Spradling puts accident in the past

Stephen Spradling was a member of FSU's skydiving club and had completed over 150 jumps before his accident. Courtesy of Spradling family

The video was meant to be a memento.

In it, Florida State outfielder Stephen Spradling emerges from a wheelchair and grabs hold of a carefully placed walker. He moves tentatively, but with confidence.

Seventy-six days after Spradling jumped from an airplane and changed his life forever, those short, deliberate steps were a turning point, but he hasn't watched the video since.

"I try to keep moving forward," the 23-year-old Spradling said. "It's not fun to look back."

Spradling's progress has been nothing short of remarkable. Those careful steps have given way to a confident stride, free of the walker or crutches. Once bedridden and in constant pain, he's now back in school and close to completing his degree. The videos he records now feature inspirational messages he sends to teammates back in Tallahassee, Fla.

But as the Seminoles prepare for their sixth straight appearance in the NCAA Super Regionals, Spradling can't help but consider what he lost.

"I love watching the guys, but I wish I could be there," Spradling said. "This is my team, and it's been tough."

In just 58 trips to the plate last season, Spradling was hit by a pitch 12 times. It's an absurd stat that he doesn't find the least bit surprising. The object is to get on base and he's never been picky about how he gets the job done.

"I don't know if it's that fear thing that I don't have," Spradling said, "but if someone throws a pitch at me, my instinct was to let it hit me."

That philosophy is engrained in Spradling's DNA. The opportunity always supersedes the risk, so he's never shied away from taking chances. When his older brother, Matt, challenged him to jump off the roof with an umbrella after watching "Mary Poppins" as a boy, Spradling did it.

Growing up, the brothers were inseparable, and the bulk of their time was spent seeking a thrill -- from surfing and rock climbing to diving and spear fishing. Matt was often the voice of reason, offering words of caution in advance. Stephen would quickly shove aside the warnings and dive headfirst into the next adventure. There were ample scrapes and scars and broken bones. Once, after he cut open his hand in a wakeboarding mishap, Spradling's mother found him in the closet with her sewing kit, attempting to close the wound on his own.

"She knew she had her hands full with us," Spradling said.

If Spradling's flair for the dramatic proved stressful for his parents, it quickly endeared him to teammates at Florida State. In the clubhouse, he was outgoing, enthusiastic and quick with a joke. He hosted Bible study nights with teammates, and he was a constant source of optimism regardless of the circumstances. When last year's team made a surprise trip to the College World Series, coach Mike Martin credited the group's success to its unique chemistry. Spradling was at the center of it all.

"He's definitely an extreme guy, but that's why everyone loves him," pitcher Gage Smith said.

As Spradling's senior season approached, he was eager to embrace the role again. He was going to be a leader on a team that had College World Series aspirations, and he reveled in the opportunity to finish his career as a part of a winner.

At home during winter break, he was making big plans as well. In typical fashion, he wanted his proposal to girlfriend Brittany Murray to be an adventure. On Christmas Eve, an elaborate scavenger hunt began. It ended on a hotel balcony overlooking the beach, where Spradling was waiting with the ring.

"Everything was great," Spradling said, "and then the accident happened, and so much changed. All the plans had to be put on hold because of something stupid that I did."

Spradling's first skydiving trip was a covert affair. He and Matt worked to keep their plans from their mother, but en route to the jump site, she called. She was upset, and she urged Stephen to reconsider, but his mind was made up. A few minutes after they hung up the phone, she sent Spradling a text that read, "I love you. Be careful."

The jump went perfectly, and from the moment his feet touched the ground, Spradling was hooked. During the next two years, Spradling earned his license, joined the FSU skydiving club, made more than 150 jumps and even began training in a wind tunnel to perform more difficult maneuvers. Even his mother's initial concerns dissipated as her boys made skydiving a routine activity, and when Spradling set aside the engagement celebration for a jump in late December, there were no objections from family.

It was windy when Spradling and his brother arrived at the jump site in Sebastian, Fla., on Dec. 30, but they'd managed similar conditions before without a problem. Still, something felt off, and both Stephen and Matt considered abandoning the jump.

After a few hours, however, the wind died down, and Spradling's typical zealous determination returned. Matt protested, but Stephen's mind was made up. They packed their gear, boarded the plane and took off. Spradling still couldn't shake the nerves, but he said a prayer as he did before every jump, and a few moments later, he leaped from the plane along with his brother and 30 other jumpers.

The free-fall portion of the jump went smoothly, and when Spradling pulled his chute and made his initial approach toward the drop zone, the nerves that had weighed on his mind were a distant memory. As Spradling floated a few hundred feet from the ground, however, another jumper crossed into his flight path, and in an instant, the situation became dire.

"If you have a canopy collision that low to the ground, usually that results in two fatalities," said fellow FSU skydiver Daniel Hacker, who was part of Spradling's jump group.

Spradling immediately decided to make an evasive maneuver, pulling hard to the left to avoid a collision. A gradual turn allows the canopy to right itself in time for a smooth landing, but Spradling's sudden shift sent him into a dive. A hundred feet up, he was picking up speed and staring straight at the ground.

The rest of the fall was a blur. Matt saw the impact and estimated Stephen bounced 50 feet along the ground. He guessed Stephen was dead.

On the ground, Spradling was awake and in unimaginable pain.

"I tried to push myself up, and I just felt my lower body disconnect from me," he said.

Spradling reached toward the source of the pain and felt a bulge protruding from his lower back.

