Dawgs key in Jacobs' recovery
Ten years after stroke during practice, former Georgia DL reflects on decade of lessons
ATHENS, Ga. -- The final player out of the tunnel received the loudest roars when Georgia's football team celebrated senior day in 2002.
He hadn't played a down that season. He never would play football again.
All David Jacobs wanted on that November afternoon was to put on his No. 99 jersey and run onto the Sanford Stadium turf one final time with his fellow Bulldogs seniors.
Barely more than a year earlier, it was unclear whether Jacobs even would survive. The junior defensive lineman, who was considered a surefire NFL prospect, suffered a stroke after practice on Nov. 14, 2001 -- a tragedy that shook the foundation of a Georgia program led by rookie head coach Mark Richt.
But on Nov. 30, 2002 -- when the Bulldogs would follow Jacobs' emotional pregame entrance with a 51-7 destruction of rival Georgia Tech -- he wore full pads and jogged to midfield to meet Richt and the Jacobs family as a thunderous standing ovation echoed through Sanford Stadium.
Regularly guarded in conversations with the media, Richt displays surprisingly raw emotions when discussing Jacobs. The initial fear, anger and confusion -- all of it floods back when Richt discusses the ordeal, replacing his usual placid demeanor.
The response, he said, is born of thankfulness more than sorrow.
Ten years after Jacobs nearly lost his life at football practice, Richt now views his former player's path to a successful adulthood as one of the great stories from his tenure as Georgia's coach.
'He just wasn't himself'
Nobody can pinpoint the initial cause of Jacobs' stroke, but a midweek practice collision finally triggered it.
Jacobs started the Bulldogs' first eight games in 2001, but the 21-year-old redshirt junior knew something wasn't quite right after a particularly hard-hitting game against Auburn on Nov. 10.
He felt dehydrated afterward, but intravenous fluids didn't solve the problem. He was unable to practice Monday or Tuesday, as the Bulldogs prepared to face Ole Miss that weekend.
"David came home from the game on Saturday, and he just wasn't himself," recalled Desiree Jacobs, who was then his girlfriend. "Literally the next day, he was just sitting in the room. He wouldn't turn the lights on. He just was really out of it and he kept complaining about how his head hurt."
"I remember in the middle of practice, a scout team player hit me, and my whole right side went numb," Jacobs said. "I remember thinking, 'I've got to go to the hospital.' "
Technically speaking, Jacobs suffered a vertebral artery occlusion caused by a blow to the head that made his neck whip violently. The injury damaged the lining in the vertebral artery, one of the major blood supplies to the brain.
Eventually a blood clot developed, broke loose and halted the blood flow to his brain.
"He came in complaining of numbness and tingling in one arm and one leg. That's not your typical presentation for the injuries that we see in football," said Ron Courson, Georgia's director of sports medicine. "We were getting ready to take him over to the hospital and do some diagnostic tests. He was actually sitting in the training room telling jokes and threw a clot and was immediately unconscious and unresponsive -- quit breathing."
Courson's training staff revived Jacobs with emergency procedures before EMS arrived to take him to St. Mary's Hospital in Athens.
"It was evident at that point that he had a stroke," Courson said. "The right side of his body was affected, arm and leg, he lost the ability to speak."
'Twenty-four hours to live'
Jacobs remembers being in the hospital, but his recollections are somewhat hazy.
"The only thing I remember from being in St. Mary's is they're doing a CAT scan on me, then all of a sudden I guess they couldn't, because I'm panicking," Jacobs said. "I was out there playing football, I was giving my effort, I was giving my best every day. And now I'm here fighting for my life or whatever, so they had to sedate me."
Jacobs floated in and out of consciousness as doctors determined their next step -- while also informing his family that he might not survive.
"I remember the doctor shining lights in my eyes telling my grandparents and my family that I've only got 24 hours to live due to the fact if it gets worse, the type of surgery that they're going to have to give me, only 2 percent to 3 percent of the people make it up out of there," he said. "Fortunately I didn't have to get that type of surgery. That's why I'm still here today."
“As they learned of what happened, members of the coaching staff and the Georgia athletics family flocked to the hospital.
I thought I saw fear in his eyes, and there was a time where I just broke down and started crying and praying for the guy. Crying out to God for him.” -- Georgia coach Mark Richt
Jacobs' position coach, Rodney Garner, was already a regular at St. Mary's. His wife Kim had just delivered their daughter Jaiden there and had suffered complications from the childbirth, so she was already in the maternity unit at the hospital when Jacobs arrived.
Garner remembers the heartbreaking interaction with Jacobs' grandparents -- the people David dreamed of supporting once he reached the NFL -- when they arrived.
"He was really like my son. Everybody used to joke with him and make fun of him, saying he was my son," said Garner, who recruited Jacobs to UGA out of Atlanta's poverty-ridden Boat Rock community. "But it really was that special bond, special relationship. So it was tough. ... It was a lot, just seeing his grandmother and his grandfather up there, who raised him."
Richt and his wife Katharyn were also among the initial visitors to the intensive care unit -- and Richt gets emotional when he recalls trying to communicate with his player.
"I was in the room with him, and I was trying to talk to him, and he was talking back, but it was gibberish, basically," Richt said. "He was speaking, but I couldn't understand anything he was saying.
"I think he thought he was communicating, and then you began to see some frustration and then really some fear. I thought I saw fear in his eyes, and there was a time where I just broke down and started crying and praying for the guy. Crying out to God for him."
