IT'S APRIL 14, 2006, Good Friday in Columbus, Ohio. A rite of spring unspools at Ohio State, a spirited intrasquad scrimmage at cavernous Ohio Stadium.
Kurt Coleman, who will start at safety for the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, is just 17 years old at the time, an early high school graduate hoping to get a jump on impressing the Buckeyes coaches. Tyson Gentry, 20, is a redshirt freshman walk-on, a punter turned scout team wide receiver.
The two Ohio natives had never formally met before the collision that would paralyze Gentry permanently below the waist, changing both of their lives forever.
When Coleman takes the field for the Super Bowl on Sunday, Gentry and his wife Megan will be rooting hard for the Panthers from their home in Tampa, Florida. Coleman, in part, is playing for Gentry and hopes to "bring him back something." This is the story of a remarkable relationship that sprung from that horrific accident 10 years ago.
"Obviously," Coleman said last week at the Panthers' training facility, "you can never brace yourself for the impact of severely hurting somebody and paralyzing them for the rest of their lives. He's one of the greatest men that I've known through what he's done and the person that he's become."
Said Gentry: "I cannot honestly put myself in his shoes as far as what he felt after that play, but I think it connected us forever."
THE COACHES' TAPE of the play, at first glance, seems almost innocuous, something approaching incidental contact. Gentry will later say he had been hit harder many times -- and walked away.
It's a high-angle shot, and a little blurry, but you can see the lanky 6-foot-3 Gentry line up on the right side and run a 10-yard dig route, with Coleman guarding him.
"I juked to the outside, and Kurt kind of bit on that," Gentry recalls, "and so, that gave me the opening. Quarterback threw me the ball, and as the ball got there, Kurt caught up to me, reached over to tackle me and drove me down to the ground."
"I broke on the ball, tackled him from behind, [he] fumbled it," Coleman says.
Gentry, as the ball came out, seemed to tilt his head down slightly before he hit the turf. It appeared to be, Coleman said, a perfect play from the defense's perspective.
"We scooped it up, we scored," Coleman says, "defense supposedly wins the scrimmage, and then you look back and he's lying there motionless."
Gentry felt the feeling leak out of his body.
"Probably the first three seconds," he says, "I was hoping that it was just something temporary, maybe a stinger or whatever. But I could not feel or move a thing below my neck. My body just disappeared."
Gentry's parents, Bob and Gloria, were in the stands that day. Bob played defensive back for the Buckeyes in the 1970s; Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin was a teammate. Gloria made the trip to the hospital in the ambulance with her son.
"I can't watch the video, but I remember exactly what happened," Bob said from his home in Columbus. "Having been in that environment, you're totally divorced from a shock standpoint. We both realized something was wrong and walked out on the field and tried to communicate with him.
"Looking back, if someone said, 'This is what's going to happen,' I don't think I could have fathomed it. From that day forward, we were all part of Tyson's journey."
UP TO THAT POINT, the extent of Gentry's knowledge of paralysis consisted of the harrowing, very public experience of actor Christopher Reeve, who had instantly become a quadriplegic in 1995 when thrown from a horse.
Even as his body lay still in the hospital, Gentry's mind raced.
"I was questioning everything," he says now. "Whether I would ever walk again, whether I would ever play football again, whether I would ever be able to feel my body again. Would I ever be a father? Would I ever be a husband? When you can't move anything, all you have time for is just questions."
The doctors told him he had fractured his fourth cervical vertebra, literally broken his neck. You can see that break in the black and white of the X-ray. The predictable but crushing news: He probably would never walk again.
Coleman, meanwhile, was experiencing his own form of paralysis.
"I'm responsible for it, and it's a lot of guilt," he explained. "I play the game hard, but I've never played the game to physically hurt somebody in that manner. I contemplated so many different things, whether I even wanted to play football."
For two weeks, Coleman couldn't bring himself to go to the hospital. But after Gentry had undergone two surgeries to stabilize his spinal column, Coleman finally summoned the courage for their second-ever face-to-face meeting. Nervous, he brought a friend for moral support.
"I'm sorry for everything that you've gone through," Coleman told Gentry.
"I could see it in his eyes that he was sorry," Gentry says.
