Kevin Everett faces life after football

He was a symbol of defying the odds. He would look at home in a Gatorade or Nike ad montage. Meanwhile, his charity organization, the Kevin Everett Foundation, was formed in 2008 but didn't get off the ground.

Everett hasn't returned to Western New York in three years, declining the Bills' invitations each summer to visit training camp because it stings to watch others play a game he cannot.

He doesn't give many interviews and doesn't chat with his former teammates very often. He was surprised recently to hear former University of Miami teammate Roscoe Parrish still played for Buffalo.

Because Everett's not big on answering the phone -- even for company he's expecting -- the best way to check up on him is to tailgate another vehicle through the security gate of his development, a cozy collection of newer brick homes along serpentine streets in suburban Houston.

When two guests stopped by on a recent triple-digit-hot summer afternoon, Everett opened the front door wearily and waved them inside. He was in a gray T-shirt, baggy basketball shorts and Crocs. He looked like he could use reinforcements.

His daughters, 2-year-old Famatta and 11-month-old Faith, weren't interested in naps. Kevin's wife, Wiande, wouldn't get home from her job as a fifth-grade teacher for another half-hour.

What's that, daddy? What's that? What's that? Daddy! What's that, daddy?

Everett mumbled something. There was silence for a beat.

What's this, daddy? What's this? Daddy? Daddy! What's this?

Everett ducked into a laundry room and began ironing tiny white shorts and a green-and-pink blouse barely the size of his hand.

"As soon as I get up," Everett said, "I'm doing stuff like ..." He put the iron down and furiously snapped his fingers, rat-a-tat.

Everett is an exceptional man with limitations. He overcame paralysis, but still works hard to do ordinary things.

Most difficult of all is reconciling his gratitude for escaping a nightmare against the bitterness of having many of his grandest dreams -- scoring an NFL touchdown, winning a Super Bowl -- snatched away forever at the age of 25.

"He could run, jump and compete with the greatest athletes in the world," Everett's agent, Eric Armstead, said a week ago. "Anybody in that situation would have to feel robbed. The mental aspect is tough, and the physical aspect is in your face.

"But he's not laying on a gurney or moving a wheelchair with his chin. He's a very blessed person."

Armstead, who considers Everett a close friend and now works for him pro bono, was asked if he thinks Everett is happy. Armstead fell silent for seven seconds.

"All things considered," Armstead said, "I'd like to think he's happy. That's a hell of a question." Armstead paused again. "A hell of a question."

Everett has a beautiful house with vaulted ceilings and sharp decor. On display are understated reminders that the home belongs to a pair of former athletes. Everett's jerseys have been framed and hung.

A curio cabinet serves as a trophy case in the foyer. Inside are his Ed Block Courage Award (a silver Bills helmet), a team-signed Bills helmet and his Jimmy V Award for Perseverance from the ESPYs. Wiande has plaques from her All-American track career at the University of Miami, where she and Kevin met.

More prominent, however, are wedding photos, baby pictures and oil paintings by Wiande's sister. Above the fireplace is an attention-grabbing family portrait on large canvas.

Football is not everywhere Everett looks. Unless his daughters give him a moment to relax.

"I can sit back, just resting, and close my eyes," said Everett, seated in the deep cushions of his brown sofa. He tilted his head back and lowered his eyelids. "I can actually see myself doing certain things. I meditate about making plays."

Everett has a gracious, low-key personality. But he's most animated when talking about football and the accomplishments he didn't have the full chance to obtain.

"I just always wanted to make the big catch, the big play," Everett said. "I wanted to be that guy. I think about that every day. It crosses my mind at least once a day."

The Bills made Everett the 86th overall draft choice in 2005. He was the third tight end off the board. On his first day of minicamp, he suffered a left knee injury that wiped out his rookie season.

He played all 16 games, starting four, in 2006. And while Bills fans might recall him as a physical specimen with a bright future, he caught only two passes for 4 yards in his career. He never scored a touchdown, not even in preseason.

"I don't know if he'll ever get over it," said Tony Tompkins, one of Everett's closest confidants. Tompkins was a groomsman at Everett's wedding.
Everett and Tompkins fantasized about playing in the NFL together since they were high school teammates in Port Arthur, Texas. Tompkins starred in the Canadian Football League.

