Leader Blues

Saturday, September 20, 2008

SPORTS>>Double jeopardy

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

If you’re one of those people who subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason, the story that follows may just challenge that belief.

Two weeks ago Friday, the McGregor family of Cabot was chugging along just fine, father Dale tending to his three Sonic franchises, mother Tina treating massage-therapy clients, and oldest son Les easing in to his first days as a senior at Cabot High.

Later in the evening the family would all head over to Jacksonville to watch Les, a tight end for the Cabot Panthers, in action against the Red Devils.

An uneventful Friday on a brisk early September evening, special only in the fact that it ushered in a brand new football season – the final one for Les McGregor, a promising one for the Cabot Panthers, who were picked to compete for the 7A state title this season.

There was a hint of fall in the air as dusk began to settle over the stadium and the atmosphere became charged as kickoff approached. There was nothing to indicate that in a couple of hours, Dale and Les would be sharing an ambulance ride to
North Metro Hospital, each being pumped with pain medication.

With a roster rich in talent and depth, the Cabot Panthers really have no superstars. Their Dead-T attack is dependent upon three or four running backs to chew up turf and seven down linemen to provide the push.

Les McGregor certainly wasn’t a star. But as a solid blocking tight end who had played many games in his sophomore season and all of his junior year, he was an integral part of Cabot’s ground-churning machine.

Cabot has rarely been this excited about its team and brought most of the town to Jan Crow Stadium in Jacksonville on Sept. 5. And what they saw in the early going confirmed all the preseason hype: This was a very good Cabot team.

On the final play of the half, Cabot did something it rarely does, and in the process set in motion a chain of events that was so bizarre you might be tempted to laugh if you didn’t know of the human pain involved. Cabot decided to throw the ball.

Les McGregor broke open briefly and extended to catch the pass from quarterback Seth Bloomberg, leaving his body fully exposed to a safety he says he still doesn’t remember seeing. He ended up in an unmoving heap on the turf while the crowd went stony silent.

FEARS CONFIRMED

“Earlier in the year, Les had had knee and shoulder surgery,” Dale says. “I knew this being his first game, he would be vulnerable to some hits. But that was the worst hit I’ve seen him take in three-and-a-half years of football. That’s the worst hit I’ve seen anyone in high school take in a long time.

“His body contorted in the air before he came down. It was ugly.”

Dale’s fears were confirmed, he says, when he saw assistant coach Danny Spencer looking for him and saw him mouth his name a few times.

“I didn’t panic, I stayed calm,” Dale says.

Making his way down the stairs in the visitor’s bleachers, Dale noticed that the throngs of students and fans that had massed along the bottom row made normal access to the field nearly impossible. Which is when he decided to jump down onto the track from the front railing of the bleachers, a drop of six or seven feet.

When he hit the ground, he knew immediately he had broken his hip. Despite that, he tried to get back up but collapsed to the ground.

In the meantime, Les was enduring some of the worst pain he says he can ever recall as trainers tried time and again to get his hip joint back in place. He estimates it took them five tries before they succeeded.

“It was probably the most pain I’ve ever been in,” Les admits. “I had to put my mouthpiece in. They were yanking my leg trying to get it back in.”

Les was finally taken off the field, where he was told that his father had hurt himself, too, though Les had no idea the extent of his father’s injuries. He was told he had fallen down the steps but that he would be okay.

After the medics had taken care of Les, they went over to the track in front of the Cabot bleachers, where Dale informed them he’d broken his hip. He thinks they doubted him at first, but once they determined his hip was broken, they strapped him onto a flatboard and loaded him into the ambulance … right beside his injured son.

STRANGE, PAINFUL RIDE

“The first thing Les said to me was, ‘Dad, are you okay?’” Dale says, choking up a little at the memory. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I broke my hip. I was trying to get to you.’ Les was a lot of comfort to me in the ambulance.”

