Five years after breaking neck in HS game, Tyler Vitiello continues long road back

Five years after breaking neck in HS game, Tyler Vitiello continues long road back

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Five years after breaking neck in HS game, Tyler Vitiello continues long road back

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Tyler Vitiello, 22, of Saddle Brook, N.J., works out nearly five years after breaking his neck in a high school football game. (Photo: DANIELLE PARHIZKARAN/BERGEN RECORD)

Tyler Vitiello, 22, of Saddle Brook, N.J., works out nearly five years after breaking his neck in a high school football game. (Photo: DANIELLE PARHIZKARAN/BERGEN RECORD)

A single tear trickled down his mother’s cheek.

Christine Vitiello wiped away the others welling in her eyes. Tears of gratitude. Tears of heartache. Even she cannot tell them apart as she told her son’s story, a story that is part miracle, part tragedy.

A cadaver bone and titanium hold Tyler Vitiello’s spine together.

Two rods. One plate. Ten screws.

One rebuilt life.

It is a life Tyler nearly lost five years ago — on Nov. 5, 2011 — in a helmet-to-helmet collision on the Saddle Brook (N.J.) football field. He broke his neck. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Then one day some two weeks later, he started walking again.

But his story was just beginning. The life he was given back had irrevocably changed.

“I could have folded and melted away,” said Tyler, his long, blond hair pulled back from his face. “I wanted to rise above it.”

As the five-year anniversary of his injury approaches, the graduate student’s journey defies a convenient narrative.

It represents the complex existence for the small fraternity of former football players who regain feeling and movement after suffering a spinal cord injury, but then struggle with constant pain, numbness and other serious health issues that will plague them the rest of their lives.

The specter of catastrophic injury amounts to the worst fear held within America’s Game as another high school football season kicks off Friday night. Tyler, 22, is the personification of that fear.

He has risen above the injury. But his recovery has come at a very steep price.

“He’s my miracle,” Christine Vitiello beamed, sitting at her dining room table and watching a pot of pasta boil on the stove. “A walking miracle.”

Tyler Vitiello shows the X-ray taken after surgery, in which surgeons used two rods, 10 screws and a plate to secure his broken neck.

Tyler Vitiello shows the X-ray taken after surgery, in which surgeons used two rods, 10 screws and a plate to secure his broken neck.

He walked across the Prudential Center stage in May to accept his psychology degree from Montclair State. He now is a graduate student there working toward a doctorate in neuropsychology and starts an internship next week at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation –  the very institution that helped him walk again.

He is thankful. He is living.

But it is a life that includes constant pain and significant medical issues.

There also was a mountain of medical bills that “easily” surpassed $1 million, the Vitiellos said. And the family pays $1,000 to $1,500 a month in out-of-pocket expenses for pain management and physical therapy.

“People see them out there. They look good. They look healthy. They’re walking,” said Eddie Canales, director of Texas-based Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Foundation. The non-profit provides immediate and long-term support to individuals who suffered catastrophic spinal cord injuries playing football.

“They think everything’s OK. There are so many things involved with this injury that people are not aware of,” continued Canales, whose son, Chris, is a quadripelgic after breaking his neck playing high school football. “I’ve talked to moms [in this situation]. ‘Eddie, nobody knows what we’re going through. He looks good. But they don’t know what he has to go through every day just to be out there.’”

Before Tyler’s miraculous recovery came the tragedy.

He suffered three shattered and dislocated vertebrae — C-4, C-5 and C-6 — on Senior Day while blocking on a kickoff return against rival Glen Rock. A crushed disk was pinned against his spinal cord.

The former running back was unable to move anything but his head for two endless weeks. The fear that he would remain that way haunted the then-17 year old senior.

But the problems did not go away when the paralysis did.

Tyler suffers from burning, tingling nerve pain coursing down his arms and legs. That pain only escalates in the dead of night.

“It’s just like electric shocks going through your body,” said Tyler, who constantly adjusts himself as he sits, trying to stave off the chronic stiffness that grips him whenever he stops moving. “All day. Nothing takes the edge off. Nothing.”

Numbness in his chest and arms and spasticity also plague him. He often cannot distinguish between hot and cold. His body cannot regulate its own temperature, leaving him susceptible to heat illness.

And he struggles with insomnia, a result of damage to the hypothalamus gland in his brain during the collision.

There has been debilitating pain and glorious healing, an astonishing recovery and constant frustration.

“My body’s not the same by any means,” said Tyler, who does not wear a brace and works out almost every day at a local gym to maintain his health. “A lot of people see me and say, ‘You’ve got to be so happy for all you got back.’ I am. I am grateful.

“And I’m also unhappy for feeling what I feel. It’s definitely constantly there.”

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