Thursday, February 21, 2008

Nick Cafferky Feature

Injured 'Sports Junkie' Maintains His Focus
By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 21, 2008; VA14

Through a window near his wheelchair, 17-year-old Nick Cafferky can see the top of a 20-foot-tall chain-link fence that wraps around a full-size basketball court in the back yard of his Great Falls home.

Four 35-foot light poles tower above the green court, and another hoop in the driveway is lowered to "dunking level."

This had been Cafferky's haven, where he became what Langley High School boys' basketball Coach Travis Hess called a "sports junkie."

In August, Cafferky was swimming in Dewey Beach, Del. He dived into a wave, and everything changed.

"When I hit the sand, I heard a crack, and I immediately knew what had happened," said Cafferky, who was paralyzed in the Aug. 12 accident. "I realized I couldn't move, and I started taking water. . . . I was almost positive I was going to die. I wasn't scared about it. I had already accepted that I was done. In the water, I had accepted it."

Cafferky was rescued by lifeguards, but his spinal column was crushed at the C-5 vertebra, leaving him a quadriplegic, with no movement or feeling below his chest and with fair motion in his arms and limited control of his fingers.

Before the accident, Cafferky was a referee, coach and player with Great Falls Basketball, a youth league, where he befriended Langley varsity basketball players and played with six of them on the Great Falls Rapids, a select travel team.

There's a separation now, however, between basketball memories from before the accident and after.

"There was only one sad time in all this," said Nick's mother, Elisa. "It was between Nick and his dad."

In the family's living room, from beneath his sideways-cocked baseball cap, Cafferky shifted his eyes toward his father, Mike.

"He was just getting to a point where he could swat me and then taunt me in front of all my friends," Mike Cafferky said, as he recounted the moment that he and his 6-foot-4 son realized there would be less use for the backyard playground they had designed six years ago.

"This is one of the things where I'm surprised with myself," Nick Cafferky said. "I'm not bitter about not being able to play; I just enjoy watching it right now."

And watching Langley's basketball team, which entered this week's Virginia AAA Liberty District tournament as the No. 2 seed with an 18-4 record -- its best season since 1983 -- "has been as much a part of his therapy and rehabilitation," Elisa said. "Nick still feels like he's a part of all these activities."

For the past three years, Cafferky, an aspiring sportswriter, has interviewed and written about Langley athletes for his column, Caff's Corner, in the student newspaper, the Saxon Scope. He continues to put out the column, with the help of voice-recognition software.

Just as Langley basketball has been crucial to Cafferky's recovery, Saxon players say he has become an inspiration to the team.

"When we warm up and we see Nick come through the door, we'll all whisper to each other, 'Yo, Nick's here, Nick's here,' " said Langley junior forward Derek Baker. "I don't know if it pushes us, but it kind of brings us down to Earth. . . . For me personally, growing up with the kid and seeing the condition he's in, I want to just go out and, not win one for Nick, but it's like, he's here, so let's give him a good show."

Learning to Function

Although he has continued the column, Cafferky hasn't returned to school. He expects that to happen March 3, at which time he will also resume his duties as the Scope's sports editor. From this month's edition of the paper:

A fter a crushing loss to the rival McLean Highlanders earlier this season, the Saxons had two paths to choose from. Either they could fall apart and end a good run, or come together and be the best team that Langley has had in years.

"He's been doing a lot of his work from rehab," said Mary Dolson, an English teacher and faculty adviser for the Scope.

Cafferky has spent the past four months in inpatient and outpatient care at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, a rehabilitation facility that specializes in restoration therapies.
Scabs have formed on his elbows where mat burns wore away the skin as he practiced lifting himself during grueling physical therapy sessions.

"I don't just want to be able to do those things, I expect to be able to do them," Cafferky said. A dark stubble has developed over his sharp cheekbones, hiding evidence of the 45 pounds he lost during a 51-day recovery period in the Intensive Care Unit at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del.

According to Elise Babbitt Welker, a spokeswoman for the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Cafferky transfers in and out of his wheelchair with supervision and without the use of the transfer board he required initially. He can dress with minimal assistance. He is able to roll right and left independently and requires minimal assistance to move from lying down to sitting up and vice versa.

"His therapists and physician have never heard him say, 'Why me?' or feel sorry for himself in any way," Welker said.

Despite Cafferky's five-day-a-week rehab sessions, which often leave him exhausted, he has been to almost every Langley boys' basketball home game this season and a few road games. He often finishes rehab early to make the trip from Baltimore.

Langley senior Ryan Davenport is one of several players who keep in touch with Cafferky through phone calls, text messages and Facebook chats.

"When it first happened, everyone came to the hospital and was very nice," Davenport said. "The hard part then comes when you start getting further and further away, and people start forgetting. Just having a conversation and staying in touch now can go a long way."

School Support

Some entries on Cafferky's blog, at, detail his struggle and frustration. But much of his writing is related to what he has seen on the court this season:

Jan. 15:
After therapy, I went to the Langley game, where we played the best team in the district [Madison]. It was as good of a game as anyone could have imagined. I got a little worried in the second half when we were losing, but thankfully we won in overtime.

Jan. 27:
These last couple of days have been pretty good for me. On Friday, I resumed therapy, but this time Austin and Kyle took me and best of all, Langley beat McLean in the rematch in McLean's gym. . . . Anyways, the game was really tight and we won another game against McLean. The best part was I actually got to hold the Rotary cup (the trophy they gave to the winner of the game).

For its season opener Dec. 4, Langley had a "Nick Cafferky Night," in which proceeds went toward helping pay for equipment that Cafferky needs for home-based therapy, which he will start next week. More than 500 students wore dark-green T-shirts with "Team Nick" written in yellow letters across the front.

"It was just so heartwarming," Mike Cafferky said.

In the family's home, a 12-foot banner with "Welcome Home Nick," in Langley's green-and-gold school colors, hangs in the living room. Beneath it, Elisa Cafferky holds up a laptop computer with a picture of Nick Cafferky sitting in a beach chair just 20 minutes before he dived into the wave.

"There's going to be a day when I get back into basketball," Cafferky said. "My triceps just aren't there yet."

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