It happened 10 years ago tonight, but the event and the 27-month ordeal that followed still haunt Curtima Hearn.
Her cousin, Travis Hearn, suffered a severe neck injury in a 2006 high school football game that made him a paraplegic and ultimately took his life. Curtima had helped take care of Travis when he was a baby and became his legal guardian and power of attorney at the end.
Her emotional wounds haven’t healed. Maybe they never will.
“Every day, he’s there," she says. “I spent a lot of time taking care of him. I was the one who walked him down the aisle at the (high school) graduation ceremonies.
“It’s a lot to handle. He was so young and had a lot of life in him."
The memories for former Rock Island High School football coach Vic Boblett also remain painfully vivid.
He was coaching his team against rival Alleman at Augustana’s Ericson Field on that Sept. 22 night, and his players were running down to cover a punt with a few minutes remaining in the first half. Hearn, a junior running back, was involved in a helmet-to-helmet collision, and when everyone else climbed to their feet, Hearn was left prone on the field.
“It was pretty obvious to me that it was a situation we really needed to handle carefully because there was the possibility that it was a neck injury,’’ Boblett says. “Thank goodness Dr. (Thomas) VonGillern was right there on the sidelines with us and was out there immediately. But you knew it was a serious situation."
It was extremely serious, the worst injury Boblett says he saw in more than four decades as a player and coach.
Hearn had sustained a broken neck and major spinal cord damage.
In the weeks and months that followed, it became apparent that a 17-year-old who Boblett described as having a “bubbly’’ personality never would regain the use of his arms and legs.
Hearn initially was treated at Trinity Rock Island, then spent time at Kindred Hospital in Sycamore, Illinois, before getting four months of specialized care at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. He underwent physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy, learned how to operate a wheelchair and computer with voice commands and eye movements and had tutors help him keep up on his school work.
He didn’t come home to the Quad-Cities until March, and even then, he required round-the-clock care. In addition to the paralysis, he had trouble with his kidneys, his bladder, his lungs, blood clots and muscle spasms.
“I’m not mad at the game, just the situation, the outcome," his mother, Colleen Stovall, said at the time. “I’m not mad. I’m just hurt by the outcome."
Hearn himself noted in a 2008 interview with the Quad-City Times that he had gone through some ups and downs emotionally.
“My attitude toward life? I have been down at times. Yeah, I have been down," he said. “But I think of it just as a normal person. Life goes up and down. You have changes in it. Some changes are good, and some changes are bad.
“This is me now, and I have to live with it."
Much of the day-to-day care that Hearn required was handled by Curtima Hearn, who was 10 years older and a registered nurse. She says he handled it as well as could be expected.
“He definitely was just a great kid," Curtima recalls. “He just had a great personality."
Boblett visited Hearn every day, and at one time or another, almost every Rock Island football player did the same.
But they weren’t the only ones who lent their support. The entire Quad-City community stepped forward, as did many from outside the area.
“It was a terrible, terrible situation, but it was also heartwarming to see how a community can rally around one of their young people," Boblett says now.
Members of the Moline High School football team, Rock Island’s most bitter rival, put red and gold stickers with Hearn’s jersey number (41) on their helmets and raised close to $10,000 within two weeks after the injury occurred.
Moline coach Joel Ryser, an art teacher, painted a Moline logo on a football and took it to Hearn in the hospital, telling him the team’s thoughts and prayers were with him.
At least one NFL team and several high school and college football programs throughout Illinois made monetary donations.
Chris Anthony, a former Pleasant Valley and Iowa State player who became an arena football star with the Quad-City Steamwheelers, began a nonprofit organization called SpineLife and developed a website, StandWithTravis.com, to raise money for Hearn. Anthony, who went on to attend medical school, raised more than $20,000 by selling Stand With Travis T-shirts.
Teenage golf star Michelle Wie, who had played in the John Deere Classic the previous two years, wrote a check for $25,000.
Former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka came to the Quad-Cities to speak at a special fundraiser.
Smaller fundraising events were held at schools all over the area.
All of it went into the Travis Hearn Benefit Fund.
“There were even people that made anonymous donations that are high-profile people that preferred that it not be made in public or made aware to the public," Boblett says. “They just wanted to help the situation."
Hearn’s family had no health insurance, and the insurance provided to athletes by the high school paid for very little. The money that was raised not only helped pay for what Medicaid did not cover, but it also funded construction of a special, handicapped-accessible home built for the family by Habitat for Humanity.
In a mind-boggling display of community support, as 1,300 volunteers turned out and built the house on 8th Street in Rock Island in a single day on May 23, 2007.
Hearn was able to attend school only for partial days here and there, but he went on to graduate from Rock Island in June 2008. It was a triumphant moment, a victory not only over academic obstacles but over his own emotions.
As he was wheeled to the stage to accept his diploma, he received a standing ovation.
“It means a lot to him," Colleen Stovall said at the time, “because there were times when he thought, ‘Wow, it is basically over for me because I’ve got to lay here, and I can’t move anything anymore. Now what?’"
It would be great to say the story had a happy ending, that everyone lived happily ever after.
It didn’t work out that way.
Hearn spoke about possibly attending college, but within two months after graduating high school, he was experiencing pain and other issues and was hospitalized on July 25. He was transferred to a nursing home around Sept. 1.
There were media reports at the time that Travis lost the ability to communicate, but Curtima Hearn says that wasn’t entirely true.
“When he went to the nursing home, they didn’t know how to handle his ventilator," she says. “He still was able to talk, but because they had trouble with the ventilator, they limited his talking."
Curtima says she began to get a bad feeling at that point.
“Once he was in the nursing home and they took away his ability to speak, I knew it wouldn’t be long," she says. “I thought eventually he would just give up."
On Dec. 4, 2008, Travis Hearn died at the age of 19.
The Habitat for Humanity house, custom-built for someone with disabilities, was passed on to the family of Cecilia Padilla, a 4-year-old who suffered from spina bifida and osteoporosis and used a wheelchair after undergoing 15 surgeries. The family still lives there.
Hearn hasn’t been forgotten. Not by Curtima Hearn. Not by anyone who knew him.
Colleen Stovall commemorated what would have been her son’s 27th birthday a few weeks ago on Facebook with a photo of Travis and pictures of his gravesite and a birthday cake.
A subsequent Facebook post includes a poem and the words “I love and miss you, Son."
Boblett prefers to remember the good things that came out of one man’s tragedy.
“I think the thing I remember most is just the spirit of Travis and how he lived life to its fullest," he says. “And the other thing I remember is that after it occurred, how the community responded to those circumstances and rallied around the family and did what we could to try to make the situation better.
“It brought out the best in everyone."