“If there’s magic in boxing, it’s the magic of fighting battles beyond endurance, beyond cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas. It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”
– Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris; Million Dollar Baby –
So true is this statement for anybody who has really applied themselves to the combative arts. And in the case of our friend, Kevin Dillard, the price was even higher… Yeah, can you say, broken Neck?
The following is Kevin’s account of the horrific ordeal along with my thoughts on the general subject of training and injuries.
This past weekend (August 16th) marks the tenth anniversary of my broken neck. I’d just had my birthday (August 8th), I had a brand new baby girl who was weeks old (the youngest of my three children).
Saturdays were a big thing for me. Every Saturday morning me and 5 to 10 other guys all met at Oates Gym here in Columbus, Georgia to train. Train hard.. REAL hard for about 3 hours.. every Saturday.. rain or shine.. well or sick.. healthy or injured.. NO MATTER WHAT.
Oates Gym was one of those wonderfully exquisite dungeons. A true and bonafide hole in the wall. No heat, no air, no hot water for the showers.. just cinder block and iron.. sweat and rust stains.. not to mention the occasional blood stains.. But legends had trained there.. Future stars of the MLB, NBA, NFL, WWF, IFBB.. Not to mention a couple of future governors of California and Minnesota.
There we no potted plants or ferns.. and NO daycare… and EVERYONE who was there was there to WORK. WORK HARD.
The gym was owned and run by Jerry Oates, a well known and respected professional wrestler and body builder. He was extremely well respected in Japan. Particularly All Japan Pro-Wrestling; who were known for their brutally stiff and rugged style.
My group of workout partners and myself were all some of Jerry’s “boys”.. Professional wrestlers or hopefuls aspiring to one day complete training to become a wrestler. Unlike most, I’d already been wrestling for almost 10 years; but still took part in the daily and weekly workouts. I only wanted to stay on top of things and always felt (and still do) that you could never learn enough.
The sessions were long and brutal. A few small athletic mats on a thinly carpeted concrete slab floor.. that was it… guys came and guys went.. most never got to leave that room and ever actually climb through the ropes into the ring..
The theory was if you could survive “taking bumps” (breakfalls) there.. Any ring would be gravy after that. This was a truly “old school” style wrestling camp.. If you couldn’t take it and if you couldn’t dish it right back out.. You simply weren’t going to make it.. No fluff.. No sugar coating anything.. Everything was brutally all out.. all the time and nothing pulled or held back and seldom did anyone ever ask for or expect you to lighten up on them in anyway.
Despite being sore and beat up constantly;
I loved it. Loved everything about it. Took pride in the amount of pounding I could either endure or administer
. It was and still is my true passion. So this one fateful Saturday morning 10 years ago, it started like any other.. Myself and the guys meeting to do our thing.. A lot of things were all chained or flowed together..I was paired up with this kid and he and I were going through a really physical series.. Suddenly out of nowhere; I find myself planted.. head first.. on concrete..
I sat up and in a split second I was right back down again. Only now, I couldn’t move a thing. I was on fire from head to toe.. Nerves going nuts .. incredible burning pain.. I could feel everything, but I could move nothing.
An ambulance was called and I was assured it was probably just a really bad “stinger”, but that they’d tape me down to this backboard “just to be safe”.. I knew right then and there that it was over.. EVERYTHING was over..
So a few hours later I find myself still taped down to this board, only now I’ve got my head taped in some kind of orange box and I’ve got a collar around my neck.. I’m going into an MRI machine and they’re having trouble getting me to fit into the damn thing At the time I was about 240 lbs and I run about 6’1 .. So my arms are crossed over my body and taped down into place and they’re rubbing some kind of lubricant (Vaseline, KY..? ?) up and down my arms to help shove me into the tube.
Later on I would be told that I had shattered my c3 and c4 vertebrae and that the disc between the two was still intact only now it and all the bone fragments were trapped behind my carotid arteries..
Oh yeah.. and by the way.. your spinal cord is trapped between the collapsed neck column.. And your paralyzed from the neck down…. HAPPY BIRTHDAY
Later in the afternoon I’m greeted by a neurosurgeon who is going to do a fusion of the neck using a titanium plate and some bone taken from my left hip. He says that maybe once the swelling from the spinal cord trauma goes away, there’s a remote possibility that I could get the use of one of my arms back.. Of course there’s a whole slew of thing that can go wrong because of where all the bone fragments and disc are located. I tell him that at that point I’m basically just a head so go for it.. I’m obviously NOT going anywhere.
It would be a seven and a half hour surgery. I come out of it and I’m told that the fusion is a success..
I’m told I’ll never walk again. They take me out of ICU and put me into a room and that’s that.
While waking from a morphine/Demerol cocktail fueled sleep, I could’ve sworn that I just moved one of my legs. After what seemed like forever.. I managed to slide my left leg just inches across the bed sheet.. I never knew you could actually think yourself into a sweat I start yelling and screaming for a nurse.. For anybody within earshot to come.. NOW!
