SAN ANGELO, Texas — Chris Canales knew before that night that his life would soon change. He just expected it to go in a different direction.
It was the final regular season game of his senior season at San Marcos Baptist Academy, and the all-conference defensive back and punter already had received three college scholarship offers.
Late in the fourth quarter, the opposing team’s running back broke into the open field and Canales instinctively reacted as he had countless times before. Just as Canales launched himself at his target, the runner tried to leap over him.
Canales made the touchdown-saving play, but the violent collision snapped his neck back and his lifeless body crashed to the turf.
Canales’ father, Eddie, along with coaches and trainers, rushed to his side.
“I can’t move anything. I can’t feel anything. What if I’m paralyzed?” Chris said to his father as he lay immobilized on the field.
It was not the life change Chris had envisioned on that November night in 2001 that left him a quadriplegic.
Over the next several weeks he battled for his life, then began a tireless rehabilitation effort as he struggled to come to grips with his new reality.
At the one-year mark of suffering his spinal cord injury, Canales had hit his lowest point and his father desperately tried to boost his spirits.
“He was shutting down on me,” Eddie Canales said. “I told him we had to get out of the house, let’s go to a football game.”
Eddie Canales took his son to the Alamodome in San Antonio, where Everman and Burnet were set to play for the 2002 University Interscholastic League’s 3A state championship.
“As the Lord would have it on that same day, we witnessed a spinal cord injury,” Eddie Canales said.
Corey Fulbright, a senior defensive back just like Chris, was injured in the first quarter attempting to block a pass.
As Chris Canales watched the paramedics load Fulbright onto the cart, he turned to his father. “Dad, we have to go help them,” he said. “I know what he’s going to go through and you know what the family is going to go through.”
That was the genesis of the Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Foundation. From that time, the Canaleses have “unfortunately” been busy, traveling across the state assisting 14 other players and their families that have had their lives devastated by a spinal cord injury.
“We still love the game. We’re not out to deter anyone from playing football,” Eddie Canales said.
“It is the bond that brings these kids together. I am a big proponent for football and athletics in general.
“I have come to appreciate what coaches instill into these kids. The never-quit attitude, the hard work, discipline and determination is what they need to fight for their life.”
The Gridiron Heroes message was brought last week to the 37th Annual Angelo Football Clinic, where the Canaleses were joined in their presentation by three of the most renowned men in Texas football.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips, the University of Texas’ Mack Brown and Mike Sherman from Texas A&M are staunch supporters of the foundation and joined the Canaleses on stage as they shared their message with the 1,600-plus coaches in attendance.
“There weren’t many dry eyes in the building after that,” Brown said after seeing an HBO special on the Gridiron Heroes shown to the attendees. “I think anybody that gets around Chris and sees his spirit and hears his message can’t help but want to reach out and help kids and families that have had their lives changed.”
Brown, who also serves on the organization’s advisory board, participates in several functions throughout the year and contributes in various ways to benefit Gridiron Heroes.
“Coach Brown has been great,” Chris Canales said. “He has helped us with speaking engagements and going out to visit guys that have been hurt.
“It just puts a smile on their face when these coaches do that, and sometimes a smile means a lot.”
Gridiron Heroes is in its seventh year. The foundation provide immediate and long-term support to high school football players and their families dealing with spinal cord injuries and the hardships that follow.
While larger organizations raise funds for research and prevention of spinal cord injuries and care for those who suffer them, the grassroots organization focuses solely on the affected families.
“We already knew there was a lot of research going on,” Chris Canales said. “We knew how much everything cost, how high the medical bills were. We figured this would be a better way try to help the families out with what they need right away than trying to fight through the insurance.”
The Canaleses hope they do not grow in the number of athletes they support, but they say they will be ready should they be needed. Since the foundation was started, there has been just one year that a Texas high school football player did not suffer a spinal cord injury.
By Mike Whitson Special to the Standard-Times
To find out more information on Gridiron Heroes or how to help, visit www.gridironheroes.org.