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September 24, 2009

Surviving the Game

Just like any other team in America, the members of the Cuyahoga Heights (Ohio) High School Redskins sat in class anxiously on a warm Friday afternoon in early September eager for the bell to ring so they could turn their attention to the game that evening.

The Redskins, coming off a 42-0 week one thrashing of Lincoln West, were particularly eager to get back on the field. Their dominant win the week before was almost too easy. They hoped that Fairview High School would put up a fight, although in the back of their minds they knew they held a decisive advantage and another convincing win was likely in store.

For one player on Cuyahoga Heights, the game almost took on a surreal nature. This wasn't just a game. It was redemption. It was a blessing to even suit up.

About ten weeks earlier, Nick Simon thought he never was going to play football again. In fact, the 5-foot-10, 160-pound senior wide receiver and cornerback that had big plans for the 2009 season was thankful to even be alive.

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On June 17th, Simon and his Cuyahoga Heights teammates were hosting a 7-on-7 camp at their homefield, about 15 minutes south of downtown Cleveland. The opponent was Garfield Heights, a solid Division I team that was bigger and faster than the Redskins. Despite its success, Cuyahoga Heights is a diminutive Division V team, the second-smallest classification in Ohio. Needless to say, it was to be a good test for the Redskins.

The Redskins and Bulldogs battled in the intense heat. Most of the Cuyahoga Heights players went both ways, especially Simon. Coming off a junior campaign in which he caught 32 passes for 618 yards and 9 touchdowns on offense, he entered his senior season as the top receiving target for quarterback Zach D'Orazio, a University of Akron recruit. But Simon was also expected to hold down a cornerback spot, a position where he picked off three passes in 2008.

On the final play of the session, Simon lined up on defense. He dropped back in coverage and went to break up a wobbling pass that was just asking to be intercepted. Several Redskin defenders converged on the ball.

"I went up for the underthrown ball and my teammate's head hit me in my side," Simon recalled. "Right away it was the worst pain I ever felt. I (initially) thought I got the wind knocked out me."

But the pain didn't subside. In fact, it only got worse. The early prognosis by trainers and coaches was changed and it was thought that perhaps Simon had broken a rib. He was rolling around in so much pain, an ambulance was called to the scene.

"They thought I broke a rib, so they strapped me down on a stretcher because I was tossing and turning and couldn't breathe," Simon explained.

Simon was transported to nearby Marymount Hospital. A call was placed to Nick's father, Mike, who is employed as a fire fighter and paramedic. Ironically, Mike Simon was already on a call attending to another emergency.

Due to the intense pain, the doctors elected to put Simon on morphine in order to allow for tests to be run. Following a round of X-Rays and diagnostic tests, the outlook was not good. It wasn't a cracked rib. It was much worse. Simon was bleeding internally.

"They rushed me out of the X-ray room and called Life Flight," he said. "At this point my parents and girlfriend started crying and I was a bit out of it and wasn't sure what exactly was going on."

Simon was put into a helicopter and given a regimen of medication. The plan was to get fly him to MetroHealth Medical Center, a larger, more advanced hospital just a few minutes away. Mike Simon was by his son's side by this point and due to his background, was allowed to join Nick on the helicopter.

"As soon as they put me in the helicopter they gave me IVs with medicine that pretty much just paralyzed me," said Simon. "But having my dad go along with me was really big and once I saw him it was a lot better."

Simon went in and out of a conscious state during the trip to MetroHeath. When he arrived at the hospital, he woke up to a bright light and surrounded by twelve doctors working furiously to pinpoint the problem. They ripped open his shirt and three separate ultrasound machines were used simultaneously to come to a diagnosis. Simon had suffered a ruptured spleen, a life-threatening injury that causes bleeding into the abdominal cavity. Time was of the essence.

"I just remember they put a canvas up to block my view," recalled Simon, who was still feeling the effects of morphine and other sedatives. "For some reason I recall waking up and they were still working on me."

The doctors were forced to make an incision across his left thigh and up to his stomach in order to place a coil around his spleen to cease the bleeding.

