'I've been through a long journey'
Chad Jones and family reflect on the year that followed his life-altering car crash
On the eve of the first anniversary of a gruesome car wreck that nearly took his life, Chad Jones had his head buried in a playbook.
The New York Giants safety spent Friday night drawing up plays with his brother, Rahim Alem, for youngsters who will attend Jones' first football camp next month. On Saturday, the anniversary of the accident that mangled his left leg, Jones spoke to high school kids at a Louisiana football camp.
"We have been so busy," said Jade Newman, Jones' girlfriend. "He didn't even think about it being one year since the accident. He has just been moving and focusing and has been so determined. I'm just so happy he is still here."
Though Jones still has a long way to go before playing again, he hopes that by next summer he will at least be training with his Giants teammates, resuming a career that was put on hold when he lost control of his Range Rover and slammed into a light pole.
During that single-automobile crash in New Orleans -- two months after the Giants had drafted Jones in the third round -- the axle of his SUV snapped, scraping flesh off his heel and taking out "a big chunk of meat out of my thigh like it was Jell-O."
Jones, 22, has undergone more than a dozen surgeries and still needs at least one more -- and perhaps a few more minor procedures -- as his leg and a peroneal nerve continue to heal. He has a metal rod through his shin, with two screws near his ankle and two screws under his kneecap.
He still wears a soft boot on his left foot because of periodic swelling, but he's running at 12 miles per hour on an AlterG anti-gravity treadmill and hopes to start running 40-yard dashes this fall.
Just learning how to stand, walk and jog again has taken a physical and emotional toll on Jones. There have been countless tears of pain and frustration and spells of minor depression through a grueling rehab.
But like the fractured bones in his surgically repaired leg, Jones' resolve to play football again strengthens with each month.
"It's never taken me six months to do anything, not one single thing," said Jones, who won national championships in football and baseball at LSU. "[But] it took me six months just to basically walk. It took me 30 minutes to take three steps when I first started rehab in the hospital. It was excruciating pain just even standing up and letting that blood flow again through my leg.
"I am definitely about 70 percent better," Jones continued. "There was talk of me not even being able to walk again and now I am actually jogging. I've been through a long journey."
'It really looked like he was dead'
Early on the morning of June 25, 2010, Jones was leaving a friend's apartment.
Jones, with two passengers in his vehicle, made a left turn onto North Carrollton Avenue. When the front left tire of his 2010 Range Rover got stuck in the groove of street-car tracks, Jones lost control of the SUV as it hurtled straight for a median and a light pole.
"Right as I hit the pole, you freeze," recalled Jones, who was wearing his seat belt at the time of the accident. "I closed my eyes and I just heard, 'Boom!'"
When Jones opened his eyes, he saw that his girlfriend's brother, Robert Newman -- who has been sitting in the backseat -- was next to him. The crash had sent Robert flying to the front seat.
Another friend, Mike Mansion, had his seat belt on in the passenger seat and was fine -- until he saw Jones' left leg gushing blood. Mansion told Jones that it looked bad before passing out.
Jones called his girlfriend around 6 a.m., screaming in pain. Jade Newman, half-awake, couldn't understand a thing and hung up, thinking the playful Jones was joking around. Her brother, who escaped the accident without injury, then called and told her to come quickly because Jones was hurt badly.
Newman grabbed her 2-year-old son, Chad Jr., and drove to the crash site where she saw Jones, eyes closed, sitting in the passenger seat with his head resting back on the seat. His body appeared lifeless as paramedics, the fire department and police department attempted to extract him from the mangled SUV with the Jaws of Life.
"Honestly, it really looked like he was dead," said Newman, who still gets emotional as she recounts that morning. "It was just a disaster. That was the most terrifying moment of my life."
Jones, who was conscious the entire time as paramedics couldn't sedate him due to his blood pressure, was eventually extracted from the vehicle within about half an hour.
"The pain was terrible like the worst thing ever," Jones said. "Then it just turned numb."
Al Jones, the safety's father, was with his wife, Patti, in Fort Worth, Texas, when Jade Newman called to tell him that Chad was in an accident. Shortly after that, an old neighbor -- a New Orleans police officer who just happened to respond to the crash -- called to tell Al Jones he was with his son. (New Orleans police cited Chad Jones with careless operation of a vehicle and ruled that alcohol was not a factor in the crash.)
This was the first of many calls from friends who were in position to help or keep the family informed. Al Jones, the principal at Cohen High School in New Orleans, knew one of the EMS workers on the scene. The supervisor of the fire department crew that responded to the accident was one of Chad Jones' former Little League coaches. Al Jones' cousin is an anesthesiologist at the LSU Public Hospital, where the safety was rushed.
"It was as if I had angels watching over me at the time," Chad Jones said.
After hearing from Newman, Al and Patti Jones rushed into their car for the longest drive of their lives.
"All we can do is be there when he opens his eyes," Al Jones said to comfort a hysterical Patti.
Jade Newman rode in the ambulance with Chad, her high school sweetheart.
"He was screaming and screaming," she said. "We got to the hospital and I didn't see him until 6 that evening, when he came out of surgery."
For the next 10 hours, doctors scrambled to save Jones' foot and leg. His tibia and fibula were shattered. His heel was fractured and skin was peeled from the leg. Shrapnel and debris from the broken axle were embedded in his leg, and he had suffered artery and nerve damage.