Everett winces at the thought of the Bills failing to reach the playoffs 11 years straight and the idea -- especially at a position the Bills continue to have trouble -- he could have been a difference-maker.

"I know I would have been," Everett said. "I know with my athletic ability and my talent I would've did some great things for the Bills."

Everett's football void will be perpetual. So will many of his physical shortcomings.

He exercises at home, but he's done with formal therapy. He has maxed out on his rehab.

His right side will forever be weaker than his left. His arms are less coordinated than his legs. Fine motor skills can confound him. He's frequently nauseous.

If he strains too much during the day, the room will spin when he lies down at night. He's limited to curling 15 pounds.

Twice, he has tried to jog on a treadmill, but said, "I'm about to fall off the thing. My balance is terrible. It's a sad thing, but that's what it is."

"Almost everything that we take for granted has changed," Cappuccino, the doctor, said. "Most folks see he's upright and ambulatory and all four limbs work, but that doesn't mean they work like everyone else's. They don't."

Everett's condition also could subtract years off his life. Most people with Everett's injury are quadriplegics, so lifespan data won't necessarily apply. But Cappuccino conceded Everett's quality of life likely will wane.

"He's like an astronaut," Cappuccino said. "He's doing something that no one's ever done. We didn't know for sure how he'd respond to the therapy that was used on him. We have more data now, and we've tended to see some better results. But we don't know what the long-term outcomes will be."

Everett has paid a significant price, which should be known before considering how well he is doing financially.

Everett received the NFL's maximum disability benefit for an active player. His annual compensation of $224,000 will go up to $250,000 this year under the new collective bargaining agreement and to $265,000 five years from now.

He also receives $16,920 a year in pension as a player with three years of experience. It was reported when the Bills released Everett in 2008 they would pay the full $460,000 base salary for his last season, but Armstead said the Bills agreed to pay only a portion.

"It is our policy that we do not discuss the details of any player financial agreements," Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold said in an email. "But it can be noted that the settlement agreement was structured to be favorable to Kevin. Additionally, there were benefits that Kevin was entitled to through the league which the Bills organization helped facilitate."

Berchtold added the Bills provided a private jet for Everett and his family and designed a T-shirt that raised more than $65,000 for Everett's foundation.

Bills safety George Wilson, who knelt in prayer on the field when Everett was being tended to, knows some people will see Everett's settlement figures and be envious.

"None of the fans, nobody in this locker room was in that rehabilitation center with Kevin," said Wilson, Buffalo's steward for the NFL Players Association. "A lot of people weren't in that hospital room to see him be able to only move his eyes. Nobody saw him shivering in the bed. Nobody was more scared than Kevin.

"What if he couldn't learn to walk again? Would you still take that money on a bet? You think about all the fathers out there that can go outside and chase their daughters, can teach them how to play basketball, play soccer with them. ... I'm sure that tears him up.
"Ask any father: Would you give up that right, that privilege to get a few dollars in your pocket?"

Catastrophic play
Kickoffs traditionally are the most savage plays in football. The NFL, with injuries like Everett's in mind, instituted for this season new rules to curb the brutality.

Balls will be kicked from the 35-yard line instead of the 30-yard line, increasing the number of touchbacks. Players on coverage units can't line up any deeper than 5 yards behind the ball before it's kicked, reducing their ability to build up speed.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick last month claimed the NFL wants to eliminate kickoffs entirely.

"I can't do anything but agree. Go ahead and get rid of it," Everett said. "It's the most dangerous and lethal aspect of the game, that kickoff."
That fact was underscored on Sept. 9, 2007.

Everett was a prototypical special-teams player. He was large (6-foot-4, 260 pounds), but mobile. He was a wedge-buster, the dirtiest job of all. A wedge is formed when multiple blockers form a wall with the intention of bulldozing a path for the kick returner. Everett's job was to run downfield at full speed and detonate the wall.

On the kickoff to begin the second half, Everett barreled toward Denver Broncos returner Domenik Hixon and expected to encounter a blocker or two. None impeded him. Everett lowered his head slightly and slammed into Hixon. Everett's body immediately went limp. He slumped facedown onto the turf. His body briefly convulsed as he tried to get up.

