HOOVER, Ala. — It was a balmy Indian summer September afternoon for Harvard’s season opener against the University of Rhode Island at Meade Stadium in Kingston, R.I.
Ben Abercrombie, then 18, was the only freshman on defense to make the trip. The 5-foot-10-inch, 180-pound safety had impressed everyone since he set foot in Cambridge.
At Harvard Stadium in a preseason camp, he took an NFL agility run that tests speed, lateral quickness, and explosiveness. The football and baseball star clocked in at less than four seconds, an NFL-level top score. Coaches were checking their stopwatches and asking him to run it again.
“It was really tremendous,” says Harvard coach Tim Murphy. “That’s what you’re looking for. He’s just an outstanding athlete.”
He had everything Harvard wanted: heart, teamwork, mental toughness, charisma, honor roll grade, and a high football IQ. In scrimmages, he had the knack for popping bigger running backs and tight ends with gusto.
“He’s an amazingly tough, fun-loving, and resilient kid,” says Murphy.
Although he was one of the smallest players on the team, what he gave up in size he made up for in passion.
“Oh, I loved to hit,” says Abercrombie with a smile. “I miss that.”
The Harvard players already had a new nickname for him: “Badgercrombie” because of his tenacious defense in scrimmages and his resemblance to Houston Texans undersized safety Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu.
He was only expected to play on special teams, but when two of his teammates were injured Abercrombie started the second quarter at safety.
More than a thousand miles away, his parents, Marty and Sherri, a restaurant manager and a registered nurse, were watching the live stream at home on their 47-inch widescreen TV.
They already had sent out a chain text message to friends on how to watch their boy play his first college game.
It was third and 15 when the URI quarterback dropped back to pass. It was a play-action sideline pass right in front of the Harvard bench.
“So I saw that wide receiver come open and I saw the QB’s eyes like going over toward him, so I broke over that way and he threw it,” says Abercrombie “When I saw that ball go up in the air I knew I was too far away to pick it off.
“I was like, “Oh, I’m going to kill this guy on the sideline.’ ”
Sideline hits are easy, Abercrombie says. “You can just go full speed into him. You don’t have to worry about missing the tackle.”
URI’s Marven Beauvais, a 6-foot-4-inch, 211-pound receiver leapt up and caught the ball, a moment before Abercrombie arrived.
“When I hit him, I hit him pretty good on the sideline. We both just went opposite ways.”
Abercrombie says he knew instantly that he was paralyzed from the neck down.
“Usually when I hit somebody I drive my feet but I couldn’t drive my feet. I just hit him and the force impact of me hitting him flew him the opposite way . . . So I just froze and fell.”
A clean hit
Murphy was just several feet away at midfield when it happened.
“It was a textbook hit, clean, heads up,” he says. “Ben’s hit appeared to be relatively benign at the moment it happened. Usually when a kid gets hurt in any way, their knees bend and they sort of crumple to the ground.” Abercrombie fell just like a ladder, says Murphy.
What Abercrombie remembers next is an eerie vision he finds hard to explain. He says it happened in slow motion.
“When I hit the ground I looked up and I put my head up . . . and I just saw this white-like, a ghost figure — arms and legs come out of me and just float up and then disappear . . . I guess it was just like my arms and legs were leaving me.”
Help was there in seconds.
“I started struggling to talk and I just realized I can’t breathe,’’ Abercrombie says.
First responders immediately gave him oxygen and placed him in a neck brace. He was fading in and out of consciousness and eventually passed out. Six minutes later, he was being rushed to the hospital.
“I didn’t think I was going to die,” he says. “I just didn’t exactly know what was happening.”
In Hoover, his parents initially thought it was a routine play.
“He certainly had a lot harder hits in high school that he delivered and got delivered to him,” says his dad, who also played high school football in Alabama.
But then their worst fears were realized.
“They had the camera on him for a minute or so, we could see he wasn’t moving,” says Marty Abercrombie.
The parents pleaded, “Please move,” at the image of their son, motionless on the field.
Sherri Abercrombie tried to keep calm.
“I did [cry] but I didn’t panic, I just basically heard a voice saying ‘he’s going to be OK.’ So I just kind of held on to that.”
Marty Abercrombie called a friend who was at the game, begging for information. Minutes later the Harvard trainer called him back. The trainer said it was a serious cervical spinal cord injury and Ben was being rushed to Rhode Island Hospital in Providence.
“The good news was that he was alive,” says Marty Abercrombie.
Abercrombie called his minister.
”We need you to pray,” he said. He sent out another chain text message asking everyone to pray.
A surgeon called them as they raced from Hoover to Atlanta to catch a flight to Boston.
“The cervical C4 was broken and C3 was dislocated so they needed to relieve all the compression that could have killed him if it wasn’t relieved. Titanium rods needed to be placed in his neck. I told them to do what they needed to do,” says Marty Abercrombie.
Murphy held Ben Abercrombie’s hand as they wheeled him into surgery, even though Ben couldn’t feel it.
No ordinary kid
On the nerve-wracking drive to Atlanta, his parents were still in shock.
“It’s like we didn’t believe it because Ben is such a tough kid and he never got hurt playing football,” says Marty Abercrombie.
“We kept waiting on some good news, that something would happen and he’s going to be OK. We never got that good news.”
They arrived at the hospital just after 11 p.m. and were briefed by one of the surgeons.
“Ben was awake, he could hear our voices,” says Marty Abercrombie, choking up and then drumming his fingers on the table as if to propel himself to finish.
“And uh, he says he doesn’t remember this — but he did have a tear coming down his face. And as a parent that’s the toughest thing to see your kid cry.”
But this is no ordinary kid.