"I was hoping that it was just something temporary, maybe a stinger or whatever. But I could not feel or move a thing below my neck. My body just disappeared."Tyson Gentry
As Coleman remembers it, Gentry quickly reassured him that it wasn't his fault.
"Those words just kind of changed my perspective," Coleman says. "He gave me the comfortability knowing that he's going to fight this, he's going to battle whatever he has to go on, and that I can live with myself for having to be the person that inflicted the pain.
"I don't know if I could have ever reacted the same way Tyson has, and that's why I'm so grateful and blessed to have him in my life."
Bob and Gloria, devout Christians, moved quickly to hug Coleman.
"I'm sure it was very difficult for him," Bob says. "It speaks to his compassion that he came forward the way he did. He needed some emotional support and we were able to lessen the blow, if you will.
"We embraced what we were confronted with. I won't lie to you and tell you there weren't moments that we wondered why our son was in that situation. But we were grateful we still had our son. It could have been worse."
Going forward, this would become a theme.
"It affected both Tyson and Kurt very deeply," Gloria says. "If their roles had been reversed, we would have wanted Kurt to give the same thing to Ty. Things happen and sometimes it's no one's fault."
GENTRY'S UNNATURAL BUT UNDENIABLE positivity did not come quickly -- or easily.
"People give me a lot of credit, but I had tons of bad days," he says. "There were plenty of days when I laid in my bed and cried, felt sorry for myself. It's part of the grieving process. I think I was grieving about the loss of the person I was.
"Waking up and not being able to get out of bed and go about your routine. It was wake up, stretch, have somebody get you dressed, have somebody help feed you and help brush your teeth. The biggest frustration early on was, 'Am I going to have to do this every day? Is this going to be my routine every day for the rest of my life?'"
During an exhaustive rehabilitation process, Coleman often offered encouragement, visiting him at Dodd Hall and lifting weights together at the athletic center.
Ohio State put Gentry on scholarship, and he remained part of the football team. Under head coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes were enormously successful, winning or sharing the Big Ten Conference title for four of Gentry's five seasons. From 2004-08, Gentry's graduating class was the first one to defeat Michigan five straight times. Twice over that span, Ohio State played in the BCS Championship game, losing to Florida and LSU.
Before the last game against Michigan, in 2008, Tressel asked Gentry if he would address the team.
"I just considered it a really nice gesture to be able to talk to the guys," Gentry says. "To give them some words of encouragement, and just kind of bring everybody together and go out with this last game and make it memorable."
His senior speech was all of that.
"Moving, selfless," Coleman remembers. "He described how much of a family we were and how much we meant to him. And then he finished the speech by saying if it wasn't for that incident he wouldn't be the man he was today.
"And he thanked me. He thanked me for putting him through this situation."
Gentry thanked Coleman for paralyzing him.
"It made me who I was, who I am," Gentry says with conviction. "A lot of people don't realize that the adversities we face and the tribulations and trials that we go through make us who we are.
"I wouldn't change a single thing as far as my career at Ohio State. Would you ever take anything back that made you a better person?"
THAT SENTIMENT IS hard to understand -- until you spend a day with Gentry and his wife.
As Gentry says, "You can have two people who are going through the exact same situation, and one person chooses to look at it as a negative and the other person chooses to look at it as a positive. It doesn't take long for you to figure out who's going to come out a better person because of it."
While Gentry was in the hospital, he was struck by the plight of a patient across the hall, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury when he skied into a tree without a helmet.
"All he could do, really, was kind of moan and mumble," Gentry says. "What I was going through, I had a hard time, but at the same time I was so thankful that I could talk with my family, could laugh and still feed myself. I really don't have much to complain about, considering it could be so much worse."
And while that's true, there's also no escaping the side effects Gentry deals with daily. During a protracted television interview, Gentry experienced some tremors in his arms and then, violently, in his legs. Seeing the stricken looks on the faces of the camera crew, he tried to smile through a grimace. He explained that involuntary spasms visit him when he sits still too long. It looked frightening, until Megan moved in to place her hands on his legs and stop the shaking. But it was normal, he said -- his normal.
Given football's history of concussion damage, Gentry believes he's ahead of the game. Indeed, his agile, sometimes mischievous brain is his most valuable asset. Gentry bears more than a passing resemblance to actor Luke Wilson and shares some of his personality traits. Megan admits he can be a bit of a smart-ass.
