Standing Tall: Gridiron Heroes Continue Fight for Football's Fallen

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Standing Tall: Gridiron Heroes Continue Fight for Football's Fallen
Chris Canales and members of his Gridiron Heroes support group pose with Texas State head coach Dennis Franchione (white shirt center).

"Football is not a violent sport. It is a physical sport. Football has rules. Violence has no rules when you use your helmet as a weapon." Bobby Hosea

Eddie Canales could see the life slowly draining from his son's crippled body. It was the one-year anniversary of a debilitating hit in Chris Canales' final senior season game that left him a quadriplegic and questioning whether he wanted to go on.

"I could see him shutting down. Isolating himself in his room for days at a time," the elder Canales stated.

November 2, 2001, was a day that would forever change the lives of the Canales family. Chris was a talented defensive back/punter playing for San Marcos Academy in Texas. He was having the game of his life on Senior Night. Flying all over the field making tackles. With just minutes remaining in the contest, Chris raced up from the defensive backfield and went low into the legs of an opposing running back coming straight at him with a full head of steam.

Chris's head collided so violently with the tailback's knee that he did a 360-degree spin before his limp body crumpled to the Texas turf motionless. A panicked line judge raced over immediately. He waved his arms frantically for immediate medical attention.

"My teammates were coming over wanting to help me to my feet. But I knew it was bad. Everything went black for a moment. I knew I wouldn't be getting up," Chris recalled.

The collision fractured the fifth and sixth vertebra and severed Chris's spinal cord. For 72 hours, doctors fought to keep him alive. Twice pneumonia nearly claimed him. Only his superb physical conditioning from the sport that crippled him would keep him alive.

CNN honors Eddie Canales' Gridiron Heroes for providing support to teens who suffered spinal cord injuries while playing high school football.

 

Eventually, his condition stabilized. The painful process of rehabilitation started, and the realization that he would never walk again started to settle in as depression followed.

"It was at that one-year mark that Chris realized he was still a very young man and he was going to be spending the rest of his life in that wheelchair," his Father recalled.

Eddie Canales had quit his job to care for his son around the clock. He did anything and everything to lift his spirits. And one point at that 12-month mark, he asked his son where would he want to go, if just for one day—just for one evening.

Chris replied, "A high school football game."

Chris and Eddie decided to attend the Texas 3A State Championship football game in the San Antonio's Alamodome. It was exactly a year to the day of Chris's injury. Just 45 minutes into the game, they witnessed a violent hit that left Everman defensive back Corey Fulbright flat on his back. A serious spinal cord injury.

As the medical staff hurriedly tended to Corey Fulbright, the flood of memories returned to the Canales. A cruel coincidence as the father and son held back tears in the stands.

Chris turned to his Dad and said, We need to go and help them.  I know what he (Corey) is going to go through, and you know what the family will have to go through.”

On that night the concept of Gridiron Heroes came to being.

Chris Canales and Hayden Oswalt hold up one of the rally towels sold to raise $15,000 for Gridiron Heroes.

Inspired by the compassion of Chris, Eddie and former coach Mike Kipp formed Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Foundation.  Articles of Incorporation were filed in February of 2003, and a 501(C) 3 Tax exempt status was obtained in May of the same year. Through a grant written by Eddie, his dad and Coach Robert M. Canales, funds received helped kick-off its first year.

 

"We weren't looking to raise money for a cure. There were other organizations already doing that. We wanted to lend support to the injured players and their families. Unless you've gone through it, you don't know what it entails. The long ordeal that follows. We could be there for them."

Texas is the birthplace of Friday Night Lights, and it is the personification of high school football. The Lone Star State averages about three catastrophic spinal injuries per year. The Gridiron Heroes have connected with 21 in-state families thus far. Often times traveling hundreds of miles to visit a new member in the hospital or touching base with an earlier victim.

Canales' Gridiron Heroes receives no public funding. It runs solely on private donations and fund-raisers, and while the organization primarily provides emotional support for the injured player and his family, Eddie and Chris have raised money for members who need a specialized wheelchair or a custom van to get around in.

Many families don't have insurance or have policies that fail to pay for such items. The Canales send out $100 Walmart gift cards to each family in the system on a monthly basis. Eddie and Chris have formed strong bonds with community and business leaders to stay afloat financially.

On December 2nd, Aubrey Oswalt (L) and fellow supporters of the Gridiron Heroes sold rally towels at the Texas State/UTSA football game to raise much-needed funds.

Aubrey Oswalt was a quarterback/cornerback at San Marcos Academy years after Chris graduated from the school. The two never met, and they didn't know each other. Although the story of Chris Canales always resonated in the hallways and locker room of the Texas secondary school.

"I just wanted to give back. To show the Canales family I hadn't forgotten about their plight," the now-freshman tight end at Division II's Oklahoma Panhandle State University recalled.

Just four days ago, Chris and a cross-section of the Gridiron Heroes sold rally towels at the annual I-35 battle between Texas State and The University of Texas-San Antonio. Aubrey's dad Ronald runs Sports Marketing Experts, one of the largest marketing firms in the Southwest. He is connected to River City Sportswear, which agreed to produce the towels at a reduced cost.

The event raised $15,000: A heartfelt Thanksgiving gift that will assist the Gridiron Heroes through the upcoming holiday season.

As the Canales look to extend their organization to other states, Eddie wonders why those in the football community, particularly the NFL, have failed to step up to take on responsible for the fallen.

"When the champion racehorse Barbaro went down with its fatal injury at the Preakness in 2006, you saw the racing community rally to raise millions so that similar incidents could be prevented. Yet no such movement has ever taken place for these injured kids," the senior Canales stated with sadness in his voice.

Ronald Oswalt (L) of Sports Marketing Experts & cast members of Friday Night Lights pose with Chris and Eddie Canales of Gridiron Heroes

"We still love the game of football. But we need to value our fallen athletes."

To that end, the Gridiron Heroes have paired off with Bobby Hosea, a UCLA grad who played in the Canadian Football League and the USFL for five years, but was better known for a three decade long career in acting. His greatest role, however, may be his current one. Hosea is a tackling expert who serves on the wellness committee for USA Football, one of the preeminent organizations in the sport.

Hosea used his cinematic skills in Hollywood to develop a series of how-to-tackle-right videos. They form the basis of the NFL's "Heads Up Tackling" emphasis. However, only USA Football and Pop Warner utilize this strategy in their camp settings, covering just 15 percent of those attending youth football combines. Dozens of highly-profitable commercial camp systems do not employ Hosea's strategy. Meaning injuries will continue to unfortunately keep the Gridiron Heroes and other organizations like them with a growing membership.

"Do we want anyone to get hurt playing football? No!" Hosea told me from his California home, "but when you tackle with your head, terrible things will continue to happen."

Eddie and Chris Canales had to cut our interview short for this story. They were about to be honored in Los Angeles as a CNN Hero, one of ten non-profits to be selected. The network has covered the Canales story and the aftermath, as has HBO. A cinematic movie is scheduled for release in the new year. Ironically, starring some of the cast featured in NBC's Friday Night Lights.

All the attention is flattering to the Canales, but they will return to San Marcos and resume their tireless mission. The media buzz will generate donations for a while and allow them to continue through 2013.

High school football will continue to be played on fields across the United States. Baseball is America's pastime, but tackle football is its addiction.

Even though there are just a dozen or so games each season, each are fueled by a blend of youthful energy, passion, and raw desire coupled with pure innocence, without the greed and egos of its professional counterpart, spawning a new generation of Gridiron Heroes.

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