It was a helpless feeling for Richt. With only eight games under his belt as a head coach, he wondered if he had the nerve to be the man in charge in the face of tragedy.
"You can't really be equipped to be head coach until you become head coach for a while, and then you're still wondering if you can handle it," Richt said. "There's not really much you can do to prepare yourself for those kinds of things."
Richt left the hospital room unsure that Jacobs was even coherent enough to remember their exchange, but he would later discover that Jacobs remembered everything. Including how his coach had wept.
"David was still having trouble talking," Courson later remembered with a chuckle, "but he told me, 'Don't bring Coach Richt back. He cries too much.' "
The next day Jacobs was airlifted to Atlanta's Emory Hospital, one of the country's top stroke care centers. There, he was treated with experimental medicines that wouldn't have been available at most hospitals.
He would spend a month in Emory's ICU and then about two more months in the hospital's rehab facility. Through that time he struggled through intensive physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions while attempting to regain full use of his body.
Rehab as a contest
Thanks to the competitiveness that made him such an effective football player, Jacobs made rapid progress in his therapy sessions.
Whether it was playing a game like pickup sticks to help him regain his motor skills or putting in work with physical therapy, a primary tactic in Jacobs' treatment was to take advantage of his natural instinct to achieve goals.
"If he did this many reps today, tomorrow we wanted to do this many reps," Courson said. "Or if he walked 100 feet today, tomorrow we want to walk 150. With an athlete, he really understood that."
Courson and strength coach Dave Van Halanger checked Jacobs out of Emory on a day pass and drove him to Athens.
Jacobs was the surprise guest of honor at the gala and received a standing ovation when -- with a cane and wearing a stability belt over his tuxedo, flanked by Courson and Desiree -- he walked the 40 yards from the door of the auditorium to his seat.
That night, Richt presented him with the first David Jacobs Award, which is now given annually to the Georgia football player who "shows courage to overcome adversity and finish the drill."
For Jacobs, the adversity in the wake of the stroke wasn't just that he had to relearn how to walk and accomplish simple tasks. He had to reacquire skills he once took for granted.
"It's almost like, I'm 21, 22 and, you've got to think now, I can't even put a peg in a hole," Jacobs said. "It's almost like being a baby over again. And coming back and learning from that, it's just tough."
Eight or nine months after the stroke, Jacobs began jogging and working with weights again.
"I don't think I've ever had anybody who worked harder or who was more diligent," Courson said. "He would work to the point of sheer exhaustion and would lay there and rest and then we'd start again and he always wanted to do more."
And not only did Jacobs regain the ability to talk, Courson believes speech therapy actually helped him learn to speak better after the stroke, as Jacobs had entered college with a significant speech impediment.
There to help him throughout the entire ordeal was Jacobs' family and Desiree, who juggled regular trips to Emory with a full load of UGA classwork and three part-time jobs.
"She could have easily walked away from what had happened and what was about to happen, not knowing if he'd ever be normal again," Richt said. "She was awesome. She is awesome."
'They just loved on us'
Looking back, Desiree and David Jacobs believe the support from within the Georgia community -- from the coaches they knew to anonymous fans who wrote letters and contributed to the account UGA helped set up to "to cover any needs which may not be addressed through the catastrophic insurance program," -- helped them weather the ordeal.
The couple still keeps a box full of the letters they received, every one of them read by the two of them.
Among the key supporters were Garner and Richt, who eventually was allowed to return to visit Jacobs' hospital room -- although the tears he cried that first day were the inspiration for a practical joke.
"We actually brought Coach Richt in to see him at Emory, and David wanted to play a joke on him, so David had me put a box of Kleenex in under the sheet," Courson said. "And when Coach Richt popped his hand out [to shake], he handed him a Kleenex."
Five years after Jacobs graduated from UGA, the player-coach relationship remains strong. Richt continues to serve as a mentor for Jacobs, and the former player and his wife keep finding ways to honor that bond.
After the birth of their first son, David, now 2, they asked Richt to be his godfather.
"Coach Richt is just one of those coaches that you pray your kids will have," said Desiree, who more recently gave birth to a second son, 1-year-old Dawson. "Honestly he's not just a coach, but his value system is one that supersedes athletics, and ultimately Coach Richt just is a great man. His value system really aligns with our value system and what we want to teach our kids on how to live their own lives."
Jacobs was never far from his teammates' hearts, either. For the rest of the 2001 season, they carried a portrait of their fallen teammate onto the field and held it up to remind fans he was in their thoughts.
The following season, Tony Gilbert wore Jacobs' No. 99 as a tribute in the Bulldogs' win against Clemson. And when that 2002 team won the SEC title, Jacobs was one of the proudest recipients of a championship ring.
Today, it would be difficult for most casual acquaintances to imagine that Jacobs had ever experienced something as catastrophic as the stroke he suffered a decade ago. While he will never fully regain the physical capabilities he possessed before the stroke, Jacobs works out regularly -- part of what he says is an ongoing rehabilitation process -- and looks the part of a former college football player.
Now an account manager with Academy Mortgage Corporation, he works out of a shiny office building in Atlanta, bringing the same enthusiasm to his job that he once brought to the football field.
"If you're a Georgia football fan, then you know the David Jacobs story. But most people that we do business with don't know the David Jacobs story," said Jacobs' boss, Kelly Allison, the vice president at Academy. "They just love David for David, because he's excitable and he's extremely passionate and he's extremely enthusiastic. He's genuine and he's sincere, and that's rare in today's world."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.