Kurt Coleman wasn’t sure how to prepare his daughter for the moment.
There are no parenting classes that teach a father what to tell a 3-year-old who’s about to meet the man her father paralyzed on a football field.
Coleman need not have worried.
As they sat around a table at the reception following a friend’s wedding last month, Tyson Gentry let young Kyla Coleman know everything was OK, just as he’d assured Kurt Coleman nine years ago that Coleman could quit blaming himself for the play at an Ohio State spring practice that changed both their lives forever.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
“If anybody knows Tyson, he’s known how to take this situation and really just make the most out of every single thing,” said Coleman, a strong safety acquired by the Panthers during the offseason.
“My daughter is 3, so she didn’t know how to approach the situation. He knew how to lighten up the mood, talk about Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. By the end of it we were having lunch and she was giving him high-fives.”
Coleman and Gentry didn’t know each other before the accident. They were from different corners of Ohio, hung out in different crowds and say they probably wouldn’t have been friends.
But that changed in a split second in the spring of 2006 that ended one football career, almost ended another and brought two men together in a friendship forged by tears, pain, forgiveness and a fight that goes on.
A routine tackle
Coleman graduated from his Dayton, Ohio-area high school early and enrolled at Ohio State for the spring semester in 2006. He’d just tuned 18 and knew few of the other players when the Buckeyes began spring drills.
Near the end of a scrimmage at Ohio Stadium on April 14, then- Ohio State coach Jim Tressel put in many of the team’s younger players. Coleman was playing cornerback, and Gentry, a sophomore walk-on, lined up at receiver.
Gentry ran a curl route and remembers making the catch a few feet in front of Coleman, who caught up with Gentry and dragged him to the ground. Both say it was a routine tackle.
But Gentry hit the ground awkwardly and lost the ball. While defensive players celebrated after taking the fumble in for a touchdown to end the scrimmage, Coleman had a bad feeling even before turning around and seeing Gentry still on the ground.
“I’m jumping up, celebrating. And then you could kind of feel like an eerie (sense),” Coleman said. “You look back, and he’s not moving. I went from feeling like this guy (who) just made a really good play to my stomach was on the floor.”
Gentry was rushed to a Columbus, Ohio, hospital, where doctors determined he’d broken his fourth cervical vertebra. They used cadaver bones to stabilize Gentry’s neck, then inserted titanium rods during a second surgery a couple of days later.
A C4 fracture is one of the most severe spinal cord injuries and typically results in paralysis in the hands, arms, trunk and legs. Gentry was in intensive care for two weeks. Coleman struggled to come to grips with the injury and considered quitting football.
When he finally worked up the nerve to visit Gentry in the hospital, Coleman brought a friend along for support. But Coleman was floored by what he experienced when he walked in to the room.
Forgiveness from the start
Before Coleman could make it to Gentry’s bedside, he was embraced by members of Gentry’s family, who told him they didn’t blame him.
“I didn’t know what the reception would be like,” Coleman said during a recent interview at Wofford. “I walked in the room. His parents and sisters gave me hugs and just told me everything was all right. It wasn’t my fault. I gave him a hug, and he told me everything was all right.”
Gentry saw the anguish in Coleman’s face, and sought to comfort him.
“I obviously could tell he was emotional about everything and felt badly about what happened,” Gentry said last week in a phone interview. “I don’t have any regrets. It wasn’t a dirty play. It was a routine tackle. I’d been hit harder than that many times.”
Gentry faced an arduous rehabilitation process that Coleman saw firsthand. The two lived in the same Columbus apartment complex the summer after Gentry’s injury, and Coleman would visit occasionally when Gentry was doing his rehab exercises.
Meanwhile, Coleman continued to waver on his football future. The determination he saw from Gentry during his rehab sessions – and Gentry’s forgiveness – helped convince him to stick with the sport.
“I really had a tough time at first,” Coleman said. “Coaches were telling me everything’s all right. You feel so much guilt knowing that had you not done what you did, he would’ve been perfectly fine.”
Ron Coleman, a high school principal at the time, saw his son’s struggles.
