November 7, 2012

Six years later, Fuentes' recovery continues

More news about: Alfred
While Julio Fuentes' recovery still continues, his younger brother, Maleke, has followed his footsteps as a football player at Alfred.
Alfred athletics photo

The scouting report was clear and Julio Fuentes knew exactly where to be. But if you ask him about the play, he’ll still tell you it never felt right to him.

Sept. 9, 2006: Fuentes’ Alfred Saxons were hosting the Thiel Tomcats in the season opener. Fuentes lined up for the second half kickoff in the middle of the field, ready for Thiel’s trademark “skyball” kickoff. Fuentes, a diverse sophomore running back, was out there for any number of scenarios -- to field a short kickoff, to fair catch a particularly high kickoff, or block in the event a teammate tried a return.

Thiel kicker Sammy Koyl didn’t pop the kick high and short. He kicked it long and, inadvertently, set in motion the play that would change Fuentes’ life forever.

Fuentes retreated on the field to get into position in the blocking wedge. Fuentes found himself in the middle of the wedge, bearing down on the incoming Thiel players. Those few seconds to retreat cost the undersized Fuentes (5-foot-2, 145 pounds) precious time to get in proper position. He prepared for contact anyway.

“The last three feet before I actually hit the guy, it felt like it was in slow motion. It really did,” Fuentes said. “... When I hit him, I think I might have blacked out, but I’m not too sure.”

Fuentes said he heard an “accordion sound” and felt his “whole body shutting down.” He had no way of knowing at the time, but the hit had severely damaged the C-4 and C-5 vertebrae of his spinal column. 

“I knew when [paramedics] came out that I was paralyzed,” Fuentes said. “It was definitely a different feeling.”

Fuentes was taken by ambulance to nearby St. James Hospital in Hornell, N.Y., but was later moved to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., where he would spend the next month or so.

Forget a promising football career -- Fuentes was now facing a battle for his life. Fuentes was placed in an induced coma and kept alive by a ventilator. He knew people were visiting him, but he couldn’t distinguish faces. His mother Ella, younger brother Maleke -- now a standout freshman on Alfred’s football team, but then just a worried 12-year-old -- and two younger sisters, as well as coach Dave Murray, the Alfred staff and players were all there for him.

Fuentes’ initial diagnosis wasn’t promising. If he did regain movement in both arms, doctors said, that would probably be it. Fuentes was unlikely to move his legs again, and would almost certainly never walk.

During Fuentes’ time in Rochester, his mother learned about the Shepherd Center, a catastrophic care hospital for traumatic brain and spinal injuries in Atlanta. That’s where Fuentes ending up spending the next six months, re-learning how to eat, speak and breathe on his own without the aid of a tracheal tube. 

“If I didn’t go there, I don’t think I’d be where I am right now,” Fuentes said.

Fuentes’ spinal injury was eventually determined to be “incomplete,” meaning it is possible for him to regain full function. This is an ongoing and difficult process, though he has movement in his arms and legs. A typical day for Fuentes, now back with his family in Olean, N.Y., starts with leg and upper body stretches with the help of an aid. 

After that, he’ll head to therapy to work on any number of strength exercises, most of which focus on the upper body. Fuentes is working on standing alone by myself, taking steps with a walker and, with the help of a body harness, move his legs.

“I went from curling 50, 60, 70 pounds with a dumbbell to not even being able to curl a two-pounder,” Fuentes said. “It was really disheartening. ... As far as recovery, nobody knows how far I can get back. But I’m working to get back.”

Fuentes, who grew up playing baseball and didn’t pick up football until his family moved to Olean when he was eight years old, has never seen video of the play. Fuentes readily admits he was overcome with a strange feeling just seconds before that kickoff. But even now, after six years of grueling rehabilitation, Fuentes said he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I honestly don’t [have any regrets],” Fuentes said. “If I was 100 percent tomorrow, I might try out for the team again. I love the game. ... I’ve taken that hit thousands of times. Since I was eight years old I’ve been hitting bigger people and doing a pretty good job at it. It’s just something that happened.”

