A Broken Neck, Unbroken Spirit

For tennis player James Blake, the past year has been a trial. In May 2004, during a practice in Rome, the highly ranked competitor crashed into a net post and broke his neck. Six weeks later, his father, Thomas, died from stomach cancer. Within days Blake, 25, came down with a debilitating case of shingles, which left half his face paralyzed and his vision blurred. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Blake—who lives with his brother Tom, 28, a tennis pro, in Tampa and starting May 23 will attempt to qualify for the French Open—tells People‘s Steve Helling that his ordeal has given him a fresh appreciation of his many blessings, and the things in life that really matter.

I was in Rome, running for a drop shot, and my foot got stuck in the clay. The rest of my body went hurtling forward and I hit my neck on the net post. I knew immediately I hurt myself and started to panic almost as soon as I hit the ground. I looked over at my coach; All the color had drained from his face. He ran over to me, told me not to move and called an ambulance.

A couple of guys rolled me over because I was facedown on the clay. They asked if I could move my fingers and toes, which I could. That was some relief, but neck injuries are never anything to mess with. I’m thinking all these dark thoughts: Would I be paralyzed? Would I be able to walk again?

I wanted to move so badly. But I was terrified that I would damage the nerves. I was trying to think of best-case scenarios: Maybe it’s just bruised. And then I’d think the worst: Maybe I have broken my neck and I’ll spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

I had a lot of time in the waiting room just to think. The pain wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, but I wasn’t doing well emotionally. I thought, “Well, if this is the end of my career, what do I do next? Will I ever be able to exercise again? Will I be able to play baseball with my kids? Will I ever see my family again?” Suddenly, the little things didn’t seem as important.

After the X-rays, I was transferred to a private hospital for a CAT scan. It had been two days since the injury, and I still had my match clothes on. I was still covered in clay and I stunk. It was a low point in my life. I was talking to my coach and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. On one hand, I knew I was seriously hurt. On the other, I knew that I looked ridiculous. I decided to laugh.

It turned out that my seventh vertebra was fractured, but there was no nerve damage. I was put in a big neck brace; they wouldn’t let me walk. Still, it was easy to find the silver lining: I wasn’t paralyzed, and there was hope that I’d be able to play again.

For the first couple of weeks, I couldn’t do anything at all. I just had to be immobile while the bone was healing. If I moved wrong, I could do a lot more damage. Then I was allowed to do a little bit of exercise. I’d do about 20-25 minutes on the stationary bike and I’d be exhausted. But there was still a lot of downtime where I couldn’t do anything but sit and watch TV. It was hard to keep my sanity. It was then that I fed my addiction to online poker. I would play for hours, gambling small amounts. I made a bit of money. I always say it can’t be too bad a habit if it passes the time and it makes me a little money.

It sounds cliched, but after the accident, I realized that every day of my life is a gift. I could have been done playing tennis at 24 years old. I could have been paralyzed. I was beginning to take my career for granted, and this was a wake-up call to me, that everything I love could be taken away from me very quickly.

It was also a blessing in disguise. The accident happened six weeks before my father died. My dad was such a proud man, he would never have told me how bad his health had gotten; I would have been off at a tournament somewhere when he died. Instead I was back in Connecticut in the house I was sharing with some friends, just a few miles from my parents. Once I started to get better, I’d go over to my dad’s house almost every day. I’d sit there next to the bed and talk to him about everything: memories of when I was a kid, life, tennis, even the future. When he got too tired to talk, he’d just lie there and I’d sit there quietly next to him. Those last six weeks were the most precious weeks of my life so far. I’m glad that I was there for him. So, in a way, I’m happy I got hurt.

When my dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer in March 2003, it changed my whole life. He was a strong man, the type who never complained about being sick. I guess I thought he would never die.

My father tried everything: chemo, experimental drugs. He would work out, take tons of vitamins and he tried his hardest to be upbeat. One day, I was with him and a friend called. Dad talked for 15 minutes, being very energetic. Then when he hung up the phone, he was exhausted. A 15-minute call had worn him out.

After he died, I got zoster—commonly known as shingles—a viral infection probably brought on by stress. It paralyzed part of my face. I had a real crooked smile and I couldn’t control my facial muscles. I looked awful. I could tell who my real friends were. Some people would say, “It doesn’t look too bad,” when I knew it really did. My real friends would say, “James, you look awful.” And then they’d make jokes about it. I needed the release of laughter during that time, so I really appreciated my friends who would joke about it.

It helped me not to be so vain. I was always really concerned about how I dressed and how I looked, what I did with my hair. Now I couldn’t control my face. I looked disfigured. And I realized that it was superficial anyway. I hadn’t changed on the inside.

When I got hurt, I felt like I was playing really well. I was thinking that my ranking was going to drop, that my career was going to suffer. I was focused on myself and my needs and my career. That type of selfishness is common among athletes. And now I’m amazed that I was so self-centered.

This last year has shown me that I have reserves of strength that I never knew I had. I used to think I’d fall apart if I couldn’t play tennis anymore. When I faced that possibility in reality, I know I would have been okay. I used to think that I’d die if anything happened to one of my parents. Even though it was very painful, I have found that it’s possible to press on. It helps that I have my brother and my mother to lean on. They have gotten me through some hard times.

I used to think that crying was a sign of weakness, but I have learned that’s not true. Sometimes, when things get overwhelming, you get emotional. That emotional outlet allows you to continue to face the things that are happening in your life. Since my father died, random memories of him would make me cry. I have had days where I laugh a lot, and days where I bawl a lot. It’s all part of healing.

Most important, though, is the fact that I’m still very blessed. I was blessed to spend time with my father near the end. I was blessed that I wasn’t hurt as badly as I could have been. I am blessed with a good family, a great career, a new house and a great life. It could all be taken away from me tomorrow, but I feel fortunate that I’ve had it for the time that I have.

When bad things happen, it’s easy to ask, “Why me?” But when good things happen, we seem to feel like we deserve them on some level. So when good things happen, I try to ask myself, “Why me?” It helps put things in perspective.

I don’t think I’m any stronger than the next guy. There are people all around the world who are dealing with worse problems than I am. You don’t know how strong you can be until you are tested. I like to think I’m passing the test.

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