"It's an injury the doctors usually see in car accident victims," he explained. "My normal blood count is supposed to be in the 50s and 60s and I was at 21 to 23. They said once you get to 20 you can die."

Simon spent five days at the hospital under the close watch of doctors and nurses. In addition to excruciating pain and exhaustion from the ordeal, he suffered mentally. The 17-year old felt a full range of emotions, from intense anger to inconsolable grief.

"The worst part was when I was in the hospital I couldn't eat and couldn't shower which made me mad at everything," he said.

Simon's mind naturally turned to football, the game he loved. Naturally, he questioned whether he would ever be able to run onto a field again. Initially, he didn't get the reassurance he sought.

"The nurse said I wouldn't play football again so I would just lay there and cry."

Five days passed and finally Simon was allowed to move around and test his stomach. Strangely enough, a small gesture changed his entire outlook.

"The day I got up my girlfriend brought me a sandwich from Subway and everything just clicked," said Simon. "Suddenly, I thought 'I may play again.' The possibility of playing again motivated me a lot."

But despite his optimism, Simon still had a long road ahead. The recovery wasn't going to be easy and there were to be days and simple tasks that required immense resolve. Instead of working out, hanging out with friends, and enjoying a typical summer break as most high school students do, Simon couldn't even appreciate the simple pleasures in life.

"For a while I just was forced to lay still on the couch," he remembers. "I couldn't drive a car, and I couldn't even be in the sun without getting sick. I lost 25 pounds, going from 164 down to the 130s. I would eat three chips and be full."

Needless to say, the month of July was a rough one. With two-a-days right around the corner, Simon's thoughts naturally drifted back to the football field.

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Approximately a month an injury that nearly cost him his life, Simon's doctors informed him and his family that his football career might not be over. Assuming he continued to recover properly, the medical staff initially estimated he could start back up around the midpoint of the season. Simon was thrilled, but hoped to be on the field even sooner.

He responded to treatment and rehabilitation well and soon was ahead of schedule. By two-a-days, he was back on the field, albeit in a limited role.

"I first started running routes and my coach made a halo rule where no player could be within five yards around me."

Simon continued to do non-contact drills and participate as allowed. But it still was frustrating to not be able to put on his pads and helmet and return to full-contact. He was forced to miss the first game of the season.

"I teared up and was just miserable that I couldn't play," stated Simon. "All my teammates wrote on their wristbands 'Nick' and that (gesture) meant a lot to me."

But it wouldn't be long for Simon to rejoin his teammates between the white lines. He was cleared to fully participate the week after and plotted his return in week two against Fairview.

"It was one of the greatest feelings in the world just running and stretching with the team in pre-game," said Simon, who was so nervous he dropped several practice tosses before the game.

Once the game started, however, it was the Nick Simon of old. D'Orazio, who Simon calls one of his best friends, wasted little time in getting his buddy involved in the game.

"On the second play I caught a pass and got whacked," said Simon. "The crowd kind of hushed wondering if I was OK. Right after I got that first hit, I said to myself 'Alright, I'm back.'"

And back he was. Simon posted eight receptions for 103 yards and two touchdowns as Cuyahoga Heights thumped Fairview 36-0.

"It was really exciting," Simon admitted. "(When I scored my first touchdown) my whole family stood up and clapped. I pointed to them, and then my teammates came and hugged me."

Simon confesses he still thinks about his life-threatening injury from time to time. But now with three games under his belt, he says he "just goes out there and plays."

Cuyahoga Heights, ranked as one of the top teams in Division V, sits at 4-0 heading into their week five contest against Kirtland. The Redskins have not allowed a point yet this season as they are winning by an average margin of 44-0.

"I love it," said Simon about the excitement surrounding him and his teammates. "Our goal at the beginning of the season was to record five shutouts and average 40 points per game."

Simon's goal is for the Redskins to hoist the Division V state championship trophy three months from now. Considering what he accomplished in the previous three months, anything is possible.


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