The lights were dimmed at Harvard Stadium Thursday night, and the players, having finished practice for Saturday’s game against Yale at Fenway Park, were gathered in an end zone when a black van slowly pulled onto the field.
Through the windshield, they could see Ben Abercrombie, the Harvard safety who was paralyzed making a tackle in his first collegiate football game as a freshman 14 months ago.
The 19-year-old native of Hoover, Ala., returning to Harvard for the first time, looked healthy in his Crimson sweatshirt and knit hat. He was beaming from ear to ear. Using his $75,000 puff-and-sip wheelchair, he rode down the ramp himself.
His mother, Sherri, tucked a blanket around his neck, and Harvard coach Tim Murphy greeted him warmly.
“He’s part of the family, he’s part of the team and he always will be,” said Murphy. “Since the day he left in such a catastrophic way, everybody’s been dying to see him again.”
Murphy has seen him a lot. He went to the hospital after Abercrombie suffered his severe spinal cord injury in a game against the University of Rhode Island at Kingston, R.I., on Sept. 16, 2017. The coach has visited Abercrombie in rehab facilities in Atlanta and his hometown, and has stayed in touch with his family.
But once a coach, always a coach. Murphy glanced quickly at the time.
“Hey Ben, you’re four minutes late — you’re going to have to do a couple of laps,” he said with a smile.
The players, on their feet now and hooting and hollering, chanted “Badger, Badger, Badger” louder and louder.
Abercrombie soaked in the atmosphere, then greeted every player with a kind word and a thank you.
The Badger was back.
The nickname was born on this very field, where Abercrombie became “Badgercrombie” because of his aggressive play and his resemblance to the Houston Texans’ undersized safety, Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu.
“I remember our second scrimmage on a Saturday morning,” said Harvard captain Zach Miller, a senior safety. “He came downfield and he cracked our All-Ivy League running back. He absolutely just dropped him in his tracks. For a freshman to do that, to diagnose that play, and step up and make that hit, it was impressive.
“I think that’s where the legend started.”
An amazing diving catch cemented the nickname. But then the unthinkable happened on that gorgeous fall day last year.
Abercrombie is still breathing with the aid of a ventilator, although he has at times gone four hours without it. He has endured multiple surgeries, titanium rods, pneumonia, nightmares, hallucinations from medications, and a weight loss from 180 to 136 pounds. But now he’s back at his playing weight and he looks muscular.
“He is still working hard every day to get better and has continued to make progress in strengthening his upper body, arms, center core, and leg muscles,” his father, Marty, wrote on CaringBridge, a nonprofit website designed to keep family and friends informed.
“The signals from his brain to these muscles are still too weak for Ben to sustain normal movement, but he is able to initiate these muscles during assisted movement.”
Abercrombie hopes to return to Harvard next year and complete his degree in economics.
“I just can’t wait to be back and walking and going to class,” he said. “Walking next to my peers and my teammates and my buddies.”
Abercrombie, who will attend Saturday’s game at Fenway, was flown by air ambulance Thursday from Birmingham, Ala., to Boston. The Harvard Varsity Club paid for the trip with money raised from the Benson M. Abercrombie ’21 Fund.
One player after another told him how much he meant to them. Some wore “Badger” or “Stand With Ben” wristbands.
“Oh, I can feel the love for sure,” Abercrombie said after going through a receiving line before the team dinner. “Given my situation, I’m just happy to be an inspiration for people and happy to inspire people.”
This visit is great therapy.
“I get a lot of energy from this,” said Abercrombie. “It was unreal. I’m so happy to be back, I’m almost speechless.”
Looking out over the darkened field, he said, “I just miss being here. But it’s good to be back. I’m thankful I can come back and see them.”
Abercrombie, who has been offered a graduate assistant coaching job by Murphy, will be with the Crimson on the field during warmups Saturday and will watch The Game from a suite.
“His being with the team is going to be tremendously inspirational,” Murphy said. “There’s no question, it’s going to add a lot of juice to our game.”
“We’re going to fight our butts off for him, our brother,” he said. “He gives us fuel, he gives us energy to go out there and fight even harder.”
Abercrombie also will attend a bowling fund-raiser, and he’ll meet with Harvard staff to facilitate his return to campus and visit with doctors and rehab specialists in the Boston area.
He’s excited about being in Fenway Park, too.
His father grew up in Winter Haven, Fla., when the Yaz-era Red Sox held spring training there, and raised his son to be a Red Sox fan. On Sept. 4, the Red Sox hosted Abercrombie and his family when they played an interleague series in Atlanta.
Abercrombie also had a prediction about The Game.
“It’s going to be unbelievable,” he said. “Hopefully I’m worth at least seven [touchdowns]. Hopefully we can put it on ’em.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org