“He’s a fighter, that was my impression of him,” says Pete Brock, the former New England Patriot lineman who visited him several times in Rhode Island. “He has a lot of faith. All the things that made him a champion did not go away with the injury and I still see those qualities in him.”
“I told him to win every single day,” adds the Patriot alumni president, who still wears the “Fight Like A Badger” wristband that Ben gave him and who played in the 1978 preseason game in which Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley was paralyzed by a Jack Tatum hit.
The first weeks were the toughest. Ben started to get pneumonia and had a small stroke.
He had tubes down his throat and couldn’t talk and had to communicate by blinking. His weight dropped to a skin-and-bones 136 pounds.
He was having nightmares and hallucinations from the medications. But in his dreams he could walk and run like the wind.
“When I wake up, I wait for somebody to turn me over,” he says. “And one thing I really hate is getting manhandled all the time. I hate being flipped and flopped all the time.”
On Oct. 11, he was medevaced to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation.
He battled pneumonia and was in and out of intensive care. He finally returned home on Jan. 8, 2018, to a warm welcome.
The local Home Depot installed a fire pit dubbed “The Badger Pit” and a series of wooden ramps so he can enjoy the backyard. Manager Mark Hamilton says he can’t wait to tear it down and have a bonfire.
Signature Homes rebuilt his entire basement room and installed an elevator. The family furnished it with action photos of Ben and mementos from his two state football championships and one baseball championship from the days when he was a star at Hoover Met Stadium, the same place that hosted Michael Jordan’s failed 1994 attempt to make it as a professional baseball player with the Birmingham Barons. There’s a treasure trove of trophies, framed uniforms, and a wooden sign with some inspiring advice from Babe Ruth.
“Perseverance: You can’t beat the person who never gives up.”
Focus on recovery
Ben Abercrombie says he will never, ever give up despite being given very slim odds to ever get out of his wheelchair.
“My goal is to walk again and I plan to see that out eventually,” he says.
His mom is not surprised.
“He’s had a fighting spirit pretty much [from birth]. He’s always been one of those kids where if there’s something he wants to do, by golly he’s going to do it,” says Sherri Abercrombie.
Still, there is much to celebrate. He’s back to his playing weight of 180 pounds, “although some of that is chub,” he says with a laugh.
He has increased muscle mass and strength in his neck, chest, arms, legs, and center core muscles and he can feel warmth, pressure, and touch, although he says there is a slight delay.
Sometimes his fingers involuntarily twitch and he can also move his thumb, slightly. In rehab, he can also slide his arm off the top of his head.
He has mastered his $75,000 wheelchair, which he maneuvers by using a sip and puff control, which also controls his iPhone.
But his first priority is to breathe on his own. Nine months after the injury he is still dependent on a ventilator.
Recently he has made steady improvement. Last week he was able to go two hours off the ventilator on consecutive days for the first time since the injury.
“Doctors are excited by Ben’s progress,” says Marty Abercrombie.
But there’s a still a long way to go.
In the evenings he practices breathing on his own. On July 11, he shattered his previous record of 27:40 seconds by breathing on his own for a full 40 minutes. But there’s still a long way to go.
“I’ve never been a patient person and now I have to be patient in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel,”
He smiles as he tells his story. “There’s no point in having a terrible attitude because in that way you won’t get better. But if you have a good attitude, eventually you’ll get blessed in the long run and get better.”
He still loves football, too.
“I don’t blame football for what happened to me,” he says. “It’s like you know the risks when you go out and play . . . so it wouldn’t be fair to hate it, especially when it’s been such a good thing in my life.”
His father works out with him seven days a week and he’s working with a paralysis recovery specialist and therapists at Spain Rehabilitation Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. Chelsea Henderson, a personal trainer and his first cousin, also works with him twice a week at home.
Today he does 600 bicep curls and 700 triceps curls and military presses in an exhausting workout. When he finishes Henderson notices his hands are starting to turn blue. No worries, he’s off to do the exercise bike, which is powered by electrodes taped to his legs and stomach.
“He just has this insane focus on anything he does,” says Henderson. “Every rep he’s just in it, like full force. You know he doesn’t just do something; he does it with all his being and all his might. That’s something you can’t help but admire about him.”
He vows to return to Harvard in the fall of 2019 to finish his degree in economics. He already uses eye control software on his laptop to take an online macroeconomics course to exercise his brain.
“I want to inspire people,” he says.
Abercrombie hopes to be a financial manager for professional athletes and also to someday own a horse farm.
Murphy already has offered him a job as a Harvard assistant student coach tutoring defensive backs.
“He’ll always be part of our family,” says Murphy.
In the early evening some of his former Hoover baseball teammates come over and tell stories of their glory days and watch the Red Sox on TV. There is much laughter and his wheelchair eventually becomes invisible. Everybody eats chicken wings from his dad’s restaurant except Ben, the man on a mission, who has a healthy salad fed to him by Avery Kampwerth, his high school sweetheart.
His friends still look up to him.
“He’s still got that fight in him,’’ says Sonny Dichiara, who has played baseball with Abercrombie since he was 10. “He was an incredible athlete and that’s what I think really helps him now getting through this.’’
Before he was hurt, Abercrombie was looking forward to being part of the historic Harvard-Yale rivalry. Now he’s excited The Game will be played at Fenway Park on Nov. 17.
“Oh, I’d LOVE to go to that,” he says, his voice now stronger than the whirring of the ventilator that he hates. He says that he’s a big Red Sox fan and seeing The Game in person would be a dream come true.
Plus he wants to personally thank all the people that contributed money and prayers in the Stand Up For Ben campaign.
“I’ve seen more of the good in people than I thought people had in them,” he says.
The thought of leading the Crimson out the center-field door at Fenway brings a big smile to his face and a sparkle in his eyes.
“It would mean a lot,” he says. “I’d love to get back up there for sure.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.