Two gifts for Justin Coleman

Recovering from a broken neck and being involved in tragic auto accident hasn't stopped Justin Coleman from playing basketball or living a good life

tstevens@newsobserver.comDecember 25, 2011 

In the span of a year, Broughton High basketball captain Justin Coleman survived a pair of events that might have left him shattered. But he received two gifts that helped him move forward: A second chance to play sports and an opportunity for redemption.

On May 22, 2010, Coleman broke three vertebrae in his neck during a basketball game. He was told he would never play competitive sports again. Seven months after his accident, doctors surprised him days before Christmas, telling him his recovery had surpassed expectations and that he soon could return to basketball.

Yet another, more terrible test awaited him.

Exactly one year after his basketball injury, he was involved in a automobile accident in which a motorcyclist was killed. Coleman hadn't seen Rubin Smith's motorcycle and had turned into his lane.

"It was the lowest day of my life," Coleman said. "The fact that it was a fatality. It destroyed me. I had to see a psychologist and I learned that day by day I have to try and move on."

When he appeared in court in August, Coleman met Smith's wife, Tracy Smith, and mother, Vanessa Gaines. They embraced.

"They said they forgave me," Coleman said. "It was the single greatest moment of my life. And then (Gaines) told me to live a good life, to do good things, for her family and mine.

"They pray for me and I pray for them. I have two families now."

Gaines had no doubt that forgiveness was the right course.

"Forgiving is the only thing that I could do. God forgives us and we must forgive others," Gaines said this week. "You cannot live a fulfilled life if you cannot learn to forgive."

The two events have shaped Coleman and given him a purpose.

"I want to live a good life," he said. "I think I'm supposed to live a good life."

Horrifying injury

In May 2010, Coleman was playing with a Garner Road YMCA basketball club team when he knocked the ball away from a player at midcourt, gathered it in and dashed toward the goal.

As the 6-foot-2 Coleman leaped for a dunk, a defender bumped him, knocking him off balance and sending him face-first onto the floor. He then crashed head-first into the concrete wall.

"He was going straight up and then he was going almost straight down," said Dwayne West, who manages the Garner Road basketball organization. "It was horrifying. And then he hit head-first in the 4-inch gap between the pad on the wall and the floor. Two inches higher and he catches the pad and he probably wouldn't have been hurt as badly, but he hit right in the gap."

His injury was assessed quickly and an ambulance was summoned. "We knew he was hurt," West said. "The first thing out of his mouth when I reached him was, 'West. What up man?' I knew something was wrong. He'd never say something like that, especially to an adult."

Even before the hospital test results had been evaluated, Coleman considered the possibility of paralysis, but willed himself to think of something else.

"I never lost complete feeling anywhere. That was good," he recalled. "I concentrated on that. And I wanted to be strong for my parents. I didn't want to think about how bad it could be. My parents were concerned enough without me getting more upset."

Coleman's mother, Janine, remembers the aftermath of the injury.

"I was falling apart," Janine Coleman said. "He was lying in bed with all these tubes and he couldn't move his head. It was awful and I was losing it. He reached out and took my hand and told me everything was going to be all right. He comforted me."

Coleman had broken the C3, C4 and C5 vertebrae in his neck. At first his surgeon was sure it was a paralyzing injury. He later told the family that similar injuries result in paralysis about 90 percent of the time.

Kernel of Hope

After the surgery, which included 10 screws and two plates, his surgeon told Coleman's parents that their son had been uncommonly lucky. The said he should be able to return to most normal activities, but should never participate in competitive sports again.

"The doctor shut that door very firmly," Janine Coleman recalled. "We accepted that, although Justin kept a kernel of hope alive."

One day, he insisted, he would come back and play.

"Don't you believe God can do a miracle?" he asked his mother. "I believe God can do anything."

There was plenty of pain as Justin built his strength back. Jeff Ferrell, the Broughton coach, welcomed him to the varsity basketball team, but not as a player for the 2010-11 season. Coleman, who had played on the junior varsity as a freshman and sophomore, sat on the bench during his junior season and occasionally videotaped games.

He dreamed of playing for the Caps, but his doctors were adamant that his basketball days were behind him.

But on Dec. 22, 2010, Coleman received what he calls his best Christmas present ever. His surgeon had consulted colleagues throughout the country and had reviewed the most recent test results. Coleman could play again.

Throughout the spring and into May, Coleman dedicated himself to preparing for his senior season.

Another catastrophe

On Sunday, May 22, a year after his injury, Coleman agreed to drive his sister to the local pool. He brought his school books and planned to read and study while his sister swam.

On the way, he made a left turn, never seeing Rubin Smith and his motorcycle. The motorcycle crashed into the sport utility vehicle Coleman was driving. Smith, 32, died.

The police determined that no drugs or alcohol were involved and Coleman eventually was charged with failure to yield the right of way.

"It was an accident, a terrible, terrible accident," Coleman said.

His mother describes her son as kind and gentle. The accident shook him to his foundation.

Basketball became a refuge as he worked through the grief process.

He was able to take the floor for the first time in a game last summer when the Broughton players went to a team camp at N.C. State.

"My skills were really rusty and I wasn't in very good shape, but I could play," he said.

Not only play, but eventually play well.

An unusual captain

Coleman is a starter for the Caps, averaging about six points per game, and he is an undisputed leader. Ferrell said he could not have imagined someone being chosen as a captain without having played a varsity game, but Coleman was.

"When he couldn't play, I never heard him say anything about himself," Ferrell said. "He only cared for the team. The players noticed.

"And he is one of the most resilient people I know. He has had to handle two things at a young age that most people never experience."

College basketball probably isn't in Coleman's future. He hopes to attend either North Carolina or Duke - he has an overall GPA of 4.4 - and he doesn't play at the level of ACC players.

But he said he has a great desire to be a good person, to help others.

On Thanksgiving Day, Gaines called to wish him well and to check on him.

"I talk to him just the way I talked to my own son when he was that age," Gaines said.

She reminded him that two families are pulling for him.

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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