His thoughts were clear, but scattered. He was alive, that much he knew. He could wiggle his toes, another good sign. He thought of his fiancée and wondered if he'd ever be able to walk down the aisle. He thought too about baseball. A doctor and paramedic at the jump site immediately ran to Spradling's aid.

"They took me to the hospital, and I remember being in so much pain and trying not to think about it," Spradling said. "I was having a conversation with the ambulance guy about his job and how he got it. It was crazy."

Spradling was taken to nearby Holmes Medical Center and immediately given heavy doses of painkillers. The next few days were a fog of doctors, needles and chaos.

His family arrived fearing the worst, but the initial news offered some encouragement. Spradling would survive, and he wasn't paralyzed, but the damage was extensive. There was severe internal bleeding that an initial surgery would reveal to be from a torn bladder. The front of his pelvis was broken and had shifted up and back in his body. The back of his pelvis was broken, too, along with a bone in his lower back and several ribs. He damaged his knee and shoulder as well.

"It seemed like something else was broken every time the doctor came in and talked to me," Spradling said.

Throughout the next week, Spradling underwent a myriad of procedures. When he was awake, he was in unbearable pain, reliving the accident again and again.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Why did I go?'" Spradling said. "I had so many signs telling me it wasn't a good time to jump, and still I kept going."

Those first few weeks in the hospital were the worst of his life, he said, but family and friends and his faith carried him through.

"I remember waking up with my fiancée's hand in mind and seeing her look at me and give me a smile," Spradling said. "I tried to smile back, and then I'd be out. I'd wake back up hours later, and she'd still be holding my hand."

Messages from teammates flooded Spradling's cell phone, but it took weeks before he could return them. Still, he thought about baseball often. Assistant coach Mike Martin Jr. was in Miami soon after the accident, and he was among the first to visit. Spradling's first words were, "I'm sorry." It's the same thing he told each of his teammates.

"He felt like he let the team down," Smith said. "That's just the kind of guy he is."

It was baseball that helped Spradling escape the hospital. Although his lower body was in shambles, all the training he'd done to prepare for the season meant his upper body was strong, and doctors cleared him for release without the usual weeks of painstaking preparation for the grueling rehabilitation ahead.

Once home, he was helpless. Simple tasks like brushing his teeth or eating required assistance. He was taking Oxycontin to dull the pain, but it made him groggy and nauseous. He couldn't watch TV for more than a few minutes without getting sick.

Still he moved forward. The limited progress utterly frustrated Spradling, but his friends and family celebrated each small step.

"To me, it was like, 'This is it? This is all I can do?'" Spradling said. "To them, it was progress. They kept me motivated, kept me positive."

After a few weeks, Spradling weaned himself off the pain medicine. He wanted to know how his body really felt. Doctors cleared him to begin rehab in a pool, where he could stand in chest-high water. At first it was difficult to balance, and standing for the first time in months felt entirely foreign, but Spradling was ecstatic.

From there, progress came quickly. When doctors told him he could do more, he pushed his body to its limit. He cracked a pin doctors had inserted in his pelvis, and he loosened scar tissue that resulted in more bladder troubles.

"You know you're working hard when you're urinating blood," Spradling said.

But once Spradling tasted success, he wanted more. By mid-March, he'd recorded the video of his first steps. By April, walking felt normal again. By the end of May, he was jogging.

"Every painful step was a happy step," he said.

Just 11 credits shy of his degree in geology, Spradling is taking classes again near his parents' home. After graduation, he hopes to work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Spradling also wants to talk about his experience. There is no joy in reliving the painful months that followed the accident, but his progress can offer hope to others.

A few weeks ago, Spradling got a message from an old friend who'd been paralyzed in a skin boarding accident years earlier. The message said he'd finally begun to make small movements after years of struggle, and Spradling's recovery had inspired him to work for more. Spradling gets choked up at the thought.

In Tallahassee, Spradling's progress has been a rallying cry, too. Because of NCAA rules, his name can no longer appear on Florida State's roster, but his locker remains intact in the front of the clubhouse, a shrine to what a player can accomplish with faith and determination.

"This guy has gone through so much more than I have, and he's got the highest spirits of anybody I know," Smith said. "It puts things in perspective."

On March 22, Spradling made his return to Dick Howser Stadium for FSU's series against Georgia Tech, walking into the locker room he once called home for the first time in months. It was a defining moment for both Spradling and his team.

"One of the loudest eruptions we've had in that clubhouse was when he walked in for the first time," Martin Jr. said. "It was a big lift for all of us."

Spradling sat in on the hitters' meeting, as if he were in that night's lineup. He mingled with teammates and, after so much time away, he felt like he belonged. During the game, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

"To go to that game, to see my team, to have all these people I respect give me an ovation," Spradling said, "it was one of the greatest experiences I've had."

Spradling is often asked if he'll play baseball again, and it's a difficult question for him to answer. The past few weeks have been filled with mixed emotions; he was glued to his computer last weekend, watching Florida State sweep through regionals. He's planning to make the 430-mile trip to Tallahassee for this weekend's series against Indiana. Still, this experience has drawn a clear line of distinction between his love for the game and his appreciation for all the people in his life who have carried him through the past few months.

That's the most surprising part of Spradling's recovery. After all the pain and frustration, the setbacks and triumphs, and in spite of all he's missed, he feels good. He's closer to his family. His bond with his fiancée is stronger. His faith was burnished.

"I don't want to say it because of how bad it was, but where I am now, it was worth it," Spradling said. "I've realized how blessed I am -- to be able to walk and have a family and a fiancée. When you think about it, life is good."

Looking back just enough to keep moving forward.