After performing the same feat for a nurse.. then a therapist.. then my personal physician AND then the neurosurgeon.. ALL of whom could offer NO explanation on how it was even possible for this to happen.. I was placed into a halo and collar and released from the hospital to begin a long physical therapy/rehab program..
The rehab would take 18 months. Relearning how to walk properly and how to use my hands again..
About 6 months into the process, I’d started lifting weights again.. yeah.. in my halo and collar..
Guys would ask.. “are you even supposed to be in here? ?”.. And I’d look ‘em right in the eye and say.. “OH YEAH.. my doctor said its okay.”..no one ever challenged me or called me out on it.. And I figured that my level of conditioning was one of the reasons that I was able to even survive the accident in the first place.. So why stop moving.. ESPECIALLY if you’re given a second shot at moving… NOT being able to move sucks.. Imagine not being able to feed or dress yourself.. Or not being able to hold your children.
The next 18 months were full of challenges. My marriage was falling apart.. I’d been labeled “damaged goods” so to speak.. The career was going down the tubes.. there wouldn’t be anymore wrestling or combat (at least as far as I knew back then)..
The next 18 months were filled with many dark days. Eventually, I was released from rehab.. I had all my functions about me.. The only residual effect was a loss of feeling in the skin of my right leg from the hip to the floor (due to the trauma to my spinal chord).. a small price to pay to walk again.
All was great.. I was thinking that I’d find a way to somehow fix everything and everyone.. including myself.. only to find myself a few months later in the middle of a divorce and being given full custody of my three kids.. The youngest being my 18 month old baby girl along with an older brother and sister.
I’ll skip all the sticky bits about single parenthood and the trials of rebuilding myself and a life.. Suffice to say only this.. I have no regrets in life at this point.. There is no way I could have learned as much as I know about myself, parenting, life and living if it wasn’t for having gone through all of this.
If anything… I learned that I am a fighter.. Once its in your blood.. whether on a mat, in a ring or in dealing with whatever life throws at you.. We as fighters just attack it and deal with it differently than most.. We accept the challenges. We’re participators rather than spectators.
Now I have been blessed with a beautiful, loving and intelligent wife, who is not only my partner, but my best friend and fellow combatant in taking on life’s challenges. I’m back to training. I work out five days a week in the gym with weights and conditioning. I train submission grappling and BJJ at least two nights a week and I’ve been blessed to have a career in my second passion as a full time working musician.
And so my journey continues… everyday is another unread page.
Like Kevin, I too have had my share of injuries, shoulder dislocations, broken noses, a shattered eye socket, torn MCL, countless sprained ankles, broken fingers and toes, the list goes on and on.
Many of these could have been avoided with proper discipline and safer training practices. But I was young and thought that I would live forever and that Technique would prevail over size and strength. And, in my defense, there just weren’t that many, experienced and qualified instructors available at the time who where skilled and familiar in MMA style training and could guide me and those like me in the proper, safer way to do things.
But that is neither here or there. What is done is done.
It would seem that these hardships are not without their benefits, if you take the time to find them.
I can recall hearing Ajarn Greg Nelson, a legendary Professional MMA Fight Trainer and the first survivor or stage 5 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma AND neurolymphomatosis, recount how his way of understanding Martial Arts Techniques was forever changed when he learned how to look at movement from the very ground up. He credits this new insight to his struggle to teach himself how to walk again by understanding how each and every muscle fiber did what was necessary to put one foot in front of the other. And then by sheer force of will, fired them up, one by one, to make it back to his feet. Below is a clip of Ajarn Greg, post Cancer.
I have learned much from my own wounds.
I have learned how to be an opportunist. Maybe your arm is broken, it’s an opportunity to work on your footwork, for striking, for takedowns, for guard passes.
Recently my shoulder has been diagnosed as having early onset arthritis. As I recover, I’ve been using the opportunity to isolate and work on leg locks, leg lock defenses, counters, etc.
After reading Kevin’s article and revisiting the lessons taught by Ajarn Greg, I have reflected on my own situation and learned anew, what a privilege it is to move. To just be on the mats, and to be able to do what I love. So many times in my past, I could have been without health insurance, or not been blessed with a surgeon who was able to properly diagnose and treat my ailments and that could have been it. With my arthritis, it got so bad at a point, I thought that I might even have to walk away from the Martial Arts altogether. Now, I am in recovery and I am so thankful to have the opportunities that I have.
I can hear the voice of my instructor Khuen Khru Will in my head now, relaying a prophetic quote to help drive home the point
Master Uguay: “Yesterday is History, Tomorrow a Mystery, Today is a Gift, Thats why it’s called the Present”
Any day you are on the mat is a day to be celebrated, it is indeed, a very good day! I am taking my present, my gift and enjoying every second of it. Don’t waste a single moment, for it may be your last.
It’s time to go train.