A fighter on the field, and beyond

A spinal injury changed his game

Staff writerJuly 19, 2009 

In 1977, Steve Streater showed up in Chapel Hill for his first practice looking like a skinny, out-of-place kid from the hills, nothing like the football player he would become.

Maybe -- maybe -- he cracked 165 pounds. He wore shorts and a T-shirt and a red baseball helmet and had a cheek stuffed with Red Man. Fellow freshman Tyress Bratton, who four years later would witness the moment that changed Streater's life forever, laughs when he remembers the image.

"I was like, 'Does this guy really play?' "

By the time Streater finished his last game for the University of North Carolina, the defensive back and punter from the mountain town of Sylva had proved that he did.

He snagged five interceptions and averaged more than 43 yards per punt during his senior year, making him the first player in the history of the ACC to be named all-conference at two positions. Streater earned a permanent place in the hearts of Tar Heels fans on Oct. 18, 1980, when he faked a punt and ran 37 yards for a touchdown in a victory over N.C. State.

Off the field, Streater lived it up, persuading his teammates to wear their jerseys and hit the downtown nightspots. He started a fashion revolution among his fellow defensive backs, encouraging them to wear gloves on their hands and elbow pads on their knees. He thought it looked slicker.

"Steve was just a full-speed guy," said teammate Bobby Cale. "He didn't know any other speed."

Streater was 22 when he was injured in a car accident near the Raleigh-Durham airport. He had just returned from Washington D.C., where he signed a contract to play for the Redskins. It should have been happiest day of his life, a dream achieved.

Instead, he suffered a spinal injury that put him in a wheelchair, unable to use his legs, for the rest of his life.

Streater was the same upbeat and positive guy after the accident as he was before, said his younger brother Eric Streater, who also played football at UNC. He didn't complain about what he missed. Rather, he concentrated on what he could accomplish.

After the accident, Streater had a number of jobs: He worked in a dance studio and coached a semi-pro football team. He coordinated the state's Students Against Driving Drunk program and managed an auto-detailing business.

He completed his education degree. He drove a Porsche equipped with special hand controls. In 1984, just before the Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, he carried the Olympic torch. And, after not wearing his on the night of the accident, he helped persuade legislators to pass a seat-belt law in North Carolina. Even though doctors told him he probably wouldn't be able to have kids, he fathered a daughter.

Streater was 50 when he died June 19 in an Asheboro hospital after battling complications from paralysis.

The accident may have cut it short, but Streater lived a full and positive life, the kind to be envied.

Big-league dreams

After the end of his successful senior season, which ended with an 11-1 record and a victory in the Bluebonnet Bowl, Streater hoped to be picked in the National Football League draft.

"He was an outstanding athlete," said Denny Marcin, a former UNC defensive coordinator who coached Streater before having a long career in the NFL. "I thought he had a chance in the league to be a punter."

That didn't happen. But Streater was determined, and he signed a free-agent contract with the Redskins.

Bratton picked Streater up from the airport on Thursday night, April 30, 1981, the same day he became a pro football player. He drove Streater's black-and-gold Datsun 280-ZX, a gift from Streater's father. When he arrived at the airport, Streater told Bratton he wanted to drive.

Not far from the airport, the car hit a slick spot in the road and careened out of control, flipping over onto its hood. Bratton scrambled out of the car and went to the driver's side to check on his friend.

"I was going to pull him out," Bratton said. "He said 'no, I'm stuck,' and I kept looking at where he was sitting, and saying, 'You're not stuck.' He said, 'I'm stuck, I'm stuck.'"

Then Streater realized he had no feeling in his lower body and asked Bratton not to move him. Both were taken to UNC's hospital by ambulance.

Dr. Timothy Taft, an orthopedic surgeon and director of sports medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, received a late-night phone call at home with the news. When he arrived at the hospital, he knew right away that Streater would probably never walk again.

Bratton, who received more than 70 stitches in his left leg but escaped a devastating injury, hoped his buddy had a stinger, the kind of temporary injury that players receive after a particularly hard hit on the field.