The game of football has been good to the Fuentes family. Julio won his fair share of awards as a standout two-way player at Olean High School and, he’s proud to say, he’s never been on a team that’s had a losing season. His younger brother, Maleke, has been a revelation for the Saxons this season, leading the team in receptions (30) and receiving yards (391) as a true freshman. Maleke also has 236 yards and three TDs on the ground and is the team’s top kick and punt returner.

Julio remembers high-fiving Maleke, who could not be reached for this story, as he came out of the tunnel at Merrill Field for the second half of the Thiel game. The two remain close -- Julio goes to every Alfred home game and most road games within reasonable travel distance, and Maleke will call every other day to talk about life and football. Julio also worked closely with Maleke in football workouts, helping to mold 5-6, 160-pound Maleke into the dynamic playmaker he is now.

Julio has just recently started taking online classes with an eye toward a future in sports psychology, a field that will allow him to help athletes facing similar crossroads. Like his family has helped him through his recovery, Julio hopes he can be a similar inspiration to others.

“The best thing we can do when things like that happen is get people better help afterwards,” Julio said. “Like get the families prepared for stuff like this, because I think that was the most difficult transition.”

Painting the playoff picture

Empire 8

Automatic bid: Salisbury. The Sea Gulls clinched their second straight Empire 8 title and playoff bid with their 63-23 win against Utica on Saturday. Dan Griffin rushed for 142 yards and five touchdowns as Salisbury piled up 564 yards on the ground. When the Sea Gulls have the triple-option attack working to perfection, they are tough to beat. This team again appears poised for a deep playoff run.

Potential Pool C bid(s): None likely. Utica, St. John Fisher, Alfred and Ithaca all enter the final week of the regular season with three losses. This puts them behind teams like Rowan, Lycoming, Bridgewater State and Delaware Valley in contention for a Pool C bid. Don’t expect the Empire 8 to get two teams into the playoff field this season.

NJAC

Automatic bid: Cortland State. The Red Dragons have had the NJAC wrapped up for two weeks now. Their game against William Paterson, originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon, was understandably canceled in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Cortland finishes the regular season with its annual Cortaca Jug battle against Ithaca.

Potential Pool C bid(s): Rowan. The Profs have two losses, but only one against a Division III team (Cortland State). As it stands, Rowan sits atop the Pool C bid contenders in the East. A win against TCNJ in the regular-season finale virtually assures the Profs of a Pool C bid. A loss would complicate things.

Liberty League

Automatic bid: Hobart. The Statesmen took care of business Saturday with a 34-14 win against winless St. Lawrence, clinching the Liberty League’s title and automatic playoff bid. Quarterback Nick Strang accounted for four total TDs and Tyre Coleman and Devin Worthington each tallied two sacks as the Statesmen cruised. Hobart closes the regular season with a home game against Rochester. There’s little reason to think Hobart won’t finish 10-0 and enter the playoffs as one of the top contenders.

Potential Pool C bid(s): None. This wasn’t a particularly strong year for the Liberty League. Union is 5-1 in the conference, and both Springfield and RPI have three losses each. But another true playoff contender never emerged this season.

MAC

Automatic bid: Widener or Delaware Valley. While the other three conferences are, for the most part, set, the MAC is still up in the air. Widener hosts Delaware Valley in the regular-season finale. Widener clinches the automatic bid if it wins. The rest of the breakdown was covered in last week's column.

Potential Pool C bid(s): Widener, Delaware Valley, Lycoming. Here’s where it gets tricky. If Widener loses, it will still get a Pool C bid. Delaware Valley likely won’t be as lucky. The Aggies still rank behind teams like Rowan, Lycoming and Bridgewater State in Pool C criteria. However, Delaware Valley could win by 14, not get the automatic bid and improve its Pool C chances. Lycoming would need a win in its own game, a Widener win and a Rowan loss to best improve its chances. That’s not out of the question, but it’s not ideal either.

