CHATTANOOGA , Tenn. - 5/27/2008 -
By BRANDON SHIELDS
Story and photos online at JacksonSun.com
Members of the Tennessee Rush '95 Nike soccer team waited until just minutes before their first game in a tournament last weekend to pull on their jerseys for the match. When they did, all the shirts had the same name on the back: Wilson.
The uniforms were altered as a surprise honor for their assistant coach for the weekend: Union University soccer player David Wilson.
"I thought they all had the same last name when they first put the jerseys on," Wilson joked afterward.
Chris Lean, a former teammate of Wilson's at Union, is the head coach of the Jackson-based Rush team. He arranged for Wilson to be an assistant coach for the tournament, which was held near Wilson's home outside of Chattanooga.
The scene with Wilson on the sidelines in a wheelchair was a step in a journey Wilson hopes will lead him back on a soccer field one day as a player. His legs were crushed Feb. 5 when his dorm building at Union collapsed on him in a tornado. He was trapped for five hours and spent the next nine-and-a-half weeks in a hospital, in Jackson and then Chattanooga.
Story of the storm
Wilson, a freshman, had arrived at the Union soccer fields about a half hour before the tornado hit. But Union coach Clovis Simas canceled practice because of the approaching storm.
Wilson returned to his dorm and waited with six other students. He recalls many details of when the tornado hit.
"I remember being in the bathrooms in the commons area, and the lights began to flicker," he said in an interview videotaped in March. "And then I looked behind one of my friends and saw the wall crack behind him, and the lights went out.
"Then after that, everything was gone," he said.
Wilson and his friends were pinned beneath 21 feet of rubble. Wilson was trapped with his knees forced against his chest, and he could only move his arms. When rescuers got to him, they had to lift the debris off with heavy equipment. He couldn't move his legs and was unable to wiggle out of the hole.
"They hoisted me out, but my knees stayed up to my chest," Wilson said. "I remember being put on a stretcher and hearing cheering and Coach Simas coming up to me and telling me I was strong, and I was going to make it."
Things did not get easier after he was freed.
"The most painful part was in the ambulance when they began to pull my legs and stretch them out," Wilson said. "When your legs are bent for five hours and your muscles have been in that position, it's very painful to try to get them in another position."
A hope to play again
Wilson's legs had gone hours without sufficient blood flow and would eventually swell to the point of adding 60 pounds to his body. He had weighed about 160 pounds before being hurt.
Doctors had to do a fasciotomy to bring the swelling down - a procedure where Wilson's legs were cut to allow fluid to escape.
"I was sedated during that, so I did not feel anything," he said. "Then I was in ICU for a few days after that."
Wilson was moved from Jackson to Siskin Hospital in Chattanooga, where his healing and rehabilitation continued. He walked out of the hospital on April 11 using crutches and with a plan to walk unassisted soon after and to run by the time he returns to school at Union in September.
Two months later, Wilson has made much progress in his recovery and is close to being able to walk with little assistance.
"I should be able to walk with only one crutch soon," he said last week. "I'm not sure if I'll be running by September, but I will be running again one day."
Wilson said he is not sure if he will be able to play soccer again.
"I definitely hope so," he said. "That question is still up in the air, but I hope one day to be back to playing."
Back to the game
Although he hasn't been able to play soccer, Wilson has stayed near the game.
His younger brother, Corey, is in high school and plays soccer at Chattanooga Christian. Wilson attended all but two of his brother's games this season. He also acted as an assistant coach for Simas this month when Simas took his girls Rush team to Chattanooga for a tournament.
Wilson said being around the game was difficult at first, but it's good for him now.
"The first game I went to was really hard, but it's been a lot of fun after that," he said Saturday. "It's just good for me to be around the game at times like today when I get to watch some players coming up and Chris coaching them."
Wilson was low key as the team's assistant coach. He made strategy suggestions to Lean and offered encouragement to players. Team members had sent letters and pictures of themselves to Wilson before the tournament. He memorized the names and faces so he could call the players by name.
The players were glad to have Wilson with them.
"Coach Lean told us Coach David's story, and we finally got to meet him this morning at the hotel before the game," team member Michael Mysiewicz said Saturday. "He talked to us about the game and what we needed to do out there. He knew what he was talking about."
One of Mysiewicz's teammates, Chris Ahn, said he was inspired by Wilson's story.
"He told us how he got hurt, and it sounded bad," Ahn said. "I hope he can play again one day."
As Wilson sat in his wheelchair over the weekend, scars from the fasciotomy and skin grafts were visible on his legs. He answered questions from the players about his scars and let them touch his legs. Wilson's family hosted the players and their families for dinner at their home Saturday, where Wilson played a slideshow set to music that showed what has happened in his life since Tuesday, Feb. 5.
Wilson now concentrates on getting his life back to where he was before the tornado hit.
"The word 'normal' has a bit of a different meaning now, but I am able to do just about everything I could before I got hurt," he said. "I was able to drive again a few weeks ago, and that helps a lot so I can go out and see my friends more often now and do stuff with them."
Lean said his life was changed by witnessing the challenges Wilson faced and the way Wilson and his family responded.
"Normally, I would have been in the building with David and the others because we usually get together on Tuesdays and hang out for a while, but I didn't that day because my brother was in town, and I was spending time with him," Lean said. "But I spent a lot of time in the hospital with David and his family the first few days after the storm.
"Seeing everything they went through made me see things differently. I was not a Christian before then, but I became one about 10 days after the storm. Seeing David having to go through the rehab he did really put things into perspective."
Wilson and Lean shared their testimonies of faith with the Nike team Sunday morning before the last games of the tournament.
Lean said earlier that others have been touched by his friend's ordeal. Wilson said he was glad some good came from his experience.
"God works in some pretty weird ways sometimes," he said. "But what I went through was worth it to me if lives were changed by it."
At the end of the tournament, Wilson heard cheering similar to when he and the firemen emerged from the rubble at Union after the tornado.
The Rush made it to the championship game, but tied and then fell to the East Ridge Express '95 team on penalty kicks for a second-place finish. The Express is based near Chattanooga, and its members were familiar with Wilson's story.
The teams met after the game, and each player's name was called as he received a trophy. Parents and players from both teams clapped.
But the loudest and longest applause was for Wilson when Lean handed him a trophy in honor of his work during the tournament as a coach.
- Brandon Shields, 425-9751
Phone: (731) 661-5027
Fax: (731) 661-5182