Mark Mickens’ smile said it all.
Mickens was grinning from ear to ear, giving words of encouragement to Ridge View High football players as the Blazers continued spring practice Monday afternoon.
“Take that to the house!” he yelled after a defensive back picked off a pass during a drill during the two-hour practice.
“I’m just learning day by day. I’m one of the players,” Mickens said. “I like to see kids that are hungry and want to be out there. It is my sport and passion, so I love to see that in fellow defensive backs and a position I used to play until I got hurt.
“It brings back memories.”
Mickens was an up-and-coming defender for the Westwood football team when his life changed Sept. 7, 2015. That’s the day he suffered a paralyzing injury in the fourth game of his junior season against Clover.
Mickens remembers making the hit and a Clover player coming down on his neck. He recalls blacking out for a second or two, then being on the field and unable to move. The former Redhawk was taken to the hospital and placed into a coma so doctors could stabilize his spine.
He suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the waist down. After several weeks in the hospital, he spent a little more than a month in rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center. He remains in a wheelchair, which is in constant motion as he goes from drill to drill at practice.
After the injury, Mickens received an outpouring of support from the Westwood community and beyond. His teammates carried his No. 5 jersey to every game that season. Fundraisers were held to help offset some of the medical costs and help him purchase a van to transport him to rehab.
The support of family and friends has been crucial over these past few years in his recovery process, he said.
“They made this time easier. Without my mom and dad and friends that come by, who knows where I have been, mentally,” Mickens said. “They keep me mentally up and physically working so I get better.”
Mickens, 19, is doing his best to “live in the now” instead of worrying about how his life has changed since the injury. He still has his ups and downs but remains as positive as possible.
Mickens went to school a few days a week during his senior year at Westwood and had tutors come to the house so he could graduate on time with his other classmates. He is taking classes at Midlands Tech and hopes to graduate next year before going on to the University of South Carolina to pursue a degree in sports nutrition and science.
“I’m a college kid now, so it is back to business,” he said.
But football remained a big passion for Mickens, and when he heard about the chance to be a part of the Ridge View coaching staff, he didn’t hesitate. Brett Miller, an assistant at Westwood when Mickens played there, remained in touch and thought it would be a good idea to have him come out and be a part of the Blazers’ coaching staff.
Miller talked to Ridge View head coach Perry Parks and things fell into place. Mickens is an assistant on special teams and helps out with the defensive backs. He will go to meetings and practices and be on the sideline during games.
“He comes to work with a smile on his face. I love his energy and his attitude,” Parks said. “It is definitely a relief for him to be around football in any capacity. He loves playing the game of football, and he can’t, so this is the next best thing for him.”
“I love sports and being around people and talking to people,” Mickens said. “I’ve still got my brain. I may have not the physical as much anymore, but I still can relate to these kids and football players.”
Mickens admitted it was little different putting on the Ridge View purple instead of Westwood red at first, but he is getting used to it. There are a few former Westwood players on the team Mickens knows, plus Miller and Tyler Hosey.
Hosey was a teammate with Mickens at Westwood and is helping out with the Blazers’ JV team. He remembers how devastated he and his teammates were that night of Mickens’ injury and how much he enjoys seeing Mickens around football again.
“He was the life of team and brought a lot of energy to the team. It is a blessing to see him out here with a smile on his face continuing to help other people and help them get better with the knowledge he has,” Hosey said.
Mickens said he gets better each day and continues his therapy at home now, including yoga. Mickens, his mom and aunt will travel to a spine center in Cocoa Beach, Fla., next week for some intensive therapy.
“When you’re an athlete, you are used to physical training. It feels like we are starting over from scratch and building on to be as independent as possible,” Mickens said. “I try not to think about it (the injury) too much and want to live in the now. I am doing whatever I can to stay positive. I am still doing therapy and there is hope. I am going to continue doing it and to fight the battle and come out on top.”
By Lou Bezjak – The State