Top 25: Widener cracks the top 10

Widener moved into the top 10 in this week’s D3football.com Top 25 poll. The Pride climbed from No. 11 to No. 9, joining Hobart (No. 8) as East teams in the top 10.

Salisbury jumped from No. 16 to No. 11 following its Empire 8 title-clinching rout of Utica. NJAC champion Cortland State rose one spot to No. 19 this week.

Rowan, Delaware Valley and Lycoming each received votes this week.

Quick hits

Aaron Wilmer rushed for two touchdowns and Delaware Valley’s defense forced five sacks and three interceptions in a 23-7 win against Wilkes. ... Casey Kacz tossed two touchdowns, Rich Pete rushed for 170 yards and Buffalo State’s defense forced four turnovers in a season-ending 17-9 win vs. St. John Fisher. Buffalo State finished its first season in the Empire 8 with a 6-4 record, including wins against Cortland State, UW-Whitewater and St. John Fisher. ... Craig Needhammer rushed for 127 yards and a score and Parker Showers added 78 yards and two TDs as Lycoming kept its playoff hopes alive with a 32-7 victory against Stevenson. ... William Merz’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second overtime clinched Montclair State’s wild, come-from-behind 55-49 win against Brockport State. Merz’s return set a school record and tied the NCAA mark. ... Connor Eck passed for 265 yards and three TDs and rushed for another score as Union scored 51 unanswered points to rout Merchant Marine 51-7. ... Joe Enslin threw for 303 yards and three scores and Maleke Fuentes added 182 total yards and two touchdowns in Alfred’s 40-14 rout of Frostburg State. ... Joel Altavesta rushed for 170 yards and one touchdown as Springfield knocked off RPI 42-21. ... Ithaca beat Hartwick 28-7 and, in the process, tied a school record with six interceptions. Brian Garvey tied an Ithaca record with three interceptions, including a fourth-quarter pick he returned four yards for a touchdown. ... Drew Peterson returned a third-quarter punt 47 yards for a touchdown and Ty Hughes rushed for 127 yards and a TD in Albright’s 48-0 win vs. Misericordia. ... Leo Kyte passed for 206 yards and a pair of scores as Lebanon Valley rallied to a 34-19 win over King’s. ... Sean Clark intercepted a pair of passes and helped TCNJ secure a 14-0 win over Morrisville State. ... Dean Kennedy tossed three touchdowns to Ken Apostolakos and the Rochester defense forced seven turnovers in a 42-15 rout of WPI.

Looking ahead

Rowan (6-2, 5-1) needs to beat TCNJ (4-5, 3-4) on the road in Friday night’s (7 p.m.) regular-season finale to keep itself in the Pool C picture. A win likely gets the Profs in. A loss would likely eliminate Rowan from playoff contention.

Nothing is on the line as far as playoff bids are concerned, but when Cortland (7-1, 7-0) hosts Ithaca (6-3, 4-3) at noon Saturday, good football will be played. The annual Cortaca Jug matchup is among the best in Division III football.

The MAC champion (and its accompanying automatic playoff bid) will be on the line when Widener (8-0, 7-0) hosts Delaware Valley (7-2, 7-1) at 1 p.m. Saturday. Widener would nab a Pool C bid if Delaware Valley wins. But the Aggies likely need to win this game to get into the playoff field.

Contact me

I’m always happy to hear from you, whether its questions, feedback or story ideas. Please reach out to me at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com. You can also follow me on Twitter (@andrew_lovell), and be sure to get involved in the discussions on the Around the East thread on the message board.

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Andrew Lovell

Andrew Lovell is an associate news editor for ESPN.com and a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has contributed freelance work to ESPN Rise and has been a regular contributor to D3football.com since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing. A native of Hyde Park, N.Y., Andrew currently resides in New Britain. 

2006-10 columnist: Adam Samrov 

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