Doctors had to transplant a vein from Jones' right leg into his left shin because he had severed an artery and blood was not flowing to his foot.
By the time Al and Patti Jones arrived at the hospital, their son was out of surgery but not out of the woods.
"I lost 25 pints of blood [overall]," Jones said.
Shortly after, the Giants transported their third-round pick to New York, where he underwent a dozen surgeries, including orthopedic, plastic and vascular procedures.
Jones was in New York for a month. Newman had to encourage him and reassure him that everything would work out, just so he could gain the mental strength to try to stand for therapists daily during his initial rehab.
"I would have to drill it in his head every night to actually make him stand up and work with the physical therapist the next day," said Newman, who has been with Jones for eight years and has cared for him every day since the accident. "He was really upset. He didn't want to talk about it. He was crying every other day, 'I can't do this physical therapy, this is not good.'
"It was really hard and it is still hard on me," added Newman, who is planning to marry Jones in 2013. "I love him and there is no other place I'd rather be, but it's really hard because he has never lived like this. There's never been a break, always football and baseball, and for him to deal with this is the worst thing. He can get real frustrated."
Peaks and valleys
Newman didn't want Jones to see her snap. She has been his rock. But when the two returned to their home in New Orleans, Newman finally broke down.
The couple had moved into their house just prior to the accident, so when they returned to Louisiana in early August, there were still several unpacked boxes and bags.
While searching for something for Jones to wear to church -- his leg was too swollen to wear pants -- Newman stumbled upon a white bag filled with the clothes Jones wore the morning of the accident.
Black jeans, a black-and-white shirt, a belt and one tennis shoe that had been cut open were all covered in blood.
"You could smell the blood," she said. "That was the first moment that he saw me cry. I turned around and realized he was looking at me and he was crying.
"That was the worst. That was when it really, really impacted us."
Sports came easy to Jones. At LSU, he was a star safety and electric returner who also pitched and played in the outfield for the baseball team. The Houston Astros selected him in the 13th round of the 2007 baseball draft.
Now, walking was the hardest thing Jones ever had to do.
He had a fist-sized wound in his left heel deep enough to reveal tendon and muscle. After it got infected, Jones had to have an IV in his arm that went to his heart for 24 hours a day for nearly two months.
His leg swelled to twice the size of his right leg. The only things that seemed bigger were his pride and stubbornness, which mostly benefited him during his grueling rehab.
Under the supervision of physical therapist John Moran and with Newman recording everything on video, Jones had to take painstaking baby steps. He rehabbed vigorously in the pool at Eli Manning's high school (Isidore Newman) and at a Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans.
In early October, Jones took his first public steps without a crutch before a standing ovation from 92,000 fans at an LSU-Tennessee game.
But Jones' patience waned soon after. Mentally burned out from the daily rehab grind and frustrated by what he perceives as slow progress, Jones takes two to three weeks off from time to time.
"Chad's gone through some rough times mentally during this process," said Moran, who has helped a triathlete recover from similar injuries at Southern Orthopaedic Specialists. "He hits these plateaus where he gets depressed. It kind of lets him mentally regroup and then he comes back that much stronger. It's almost like his body needs that rest."
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Jones began jogging on a treadmill with a boot on. From there, he did some light movement and agility and balance training outside.
Jones has worked on his upper body while going through football-specific drills. The wound on his heel finally healed by March and he began using the AlterG treadmill -- technology developed by NASA which allows a person to run with less gravity, which decreases the weight on Jones' left leg. Wearing a soft, Velcro boot, he is able to run at 12 mph for 30-second to one-minute intervals.
"It's a beautiful thing when he is on that treadmill," Al Jones said. "It shows progress. But he still has a long way to go."
The goal: 2012
Jones can now bend his left knee with about 90 percent range of motion. His ankle, which suffered nerve damage, has gained about 50 percent range of motion. Moran says Jones can pull his foot back and press it down as if pressing on a gas pedal.
He hopes Jones will begin running 40-yard dashes and regain 100 percent motion in the knee and ankle by this fall. He also wants Jones to continue his rehab at an intense performance training center -- like the one the Giants have in New Jersey -- and be around elite athletes again.
"I feel that if he continues on this route, he can definitely be in summer training next year," Moran said of returning to football. "My goal is to have him run on the field in New York in the 2012 football season."
Jones is waiting for the lockout to end so he can meet with Giants physicians and eventually undergo another surgery, which doctors wanted to wait to do sometime after the anniversary of the accident.
He does not know what the Giants' plans are for him. Before the accident, Jones signed a four-year, $2.6 million deal which included an $825,965 signing bonus. He was allowed to keep the bonus.
The 6-foot-2, 235-pound Jones is so focused on returning to football that he has even contemplated switching to linebacker if he doesn't regain his 4.5 speed, or is unable to play safety, the position he plans on playing. Prior to the accident, Giants coaches sometimes mentioned how he had a linebacker's size.
Jones has made it through the first year after the accident and believes he will only get stronger.
"[The one-year anniversary] shows me where I'm at with a year's worth of progress," Jones said. "It gives me motivation just to fight back because I almost passed away in the car and I'm just thankful for being alive for another year.
"I've been through many obstacles in my life and I have conquered all of them. And I am not going to treat this any differently."
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