Commentary

Nadeau: 'It's almost like I lost my life'

Originally Published: October 25, 2012
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Jerry NadeauAP Photo/Steve HelberRescue crews work to extract Jerry Nadeau after a practice crash at Richmond on May 2, 2003.

Most days, Jerry Nadeau wakes and fires up his computer. He clicks over to an online penny auction and settles in. He has very little motivation to do much of anything these days. His soul is lost, meandering through the murky truth of what was versus what is, and the heartbreaking prospect of what could have been.

But competition still stokes the coals that burn in the belly of his soul's furnace, a furnace that makes his heart churn with fury. He'll spend hours on end bidding on electronics. And when he wins, he says, that furnace burns just as hot as it did when he brought the No. 25 Hendrick Chevrolet or the No. 01 MBV Pontiac home in the top five.

But the joy is fleeting. Save the iPhone 5 he recently gifted his wife, Mary Anna, Nadeau doesn't keep the technological trophies he wins online. He turns right around and sells them all on eBay.

[+] EnlargeJerry Nadeau
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesJerry Nadeau celebrated in Victory Lane just once in the Sprint Cup series, winning at Atlanta in November 2000.

It's about the hunt. Not the kill.

"I think the reason why is because they see my name and they say, 'Oh, f---, that guy's not gonna quit -- I love that!" Nadeau said. "It gets my heart pumping like it did in racing. I know it's not right. It's a bad habit, and you shouldn't do it unless you're willing to lose a lot. But I can't grow up. I still feel like I'm back in my early 30s and nothing's really changed -- except my main purpose in life. I thought that was racing."

May 2, 2013 will mark the 10th anniversary of the accident that stripped Nadeau of his passion. He recalls being the fastest thing on site at Richmond International Raceway that day during practice. And after changing a shock, he re-entered the racetrack, barreled off into Turn 1 and spun into the concrete wall, driver's side.

It nearly killed him.

Nadeau said his wreck registered at 121 times the force of gravity. By comparison, the hits that recently sent Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the doctor with successive concussions registered 40 G's at Kansas and 20 G's at Talladega, respectively.

"That hit was a huge, vicious hit," said Jay Frye, MBV Racing general manager at the time of Nadeau's accident. "When he was backing it in, the natural reaction was to light the tires up, to keep it off the wall.

"It looked like it actually accelerated going backwards instead of locking it down. It was like the perfect hit -- in a negative way -- at that place. When you looked at it, it didn't initially look that bad -- until you went back and looked at it again."

Nadeau suffered a traumatic brain injury, four broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He spent time in a medically induced coma and didn't regain full consciousness for three weeks.

He would never race again.

"I just don't know what to do now," he said. "I'm literally lost at times. I wake up like, 'Well, what am I doing today?' There are so many times that I forget things. I feel normal. I feel like I'm myself. Sounding OK is one thing. But something's not right. I used to have so much get-up-and-go. Right now I'm just a loaf. I don't know if the injury had anything to do with it, but I'm just not interested in doing anything.

"The hit took a lot out of me. I think right now I'm just surviving. Racing was my life, and it got taken away."

Nadeau remembers vividly the moment he received the crushing news. Frye had visited the hospital often to offer encouragement, and deliver news that the team had plans to return Nadeau to competition, first behind the wheel of an ARCA car, then a Cup machine.

But reality had different plans.

"The day that I fell apart … I don't hate him for saying this … but Dr. [Jerry] Petty held my hand and said, 'I love you like my son. I do. I suggest that you need to do something else, Jerry,' " Nadeau said.

Nadeau was broken. And brokenhearted. But he wanted terribly to be strong and unselfish.

[+] EnlargeJerry Nadeau
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesJerry Nadeau on how his life changed after the head injury: "Racing was my life, and it got taken away."

"My whole life I was selfish. It was always just me -- all me," he said. "Then I realized that if I took one more hit it could be my last hit. It doesn't take much to injure your brain. I've had a few concussions -- I've had a lot, actually -- from go-karts to modifieds to sports cars to the Cup series. And every time you get a concussion you damage something in your brain.

"I can't tell you how many times I had headaches -- constant headaches. And I never once thought about an injury, or my brain."

Nadeau still suffers from depression. He said he takes medication daily to cope. Before he married Mary Anna four months ago, he said he would at times hole himself up in his bedroom, draw the blinds, order pizza and watch movies all day.

He didn't want to face life without speed.

When asked if doctors cite his brain injury as a contributing factor to his ongoing depression, Nadeau was uncertain.

"Yeah. Yeah. No … that's a hard question," Nadeau said. "[Doctors] couldn't answer it. Because when Dr. Petty said that to me, I lost it. It was taken away from me and I couldn't get it back.

"A lot of it is the choice of the player. If he feels like taking a chance and going to do it again, then it's his decision. But I don't know. I can't say if it's the brain or if it's the loss of racing -- because racing was everything to me. That was my living. It was my bread and butter. It's what put food on the table. And now I can't do it. It totally changed my whole life."

For years Nadeau's speech was slurred, and he said he only recently began speaking more clearly. He is sharper now, but said he still has "an injured feeling inside me."

The most frustrating lingering effect for Nadeau is numbness. In the wreck at Richmond he damaged the right side of his thalamus, a part of the brain positioned atop the brain stem that helps with sensory perception and regulation of motor functions. As a result, the entire left side of his body tingles 24 hours a day, making exercise difficult.