“There were two victims, there were two (affected) people,” Ron Coleman said. “Sure, the focus was on Tyson and his injury. But you don’t stop to think about what it was like for Kurt going through that. I mean, Kurt almost walked away from the game. I know that Tyson and his family had a lot to do with Kurt staying with it.”
The same year Gentry was paralyzed, Ron Coleman was diagnosed with breast cancer, which affects about 1 in 1,000 men, according to the American Cancer Society.
The elder Coleman remembers speaking to Gentry at a practice at the Buckeyes’ indoor facility that fall, only a few months after Gentry’s injury. He hasn’t forgotten what Gentry said to him.
“When I first saw Tyson after all that, Tyson pulled up in his wheelchair and asked me how I was doing,” Coleman said, referring to his breast cancer. “What a tremendous young man.”
A strong message
Gentry remained a part of the Buckeyes’ program after his injury, attending practices and games and making the trip to bowl games when he was able.
In the fall of what would have been Gentry’s final season, Tressel asked him to give a senior speech, a Buckeyes’ tradition among departing players. As part of his speech, Gentry thanked Coleman for paralyzing him, according to Coleman.
“That kind of set me back,” Coleman said. “But I think his message was he would have not become the man he is today had he not gone through the situation.”
Unlike many people with C4 breaks, Gentry regained biceps control shortly after his surgeries. And while he has no movement in his wrists or fingers, he can operate a manual wheelchair because of his arm strength.
With the help of adaptive braces, Gentry is able to hold silverware, comb his hair and brush his teeth. He says the voice-to-text technology he uses to send emails and text messages was “a lifesaver” when he was writing term papers for graduate school.
Gentry’s wife, Megan, who met her future husband in a linguistics class at Ohio State, assists him with everyday tasks. The two moved to Florida after college to escape the Ohio cold, which often caused Gentry’s muscles to spasm.
Gentry said he and Megan are ready to have children. Doctors told him they should be able to.
While Coleman and others marvel at his attitude, Gentry concedes his post-injury life has been anything but easy. But he said seeing patients in the traumatic brain injury unit when he was first hospitalized gave him perspective.
“The majority of time I have a great attitude, and my faith and support system play a big part in that. But I have plenty of bad days,” Gentry said. “You just take those days one day at a time and hope tomorrow’s a better day.”
From injury to charity
Gentry and Coleman both say Gentry’s paralysis strengthened their faith, and ultimately encouraged both to become involved in charitable work.
While still at Ohio State, Coleman helped start a local chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness and money for the treatment of rare diseases. Coleman also launched the Coleman 4 A Cure foundation after watching his father beat breast cancer.
Ron Coleman recently had his prostate removed after doctors found cancer there, too. But he was feeling strong enough to teach his seventh-grade health classes when Ohio students went back to school last week.
Gentry and his wife recently started a foundation to help pay for travel costs and hotel accommodations for Ohio and Florida residents who have family members hospitalized with spinal cord injuries.
Coleman sent a football autographed by Panthers players for Gentry’s fundraising auction this fall.
The two stay in touch mostly through text messages, and Gentry has followed Coleman’s career through NFL stops with Philadelphia, Minnesota, Kansas City and now Carolina.
“It’s awesome to see him out there,” Gentry said. “Even though my career was cut short, I’m proud of him and all my former teammates who continued on to fight for their dream of playing in the NFL and achieved their goals.”
Coleman is equally impressed with Gentry’s achievements.
“Looking back, it’s still tough,” Coleman said of the play that ended Gentry’s football career. “But I know the man that he is, and I’m so proud of him. I couldn’t be happier that he has a wife and hopefully they’re able to start a family soon.”
If so, Gentry’s children – just like Coleman’s two daughters – will learn about that spring day at Ohio Stadium and how it shaped the lives of their fathers.
“To see two young men come together from such a catastrophic thing, it’s bad. But it could’ve been have so much worse in that it didn’t ruin two young men and really helped make two young men even better,” Ron Coleman said.
“They’ll be linked together one way or the other for the rest of their lives.”