Tina had missed the entire spectacle, having gone across the street to the bathroom. Her 13-year-old son Madison and a group of kids from their church went looking for her and informed her what had happened when she returned to the parking lot.

Both Les and Dale were in a lot of pain on the ride to North Metro, despite the immediate introduction of pain medicine in the ambulance. Dale credits close friend and Cabot Fire Chief Phil Robinson, who rode with them to the hospital, with helping keep them both calm and comforted.

Tina recalls it being a crazy night at the emergency room, which was flooded with patients. The doctors got them back almost immediately, though they put them in separate rooms across the hall from one another.

“They were talking back and forth at each other,” Tina says. “It was tough, not knowing who to be with. And (the hospital staff) was hollering at me for being in the hall. I was thinking, if you didn’t want me in the hall, you should have put them closer together. I’d be with one for a while, then go to the other.”

Despite being heavily sedated at that point, Dale was still in excruciating pain.

“Les would hear me cry out and he would call out from the other room, ‘Dad, I’m in here and it’s going to be okay.’ And I’d say,
‘All right, I’m just glad you’re okay. That makes me feel better.’”

When it was determined that Dale would need surgery, he and Tina decided to have him transferred to Conway Regional, where they had some good orthopedist friends. About 3:30 on Saturday morning, shortly before Dale went into surgery, Tina told Dale that Les, who had been released and was spending the night with close family friends, was resting comfortably and would be okay.

That’s about the same time that Tina allowed herself to breathe.

PAIN NOT JUST PHYSICAL

“It was pretty tough,” she says. “I remember when they got Dale so he could finally sleep and wasn’t in excruciating pain anymore and I thought, ‘Can I cry now?’ At that point, I had just gone and gone and gone.”

Dale had four pins put in his hip and was released the following Tuesday. But both he and Les have continued to endure almost constant pain. Thursday was the first day since he broke his hip 13 days earlier that Dale was able to get out of the house. He is using a walker, but his doctors hope he can start putting weight on his leg around mid-October. He could be walking without a walker or crutches by late October or early November.

Les, too, continues to suffer discomfort, not only from the hip, which bothers him whether lying down or sitting, but from a possible torn meniscus as well. His physical pain, however, may pale to the emotional pain of realizing his football career his over.

It is especially difficult knowing this could be a very special season for Cabot football.

“Last Friday night (against Sylvan Hills), not running through the banner for the first time was tough,” Les says. “I thought about (possibly making it to the championship game) that night, that I wouldn’t get to play in it. I want to win so bad, want to get there so bad. But I wanted to be able to play in it.”

Dale’s father says he’s just thankful that Les got to play so much in his first two seasons, something fairly uncommon at talent-rich Cabot.

“And even though he won’t be able to hit the field his senior year, he’s still a part of the team,” he says. “The players and the coaches have just been wonderful. (Head coach Mike Malham and athletic director) Johnny White have been so gracious, knowing what we’re going through as a family.

“They don’t want to see these kids get hurt. And when they do get hurt, it hurts them.”

HURTING, BUT THANKFUL

Gratitude seems to be the dominant emotion for Dale, who is clearly overcome by the outpouring of support the family has received from the entire community, from their church to the their family – his mother and father drove up from Mississippi early Saturday morning – to the team and the school.

“Thank God for all of them,” he says. “Because I don’t know how we’d have made it. The calls and the prayers, the meals. Cabot’s really a great community. It’s been wonderful.”

He probably saves his highest praise for Tina, who not only had to tend to an injured son and husband but had to continue to manage a household that includes a younger son and daughter.

“It was a whirlwind for us,” Dale says. “Tina is the one that held the family together during the crisis, that’s for sure. She kept all our ducks in a row.”

Probably not enough time has passed for Dale to consider just how bizarre the entire ordeal was, but he’s hardly bitter over the events of Sept. 5.

“I probably could have made that jump off the railing 99 times out of 100 and been fine,” he says with a wry smile. “For whatever reason, I hit wrong.”