"That's really the only thing that bothers me," he said. "When it's cold out, my whole left side freezes. Sometimes it's hard for me to run, because it's hard to feel the left foot when I'm running. Everything tingles. It reminds me every day when I get up, that I had that accident. It's hard to live that way."

These days Nadeau lives for Mary Anna and his 9-year-old daughter, Natalie, whose love for gymnastics offers her father great joy. Nadeau hopes to soon introduce Natalie to go-kart racing. He bought a couple of new karts recently in hopes of instilling the same joy within her that it does within him. He teaches Lake Norman, N.C.,-area kids how to drive through the B.R.A.K.E.S. program, but it's not a regular gig.

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He tried for a time to mentor young racers. Frye recalled Nadeau's pride in working with David Gilliland, leading up to Gilliland's breakthrough 2006 Nationwide Series victory at Kentucky Speedway.

"He had a ton of impact on my career," Gilliland said. "I came from running West Series to running Nationwide -- it's a huge step. And Jerry was there for me. He gave me a heads-up on basically life in NASCAR, the schedules and financial-planning stuff, and also stuff on the racetrack. It helped a ton. He introduced me to a lot of people, too.

"He was always really helpful about being prepared and patient. He told me stories of when he was at Hendrick, if he had it to do over again, his attitude, and ways he approached certain situations or conflicts -- the politics and the way our sport runs on a weekly basis."

But being at the racetrack was emotionally destructive for Nadeau. He's a former Cup series winner (one victory in 177 starts), and he was made to feel like just another guy.

"My head's strong. I survived. I'm a lot better than I was 10 years ago, for sure. But the sport is out-of-sight, out-of-mind and people forget," he said. "I went to Phoenix to help out Jeffrey Earnhardt, and I lost it. I completely lost it there. I quit. I said, 'Jeffrey, listen. This will be my last weekend. I just can't do this anymore.' It just hurt me so bad.

"It was hard to go to the track and see all my friends and my team, and seeing someone drive the U.S. Army car just killed me. The worst thing in the absolute world is when someone else drives your race car. My heart was pulled out of my body. I just lost it.

"At that point I just said, 'I'm done.' There's no sense in me even going there because I almost felt like a nobody. Not that I was ever something. I just felt really, really lost. I've been lost for a while. I just carry on life."

Gilliland, too, noticed readily the emotional strife Nadeau experienced at the track.

"We'd go to the track and it was very hard for him to be there," Gilliland said. "You could tell always that in his heart he still wants to race. He still does today. But with his injury he just can't.

"I've always told everybody, I think Jerry could get in a race car tomorrow and haul ass, and be as fast as anybody out there. But with his injury, a 500-mile race would be hard for him. But you could always tell he didn't want to be done racing. That's so tough for me to talk to him about when I'm getting to race every week."

Frye worked with Nadeau to try to make sense of the senseless, and to instill an emotional balance to the aftermath of the accident.

"You don't know why it happens to certain people, but it does. It's part of sports for many athletes," Frye said. "There's no disgrace in it. Here's this kid from Danbury, Conn., made it to the highest form of motorsports in the entire world -- and won at the highest form. It's unfortunate it ended like it did, but you did it, you made it, you won. You should have nothing but good memories.

It's been hard. It's been really, really hard. It's almost like I lost my life.

-- Jerry Nadeau

"A lot of people go through this type of thing. It's all how you react to it. There's a book called 'The Second Half.' You do something your entire life, then figure out what's next."

Nadeau still wonders what's next. Fortunately he made sound financial choices both before and after the injury.

When he was 2 years old, Nadeau's father placed him inside a race car with a rag and bottle of Windex and told him to clean the floorboard. From that time on he had one singular focus. He moved to Europe to race in the late-'90s. Then, with $200 in his pocket, he moved to Charlotte to chase NASCAR. He caught it.

"It was my life," he said. "I came down here and made something of myself, got in the Cup series and got hurt. But there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about, 'God, it'd be so great if some guy would just give me a shot -- just one race.' "

His want is akin to Adam Greenberg's. Greenberg, a once-promising baseball prospect for the Chicago Cubs who, in his first career major league at-bat in 2005, was hit in the head by the first pitch he ever saw. He suffered a concussion and spent years negotiating the aftereffects. But he never gave up hope he'd someday return to the big leagues, and on Oct. 2, 2012 he suited up for the Miami Marlins and gave it one last go. He struck out on three pitches. But the moment was magical.

Nadeau, too, dreams aloud of catching the magic one more time.

But with thought, he hedges.

"I know it sounds stupid. It sounds farfetched. But it'd be so cool to try it again," Nadeau said. "The cars are a lot safer and the tracks are a lot safer.

"Can we put something together to do one ARCA race, just for the hell of it? I still love it. I'd still get in it today. But there's a part of me that's scared. I'm just nervous. I'm scared. If I do hit … it could be my last shot, my last chance at life. Before I was selfish. I didn't really care. Whatever happened, happened."

But the accident changed him.

"I thought about life," he said. "I got a lot closer to my mom and my sister, my friends and my new wife, my daughter. That's a lot of why I'm scared. If I was by myself I'd be in today. I just basically gave up. I wouldn't say I'm a little p----, but I'm just nervous. I was scared. I'm scared to take a wrong hit.

"It's been hard. It's been really, really hard. It's almost like I lost my life."

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