Maybe if a Broncos player had so much as brushed up against Everett, held him up for a fraction of a second, Everett would be on the field for the Bills this afternoon.

"I think about it a lot," Everett said of the play. "The 'What ifs?' aren't going to do anything for you in life, but, man, I play it over and over. I think about it so much."

The injury was potentially fatal -- if not that day, then maybe later that week or in a month or a year. Medical personnel at the scene assumed Everett never would walk again.

"I didn't have any thought in my mind about the fact we would be fortunate enough to salvage enough cord function that he'd be able to walk again," said Cappuccino, among the Bills' doctors who ran to Everett's aid.

Medical personnel stabilized Everett's spine, loaded him into a Rural/Metro Medical Services ambulance and drove him out of Ralph Wilson Stadium within 15 minutes. He was at Millard Fillmore Hospital within 40 minutes.

On the way, Cappuccino ordered a controversial hypothermia treatment to chill Everett's system and injected him with steroids.

"I explained this to Kevin and told him all the things we wanted to try, and we need your permission to do this," Cappuccino said last week. "I told him 'This certainly could shrink the swelling of the spinal cord, but this could kill you. We've done this for heart attacks and strokes, but we haven't done this for spinal-cord injuries.' He was adamant: 'Do anything you could in your power to make me better because I can't live the rest of my life like this.'

"He was not afraid or uncomfortable with dying. His fear was being incapacitated, and he was willing to do or try anything and absolve us of any responsibility of any negative outcome." In another dramatic decision, Cappuccino induced hypothermia again after surgery, this time at a lower temperature than in the ambulance.

Here are some more "What if?" questions that run through Everett's mind each day: What if Bills head athletic trainer Bud Carpenter had not replicated the exact scenario in a medical drill with Cappuccino and others 11 days before the game? What if Cappuccino hadn't heard about hypothermia treatments at a seminar two years earlier? What if the proponent of those treatments, the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, hadn't received funding from Bills owner Ralph Wilson?

But within days, Everett showed encouraging signs and was on his way to an amazing recovery. He was transferred to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research at Memorial Hermann, the same Houston facility where Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords went for physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Cappuccino admitted he worries about Everett.

"Right now, he's in this unfortunate limbo," Cappuccino said. "He's not really struggling financially. Then again, being financially stable isn't the only thing that matters in life -- a sense of purpose, something to do that makes you feel your days are worthwhile."

Everett's passions these days are his family and his faith.

The Everetts regularly attend True Life Baptist Church in Houston. Kevin and Wiande constantly use the word "blessed" when discussing their lives and what they've been through. Kevin's recovery couldn't help but bolster their core beliefs.

"I'm proud that he persevered through it all," Wiande Everett said. "He beat the odds because of his faith and because he's a hard worker. We take every day at a time. We're blessed he's with us and alive."

There's no way to avoid fatherly responsibilities when, at about 8 every morning, "The girls wake me up by slapping me in my mug and shoving their sippy cups in my face," he said.

Everett insisted he wants seven children. Based on the laughter the number elicited from Wiande, that horde's not happening. But they did recently add to their family, obtaining guardianship of 14-year-old cousin Ashton Brisco to extract him from a chaotic household.

"He's in the process of teaching me to be a better man, helping me to do better by being a role model," Ashton said of Everett. "I really thank him for that. We come from the same place. I know if he can make it, I can make it."

Ashton is a running back at nearby Oak Ridge High, essentially answering an obvious question: Given the horror he had to live through, would Kevin Everett let his son play football?

"If I had a problem with it, I wouldn't let Ashton play," Everett said. "If that's what my son would like to do, hey, I wanted to do it. Nobody stopped me. The people that allowed me to play knew that I could possibly get injured. ... You can't be afraid to step out your door."

Everett isn't leading the life he envisioned, but he seems to have found a rewarding purpose in his life as a homebody family man who keeps a sparkling house.

And that's OK.

"I'm happy, man," Everett said. "I know my story has died out, and I wish I could do a lot more as far as not being forgotten and keeping it fresh. But I'm a man of God, and I love my family. All our bills are paid. At the end of the day, if you have a family that loves you, you're blessed."

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