a shootout, once.
It was May 25, 1994, and he was an IMPD policeman. A routine traffic stop became chaos. The driver ran away, Brickley chased him down, and the driver turned and fired. One bullet hit him in the wrist. Another bullet, the one meant for his heart, ran into his bulletproof vest. Brickley fired back, hit what he was aiming at and the perpetrator went to prison.
Life and death? Ed Brickley had been there. He’d done that. He knew what fear felt like.
Until June 21, 2014 rolled around. And it turns out, he didn’t know anything. Because that was the day he got a phone call about his youngest son. Patrick was sleeping over at a friend’s house. The dad called Ed Brickley and said:
“We can’t wake Patrick up.”
Ed beat the ambulance there. He used one of his cop tricks, rubbing his knuckles on his son’s sternum. Do that hard enough to a man and he’ll react — but not Patrick.
“Didn’t even budge,” Ed says.
No idea if Patrick would ever wake up.
Ed Brickley is still an IMPD officer. Has been for 27 years, and in that time he’s wrestled with suspects and heard that awful clank-clank of a pistol falling out of a man’s pocket. He’s been shot just once — please, forgive the word just — but he’s looked at the wrong end of a pistol too many times to count. Scary stuff.
But that’s nothing.
“Being a cop, I know how to defend myself. I’m trained to defend myself,” he says. “But when it’s your son lying there, that’s a whole new ballgame. That first night, we don’t know if he’s living or dying. Doctors didn’t know. I’d never been to doctor and not known. Five days into it, still didn’t know. Three spinal taps. EKG, EEG, you name it: no idea. When you have no control over getting your son better or even knowing what’s happening to him, the frustration, the fear, it’s unworldly. You would sacrifice everything you have, just to see a wiggle of a toe.”
This story is about to get a lot better, for two reasons. One, doctors are about make a 1-in-10,000 diagnosis. Two: The Center Grove community is about to get word that one of its linebackers, and the linebacker’s family, needs support.
* * *
The grass was growing. Someone cut it.
The dog – Patrick’s dog, Bella – needed walking. Someone walked it.
The family needed feeding. Someone, more like everyone, fed it.
Hospital bills needed paying. Someone, and again it was more like everyone it, paid it.
What was happening in Greenwood the summer of 2014 is one of those miracle stories that defines a community. The Center Grove community rallied around Patrick Brickley, purchasing red #PatrickStrong T-shirts and wearing them everywhere. Ed Brickley remembers stopping for lunch at his usual spot, Lincoln Square Pancake House near Stop 11 Road and Madison Avenue, and being served by a waitress in one of those T-shirts. When he went to pay the bill, he saw the bucket near the register, soliciting funds for the family. The bucket was not empty.
“It’s an awesome city we live in,” Ed says.
It’s a football town, and this is a football story, but to play football again Patrick had to relearn how to tackle, same as he had to re-learn how to walk, talk, write and so much more. About five days into Patrick’s weeklong coma, doctors determined that he was in the .001 percent of the population that gets the occasional hemiplegic migraine (HM), migraines so devastating that they often are confused for strokes. He had suffered his first HM episode at age 3, the migraine literally knocking him off his feet. When he rose he was walking in circles, like a tricycle with two wheels. Doctors called it a stroke.
Patrick had another smallish episode in spring 2014, a few months before the big one put him into a coma — the migraine attacking in his sleep and shutting his brain down.
One week into the coma Patrick was finally showing signs of life — his foot would curl when tickled — when a nurse removed a catheter from, well, down there.
“He was reacting to stimuli, so we knew he was getting better,” his father says, “but the catheter was the come-to-Jesus moment for him. He rose up like Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist.’ It sucked for him, but we all knew: He’s going to be OK.”
After a month in the hospital Patrick joined the Center Grove freshman team for its final few games, then played junior varsity, and now varsity. He doesn’t play much, but he’s OK with that. A machine like a MIC football program, it has all kinds of gears and requires all manner of fuel. Patrick Brickley is a scout-teamer, a body to be banged on, and he loves it.
“I’ll call for a lineman, and here comes Patrick,” says Coach Moore. “I’m going, ‘No, Patrick, I don’t need a 138-pounder. I need a lineman. Get back there.’ He’s not very big, but he has a heart the size of a refrigerator.”
Yeah, this kid wanted to be a police officer, too. Like his dad.
“I’m proud when he comes home,” Patrick says. “See him in his uniform, knowing he’s doing his job right, protecting his family. He used to work night shifts and he’d wake me up before he went to work, and I’d see him in his uniform and I was proud, seeing that he was doing his job right and protecting his family.”
“I have my teammates’ back,” he says.
And they have his. On the day I’m at Center Grove practice, Coach Moore lets me talk to Patrick while the team is preparing for Franklin Central. After about a half-hour, I send Patrick back to his teammates and start to leave. It’s a long walk around the track to the fence opening behind the field, and as I get there I hear Coach Moore’s booming voice. He thinks I’m gone, but I’m not. Still here. Still walking. I stop to watch.
“Patrick!” Moore is yelling. “You gonna play football now? God dang! I wish I could take half of practice off!”
Moore is teasing, and teammates are giggling.
“Tell that reporter to come back,” Moore yells some more. “I’m gonna tell him all the bad stuff. Like you kissing your girlfriend in the hallway.”
Now the team is roaring, and teammates are pounding Patrick on the back, and Patrick’s father — an assistant coach — is watching and I’m thinking: This is what family looks like.
But only for a moment, because now Eric Moore is blowing his whistle and I’m about to see what football looks like. The first-team offense is working against the scout-team defense, and Patrick is lined up at linebacker. He finds the biggest Center Grove offensive lineman he can, I swear he does it on purpose, and locks horns with 6-4, 280-pound Ethan Crowe. They battle until Moore blows the whistle.
The linebacker came out of that coma for a reason. And I’m watching it.