The comeback kid

Published: December 10, 2004
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The odds were against W&M cornerback Stephen Cason ever walking again, much less sparking a Division I-AA quarterfinal rally.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Want to see the scar?

Stephen Cason is happy to oblige. He pulls down the collar of his shirt to reveal a 3-inch, vertical incision on the back of his neck. He’s got a smaller scar in the front of his neck, easily visible because his shirt is unbuttoned to the third button. He’s got some scratches on one arm, where shards of glass embedded in his skin.

Other than those physical reminders, “I really don’t think about it,” says Cason, a junior cornerback at William and Mary.

Cason thinks instead about football. He thinks about how lucky he is to be playing the game at all, but especially this late in the season. William and Mary, in the Division I-AA semifinals for the first time, will host James Madison on Friday night with a berth in the national championship game on the line.

Wait, forget football. He thinks about how fortunate he is to be walking.

Forget walking. He thinks about how lucky he is to be alive.

It was July 2003. William and Mary football players had a few days off between the end of summer conditioning and the start of preseason camp. Those who lived close enough were free to go home.

Cason lives in Richmond. On the afternoon of July22, he set off on the easy 45-minute ride home, a drive he had made many times.

Cason was bearing down on Richmond in the left lane of Interstate 64 when the sky opened in a torrential downpour. He thought about stopping, but he was just 10-15 minutes away and didn’t want to pull over.

His car hydroplaned. Cason lost control and the car slid left onto the median. He turned the wheel hard to get the car back on the highway.

Too hard. The car spun. The next thing Cason knew, he was face down on the median. The car rested on its roof.

Cason had gone through the windshield, though he’d been wearing a seat belt.

He dislocated two Vertebrae, C6 and C7. The medical term for his injury is “Subluxation.”

The layman’s term: broken neck.

For the average person, a similar accident might have ended with the dislocated vertebrae severing the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis. Cason’s muscular build – particularly his thick neck muscles – probably prevented that from happening, doctors said.

Cason needed two surgeries to repair the damage. He returned to school, but not to football.

“The next time we saw him was after the season, in the weight room, when he came down to see everybody,” said Josh Wright, a defensive tackle. “He was walking real gingerly. His neck was in a brace and every time he turned left or right he turned his whole upper body.”

Wright and his teammates assumed Cason’s football career was over.

“We were just glad he was alive,” Wright said. “Especially after seeing pictures of the car, mangled.”

Cason had other ideas about his future in sports. He joined the track team in the winter and helped coach defensive backs during spring practice. Last spring, he approached head coach Jimmye Laycock about returning.

William and Mary’s medical staff told him he would need clearance, both from his surgeon and a second doctor, a specialist in neck and spinal cord injuries.

Cason was cleared this past July, not long before the start of preseason practice. Scott Graham, the VCU surgeon who operated on Cason, said he’s at no more risk than any other football player.

“There’s always the risk of injury in a sport like football,” Graham told the Newport News Daily Press. “But he’s not at any more risk because of his neck than he would be normally.”

That’s all Cason needed to hear. Physically, he felt fine. Mentally, he had some hurdles to overcome. How would he respond when he had to make his first tackle? Could he forget the injury and play with his old aggressiveness?

Cason admitted he was worried.

“But after the first couple tackles, it was like it was routine,” he said. “Now, I throw my body around like it never happened.”

Cason has played all 13 games this season and is fourth on the team with 70 tackles, including 7 1/2 for loss and 2 1/2 sacks. He’s started the past seven games.

“He’s played a very, very significant role in our team’s success,” Laycock said. “Given the situation that he’s coming from, that in itself is fairly remarkable.”

Cason never played a bigger role than he did last week in William and Mary’s comeback win over Delaware. The Tribe was trailing 31-10 when Cason intercepted a pass and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.

The play ignited the crowd, and the William and Mary team.

“It caused the team to realize, ‘Hey, we can get back in this,'” Cason said.

Funny, because at the beginning of the year, Cason’s goal was simply to inspire the team, whether he got on the field or not.

“I was just thinking that, just me being back, maybe that’ll help us out in some aspect. Maybe that’ll get the guys to work a little harder or something. I wanted to be the example for the team.”

Cason has been, Wright said.

“He didn’t give up,” Wright said. “That’s just a testament to what kind of ballplayer he is.”

Cason knows the exact spot where the accident occurred. He passes it each time he goes home, never without thinking, “Wow, thank God.”

Cason said the accident taught him to take nothing for granted, to notice the little things and to enjoy life, whatever it brings.

“The whole season for me, it was just a shock for me to be back,” he said. “For us to have an unbelievable, magical season, it’s just the ultimate blessing.

“I’m so thankful right now. And then for me to make the pick to keep us alive … there’s nothing like it in the world.”

Division I-AA semifinals

James Madison at William and Mary

7 P.M., ESPN2

Scouting the Dukes

The Dukes rely on ball control and stingy defense, though they showed they can pass the ball effectively if needed in a 14-13 win over Furman last Saturday. JMU rushes for 205 yards per game while allowing just 86. Tailback Raymond Hines leads the way with 981 yards, but three other backs have run for 100 yards in a game this year. Quarterback Justin Rascati, a transfer from Louisville, has thrown for 1,770 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Scouting the Tribe

As usual, the Tribe is offense-oriented, averaging 34.8 points and 430 yards per game. Quarterback Lang Campbell has thrown for 3,673 yards with 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions. The defense has allowed 73 points in two playoff games. Kicker Greg Kuehn booted two winning field goals this year, including one with no time remaining to beat JMU on Nov.13.

By Ed Miller
The Roanoke Times