Small steps are a big deal

A year after injury, Trinity's Coffey vows to play again



By Chase Goodbread
Times-Union sports writer

It's the size of the steps -- perhaps more than the steps themselves -- that keep the people around Brandon Coffey in awe.

Twelve months ago, Coffey was a standout for the Trinity Christian baseball team. He led the team and the city in batting with a .566 average, and he was preparing for the postseason.

He was also an avid motocross racer. Between the regular season and the start of the playoffs, Coffey took part in a late-April race in Plant City. He crashed -- and didn't get up. Coffey sustained a crushed fifth vertebra that left him paralyzed and required surgery. The accident permanently changed his life, or at least his outlook on it.

Since then he has improved steadily and maintained a stoic but positive attitude.

"Never once has he complained about his situation or asked, 'Why me?'" said Conquerors coach Bobby Forsyth. "He doesn't want any sympathy, and he's still making strides physically. I know I couldn't handle it as well as he has."

Coffey has acted as a volunteer hitting assistant for Trinity, which plays host to Hilliard today in a District 7-2A semifinal. The winner earns a spot in the state playoffs as well as the district championship game Thursday night. While a victory for the team is his short-term goal, he has two bigger long-term goals.



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-- Bruce Lipsky/Staff

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The senior intends not only to walk again, but also to play baseball.

He talks about continuing his rehabilitation while attending Florida Community College at Jacksonville for two years. Then he wants to walk on as a player at the University of Florida. And there isn't a shred of doubt in his voice.

"This thing ain't over until I'm playing ball again," Coffey said.

But the steps have been small.

"First, it was just rolling over," Coffey said of the first stage of his rehabilitation process. "I would get on a mat and use whatever muscles I could find that would do anything."

Coffey underwent two months of rehab in an Atlanta hospital before he returned home to Jacksonville during the summer. In September, Coffey spent two weeks standing with the help of parallel bars before he tried to take a step.



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Brandon Coffey, 18, (left) shouts encouragement to Joey Wedner and his Trinity Chirstian High School, Jacksonville, Florida, baseball teammates as they take the field for practice Thursday.
-- Bruce Lipsky/Staff

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A small step.

Wolfson shortstop Randy Gainey, one of Coffey's close friends, saw some of his struggles. The pair made up Trinity Christian's starting middle infield last season, and Gainey replaced Coffey as Trinity's shortstop after the injury.

Gainey traveled to Tampa with the rest of the Conquerors to visit Coffey just after the accident. When Coffey was transferred to Atlanta, Gainey visited him there, too.

"At that time, he was still just trying to lift an arm over his head, so it was hard to see him that way," Gainey said. "But he's kept a strong will. I couldn't understand how he could handle it so well mentally, because before he was always the type that couldn't sit still very long."

Coffey's motor skills have improved. Perhaps his most important breakthrough came in September when, while at a friend's house, he was able to extend his right leg slightly. The ability to do the same with the left one soon followed.

The small steps, over the last 12 months, have begun to add up.

"One day, I got a finger to move," he said. "And then I started working another one, then another. Now I'm still trying to get a couple of them to come around, but I can pretty much work them all."

Coffey knows that people with spinal cord injuries have a finite span of time in which improvement takes place, but he said doctors have not told him what time frame he should expect. Coffey said some patients have continued to improve 10 or more years after similar injuries.

At home, Coffey has a suit that helps stimulate his muscles and a machine for extra rehab. Three times a week, he has therapy sessions that are now focused on enabling him to walk again. He began this stage of his rehabilitation process by walking with the help of parallel bars. He then moved from the parallel bars to a walker. In his first attempt, he walked 85 feet.

"You just keep working, and every so often something else comes back," Coffey said. "And that's what keeps you going until something new comes back."

And he knows it will be something small, but still something priceless.

Staff writer Chase Goodbread can be reached at (904) 359-4603, or via e-mail at cgoodbreadjacksonville.com.


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