But after they wheeled Streater out of the room they were sharing, the doctors told Bratton about his friend's paralysis. Although Streater could use his arms and shoulders, his fingers were affected by the injury, and he could not grip objects as tightly as he could before.

In the beginning, Streater told anyone who would listen that he was determined to walk again. Taft said that kind of attitude is common among those who have suffered severe spine injuries, as a way to cope with the trauma. Some hope to will themselves to walk.

"It just doesn't work that way with this injury," Taft said. "We know a whole lot more than we did 20, 30 years ago, but we still don't know how to fix disruptive spinal cords."

Streater, though, didn't let that stop him from living.

Living in full

After the accident, he threw himself into physical therapy. After a months-long stint in a Charlotte rehab center, he moved back to Sylva with his folks. Later, he returned to Chapel Hill to room with Bratton, who had switched apartments so the pair could live on the ground floor.

He lived the life of a young man in a college town. Teammates would help him up the stairs at Perdy's, a Franklin Street nightspot. One would heft Streater, the other his wheelchair.

"It was like he had legs," said teammate Bobby Cale, "on the dance floor in his wheelchair, spinning."

Streater roomed with Cale, too, and served as the best man at his wedding. Although he never married, Streater didn't let his wheelchair keep him from the dating life. A long-term relationship produced a daughter, Stephie Nichole Streater, now 21 and a student at UNC-Greensboro.

For years, Streater took care of himself, driving around the state to give talks to high school students about the SADD program. In his speeches, he emphasized that he was sober the night of his accident, but warned that risky behavior carries consequences.

Streater in 1985 worked to persuade legislators to pass a seat-belt law. Attorney and lobbyist Zeb Alley, who after the accident helped Streater secure a worker's compensation settlement with the Redskins, worked the bill on behalf of General Motors. Streater's involvement, he said, helped get the bill signed into law.

"Everybody knew Steve Streater," he said.

To some, Streater was a UNC football star. Others remembered him as the kid who went 23-1 his senior year as a high-school baseball pitcher, leading his team to the state championship.

Streater loved to talk about his athletic exploits, but he didn't dwell on missing out on greater football glories. If he struggled with depression, he didn't show that in public, said his brother, Eric.

Instead, he put his energy toward more positive thoughts. In a 1986 interview with The News & Observer, Streater seemed determined to make his legs work again.

"I'll never be able to live with the fact that I'll never be able to walk again -- NEVER. Everybody has his own walk; each walk is different. I don't know exactly how I'll walk, but I'll walk again."

A return home

As Streater got older, he couldn't get around as well as he could right after the accident, and he couldn't live on his own. He no longer worked. In the mid-'90s, he moved back home to Sylva to live with his parents.

A couple of years ago, he fell ill. Since the accident, Streater battled infections and bedsores and other issues people with spinal cord injuries face.

He was admitted to the hospital in Sylva. Eric Streater visited on the weekends, and helped coordinate his brother's care with the doctors. One day, Eric received a call that his brother had given up, and the hospital staff didn't think he would live much longer. He had refused to let them insert a feeding tube.

He rushed to the hospital and went to his brother's room to ask him about it.

"I said, 'Steve, if you're ready to go, I can accept that. But I can't accept it if I haven't done everything I could for you. If you're ready to end this, that's fine with me. I just need to hear it from you. The doctors have told me you have given up. Is that true?'"

Streater, who could not speak, shook his head no.

Immediately after, the family worked with Taft, the team physician, to have Streater admitted to UNC Hospitals. Once he was moved, Streater perked up, said his sister, Faith Streater Moody. He started talking again, and eventually moved to a Asheboro rehab center to work toward becoming independent.

On June 19, the way Eric understands it, his brother had trouble catching his breath and rang for the nurse. After receiving oxygen, he blacked out and never regained consciousness.

It was sudden, and unexpected. The family, still waiting for autopsy results, isn't yet sure what caused his death. But they know that Streater did everything he could to live the fullest life possible.

"Steve lived life like we always think we should," Eric Streater said.

When he died, Streater had been scheduled to move out of the rehab facility and into his own apartment in three days.

matt.ehlers@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4889

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