About one week after the accident, the feeling began to come back to his shoulders and later, critically, his biceps. Although Gentry doesn't have control of his fingers, wrists or triceps, he can move his arms effectively enough do things like eat and brush his teeth. Wearing heavy braces permanently curled his fingers so he can now operate his wheelchair and even an iPad. He can pick up a phone with two hands, grip a bottle of soda and bring it to his mouth.
"Football, they say, is a game of inches," Gentry says. "So are spinal cord injuries. If I had broken my neck a little bit higher, I might not have the use of my arms."
COLEMAN, THE PANTHERS' starting free safety, played the game of his life in the NFC Championship, intercepting Arizona Cardinals QB Carson Palmer twice, which helped send Carolina to San Francisco for Super Bowl 50.
His six-season journey also has featured its share of obstacles. He was drafted in the seventh round in 2010 by the Philadelphia Eagles, becoming a starter before struggling to find playing time under new coach Chip Kelly. After his contract wasn't renewed in Philly in 2013, he bounced around -- from the Minnesota Vikings to the Kansas City Chiefs to the Panthers, who signed him to a two-year contract worth $2.8 million before the 2015 season.
It has been, by any measure, a bargain for Carolina. Coleman led the Panthers with seven interceptions (and one touchdown) in the regular season and finished with 90 tackles, third on the team behind linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. With those two postseason interceptions, Coleman now has nine picks in 18 games this season.
Along the way, his friendship with Gentry, after that halting start, has blossomed. They text occasionally and last summer they caught up at the wedding of a former teammate's sister. Since then, Megan and Coleman's wife Laura text frequently.
"I wouldn't change a single thing as far as my career at Ohio State. Would you ever take anything back that made you a better person?"Tyson Gentry
"Amazing game," Megan says of Carolina's NFC title win. "Every time [Kurt] got an interception we would scream and I was texting his wife. It's awesome to see him finally feel like he fits and has a team he feels he's really a part of. We're hoping they can pull it out and Kurt can come home with a Super Bowl ring.
"We have met other [victims of] spinal cord injuries that don't have that situation, and are angry and vengeful almost at the person that did that to them."
Gentry has instead focused his efforts on making the lives of others better. His New Perspective Foundation is a nonprofit organization that assists families in Ohio and Florida struggling with the devastating effects of spinal cord injuries. As Gentry explains, "Our focus is that the family and friends should be there by the person's side and not have to worry about whether or not they can afford to be there. So we will help with gas money, lodging expenses or airfare, so they can travel to be by their side."
Coleman understands Gentry's passion. After his father, Ron, was diagnosed with male breast cancer in 2006, Coleman co-founded the Ohio State chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which helps raise awareness of rare diseases.
"Now [Tyson] is able to take his situation and make it much bigger," Coleman says. "He has a platform and he's doing some great and wonderful things for families all around the U.S."
DURING HIS SENIOR YEAR at Ohio State, Gentry registered for linguistics at Independence Hall. He was late for the first class and rolled into the back of the lecture hall. Megan, who also was late, already had found a spot at the handicapped desk. They didn't talk that first day, but both returned to the same place for the second class.
It quickly became obvious to Megan that Tyson, a speech and hearing major, knew the subject intimately. Similarly, Tyson sensed Megan might be in over her head and offered, altruistically of course, to help her review the notes.
Both of them consider this a happy outcome of the accident.
"If Ty didn't break his neck, we wouldn't have met, wouldn't have gotten married," Megan says. "We're huge believers in everything happens for a reason."
They're expecting a baby boy in mid-March. His name will be Adam Cole Gentry -- Cole for Coleman.
When Tyson told Coleman, for once, the loquacious defender was speechless.
"We thought it would be a pretty cool gesture and a neat nod to Kurt," Gentry explains. "We wanted to go with Cole because we were thankful that he was a part of this and we wouldn't be here without him."
Says Coleman, "I think he wants his son to know who he is as a man."
Coleman, who has two young daughters, says he is already looking forward to family vacations with the Gentrys. Disney World, he pointed out, would be a home game for Tyson. And he already has told Gentry about the joys of fatherhood.
"I think he was worried about some of the things that it would entail being a father," Coleman says. "And I said, 'Don't worry, you're going to be a great father, because I know who you are.'
"I hope his son will have every characteristic that he has."