- Devon O'Neil, Writer, Action Sports
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E.J. Poplawski answered the phone at 9 a.m. Friday while lying in the bed of his pickup truck. He'd slept there after driving alone from Salt Lake City to Aspen, Colo., on his way to compete in Sunday's adaptive snocross race at Winter X 15, where promise awaited.
Shortly before he began the overnight drive, he sent an e-mail to some 300 people. Its subject line read: "The Whole Story: X Games!! And Hepatitis C!!"
Poplawski, a former big-mountain telemark skier who lost his right leg on a double cliff drop at the 2006 U.S. Extreme Telemark Championships at Crested Butte, isn't here in Aspen to win; in fact, his stated goal is fourth place. That would be one spot higher than last year, when he took fifth in a field of six. "The only guy I beat, his leg fell off," said Poplawski, a carpenter. All four riders ahead of him lapped him.
Poplawski is in Aspen because he convinced the organizers -- begged them, really -- to give him another shot. It wasn't an easy task, not when you're carrying Poplawski's baggage, which has nothing to do with his admission of having hepatitis C.
In August 2010, at approximately 1:15 a.m. on Friday the 13th, according to reports, Poplawski was on his way home from a concert in Salt Lake. He came squealing sideways around a corner two miles from his house when he saw a pair of cops standing outside their vehicle with their lights off. One waved his arms at Poplawski. He tore off toward home.
They didn't chase him, but they got his license plate number. Two minutes later, they showed up at his house. Poplawski was already hiding in his bedroom upstairs. His roommate answered the door, but he didn't know Poplawski was home. A bong sat on the living room table; the cops also found what they later claimed to be two to three pounds of marijuana, though Poplawski believes it was much less and maintains it wasn't his.
The cops asked his roommate for Poplawski but got what they figured was a lie: "He's not here." Complicating matters, they found one of Poplawski's handguns in the driveway next to his truck. They called in the SWAT team.
The standoff lasted six hours. Around 5:30 a.m., the cops threw tear gas into Poplawski's room and shattered his window with rubber pellets. He surrendered at 7:13 a.m., and during a subsequent search, the cops found five more guns (all registered, Poplawski says). Poplawski spent 70 hours in jail and was labeled a drug dealer in news stories on the standoff -- an accusation that is patently untrue, he says.
Today, he calls that experience "the best day of my life" and says it finally woke him from the fog of Jack Daniel's and marijuana that had clouded his life off and on since he lost his leg. He is essentially living on borrowed time: The cops still haven't charged him, but if they do, he stands a realistic chance of going to prison.
"I'm willing to take responsibility and pay the consequences for what I did wrong," says Poplawski, 34. "But I'm not going to take responsibility or go down for what I didn't do. I'll liquidate everything to fight that."
The Winter X Games represent a second chance for Poplawski. The son of a high school English teacher in Rutland, Vt., Poplawski used to think to himself as a kid, 'I hope I don't have a boring life.' His best friend since third grade, two-time North American freeskiing champ Craig Garbiel, recalls Poplawski throwing backflips off 30-foot cliffs in Utah. Another time he watched Poplawski launch an 88-footer in California. "In life in general, E.J.'s a risk taker," Garbiel said.
His friends also call him tough. "I'm not surprised it took two rounds of tear gas to get EJ out of the house," Noah Howell, who makes telemark ski films, told ESPN after Poplawski's arrest. "He's one of the toughest guys I know."
On Crested Butte's ominously named Body Bag steeps back in March 2006, Poplawski was trying to move up from fourth place to the podium in his final run when his ski snapped when he landed a 10-foot drop onto hardpack. He ended up bashing his shin on a three-inch-wide aspen tree, shredding every tendon and ligament in his knee and rupturing the popliteal artery. "I still believe in my mind that I would've won that contest," he says.
Instead, he was airlifted to a hospital in Denver. During the five days Poplawski spent drugged up on morphine, doctors amputated his leg first below the knee then above it. He estimates he woke up 30 times in five days, based on what he's been told. Each time his parents or the doctors would explain that his leg had been amputated. Poplawski would be devastated. Then he'd fall back asleep and forget about it.
When he had finally recovered enough to remain conscious after hearing the news, Poplawski picked up the sheets to see for himself. "He just didn't believe it," said his mother, Barbara. "He kind of motioned me over closer and quietly said, 'Mom, I want to die.'"
But then Poplawski saw a video of a Jarem Frye, an amputee who telemark skis, wakeboards and rock climbs. "Oh, this isn't even close to over," Poplawski thought. "If he can do it, I can do it better." He reached out to Frye, who gave him a prosthetic device to try skiing himself. It was December 2007, nine months after his accident. He was linking turns by his third run.
A few months later, Poplawski visited his doctor and his bloodwork turned up a prostate infection, but also a much more serious problem: He had hepatitis C.
The chance of acquiring hepatitis C -- a chronic liver disease spread by blood-to-blood contact -- from a unit of blood is about one in 2 million. But due to all the surgeries it took to amputate his leg, Poplawski received 10 units, significantly upping his chances. He'll never know for sure, "and at this point it doesn't matter," he says, but he's convinced he contracted the virus during those transfusions. Otherwise, he contends, it would've shown up when he initially hurt his leg.
With the diagnosis came a warning from Poplawski's doctor: Don't tell anyone you have this disease. You'll be shunned, treated as an outcast. Taking the doctor's word, he told his family and closest friends, but no one else.
Poplawski initially quit drinking and smoking marijuana, which he said he'd been doing since he was 12 and 15, respectively. But hepatitis C has a way of pushing you into a cave, and when Poplawski found himself there all too often, he couldn't help himself. He began consuming up to a case of beer a day, he says, smoking $100 worth of marijuana each week.
Poplawski was angry, confused and scared. He began buying guns: three pistols, a shotgun and two rifles. "After I lost my leg I was really worried about safety," he says. "I've never been in a fight, I wouldn't know how to fight. But I can't run and if my leg's not on, then I can't even walk away. I can hop like a bunny rabbit. I got the guns for self protection, but also for survival. If our society collapses and you have a gun, you can survive."
"He's very concerned about our world, and he's very depressed about it, too," says his mother. "He doesn't trust the government."
Poplawski, who graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, found a brief reprieve when he talked his way into Winter X Games last year, an occasion that gave him hope. But once it was over, after the high had faded, he went right back to marijuana and alcohol. It culminated with the high-profile police incident at his split-level Cottonwood Heights ranch.
The fateful morning of Aug. 13, Poplawski says, was a lapse in judgment, not a violent standoff as it's been depicted. "I wasn't being true to who I really am," he says.
In 2009, Poplawski had been too depressed to fly home for Christmas, but this past December he wanted to be with his family. While he was in Vermont, he bought 20 pints of pure maple syrup. He handed them out one by one to his neighbors back in Salt Lake, his way of apologizing for being an embarrassment.
"He wants to make amends," his mother says, referring to not just the people who know him but also with himself. Getting invited back to the Winter X Games was a victory on its own, because it showed Poplawski that others can forgive him. He wants only that much.
Sitting in the Winter X athletes' lounge Friday morning, Poplawski expressed remorse time and again. Sending the e-mail Thursday night and granting this interview went against the advice of his attorney, he said. "But I felt like it's the truth, and I am at peace with it," he said.
"I'd like to do well [at Winter X], but it doesn't matter. Just the fact that I've been given the opportunity to come back and be here, that's all that matters."