David Flores: Paralyzed ex-player shares his inspiration

San Antonio Express-News

Being the competitor that he is, ex-football player Chris Canales never has accepted the medical opinion that he probably will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic.

That’s certainly understandable.

Given the same grim prognosis, I wouldn’t listen to the good medicos.

“I know how easy it is to give up, especially in this position,” Canales said Monday. “It makes it easier to give up when the doctors tell you that you won’t walk again. I want to prove them wrong.”

That’s why Canales was eager to have stem-cell surgery last month in Monterrey, Mexico, even though such procedures are still in the experimental stages and not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Canales has drawn strength from the experience of Laura Dominguez, a San Antonian who had a similar operation in Lisbon, Portugal, nearly a year ago.

“Seeing how determined and how hard she’s worked inspired me,” Canales said. “It gives me more hope than I’ve had before.”

Canales, a former all-district player at San Marcos Baptist Academy who lives with his parents in Schertz, has been paralyzed since fracturing two Vertebrae in the Bears’ final regular-season game on Nov. 2, 2001.

Now 20, Canales has brought attention to the plight of high school football players struggling with spinal-cord injuries through his work with the Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Organization.

“It’s still hard to relive your story, but it’s got to be done,” he said. “People need to hear it.”

Canales’ father, Eddie, and San Marcos Academy coach Mike Kipp founded Gridiron Heroes two years ago to raise the awareness of the financial and emotional problems these young athletes and their families face after such a catastrophic injury.

“Part of what we want to do is get people to look at the bigger picture, instead of just focusing on one player,” Eddie Canales said. “It’s going to be harder to forget these athletes if we think of them collectively.”

Eight Texas high school players, including David Edwards of Madison last November, have been left paralyzed by injuries sustained in practice or in a game over the past five seasons.

Dr. Emilio Jacques Rivera performed the stem-cell surgery on Canales on Feb. 29. He took stem cells from an umbilical cord and injected them into the damaged vertebrae.

“Chris Canales is an unbelievable human being,” Rivera said. “He is a young man with a lot of faith in God and a positive attitude. He is a good candidate for this type of procedure. There is a good prognosis for him.”

Canales, who graduated from San Marcos Academy in 2002, will return to Monterrey periodically for follow-up visits with Rivera.

It’s still too early to tell what the long-range benefits of the surgery, if any, will be. But Chris said he already has felt changes in his lower body.

“I’m getting tingling sensations throughout my legs and my toes,” he said.

Canales hasn’t slowed down since leaving the hospital in Monterrey on March 2. He has helped promote Gridiron Heroes at coaching clinics throughout the state, and spent four days in Odessa last week working as an extra in the movie “Friday Night Lights.”

But Gridiron Heroes never has been just about Chris Canales. At every turn, Eddie and his wife, Pita, an assistant principal at Dellview Elementary, have included the other injured players whenever they talk about their son.

“Chris has done a lot to inspire these kids and has been an inspiration to a lot of people, but he needs an inspiration, too,” Eddie Canales said.

Chris found it in Dominguez, who suffered a spinal-cord injury in an auto accident when she was 16. Now 19, she graduated from Providence last year.

Canales and Dominguez met last fall after her father, Abel, started communicating with Eddie Canales.

Laura, who has regained some use of her hands, has continued her Rehabilitation program in San Antonio and keeps in touch with Chris via e-mail.

“I’m just doing what I have to do,” Laura said. “If I inspire anybody, that’s good.”

Chris Canales knows whereof she speaks.

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