Pat Reinhardt wrote her son's epitaph: "Farewell, Gallant Warrior."
But he didn't die.
By all measures Ed Reinhardt, a football-star-in-the-making at the University of Colorado, shouldn't have lived. After all, said the neurosurgeon who operated on him in Eugene, Ore., the kind of damage Reinhardt suffered in a game against the University of Oregon results in "a 90 percent mortality rate, and his damage was about as severe as you can get."
Even in the unlikely event that Reinhardt lived, said a neurosurgery professor at the University of Colorado Medical School, he would "most likely be in a vegetative state, tube-fed, not communicative." He was destined, according to an expert in brain injuries at the University of Miami's Biofeedback Laboratory, to be "nothing but a stare."
Ten years later Reinhardt is playing basketball in the driveway in front of his home in Littleton, Colo., a Denver suburb. His opponent misses a shot badly, and Reinhardt sneers. "Great shot," he says. Then he shoots. Nothing but net.
What happened in Eugene on the afternoon of Sept. 15, 1984, at first seemed ordinary. With 1:57 left in the football game between Colorado and Oregon, the Buffaloes trailed 27-20, and they had the ball on their own 25-yard line. Reinhardt, a 6'5", 235-pound tight end, lined up on the right side of the Colorado line. The previous week, in the first game of the season, the 19-year-old sophomore caught a school-record 10 passes against Michigan State and became the nation's second-leading receiver.
Reinhardt ran a six-yard route and turned inside as Buff quarterback Steve Vogel threw him the ball. Reinhardt caught it, ran another 13 yards and was hit by Oregon safeties Dan Wilken and Jeff Williams. Reinhardt's head was knocked around, at one point colliding with Wilken's thigh pad, before it hit the turf sharply but not ominously.
After lying on the field briefly, Reinhardt was able to walk unsteadily to the Colorado bench. Moments later, however, his pupils dilated, his jaw locked and he passed out. Watching the scene unfold from his seat in the stands, Dr. Arthur Hockey of Eugene, a neurosurgeon and Oregon season-ticket holder, instantly sensed a brain injury. He ran to the fallen player. Hockey recalls saying aloud that he wished the Colorado team doctor had Mannitol, a drug that reduces brain swelling. "Unbelievably," Hockey says now, "he had it." Reinhardt was rushed to nearby Sacred Heart General Hospital, and within a half hour Hockey was operating on the left side of the player's brain. During the tackle a blood vessel in Reinhardt's brain had burst when the brain crashed into the inside of his skull—the equivalent of a rear-end auto accident at high speed. The prognosis was dire.
When Pat Reinhardt heard of her son's injury, she was in Lincoln, Neb. She had gone there for a football game between the University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska, for which another of her sons, John, was a walk-on defensive lineman. As Pat flew to Ed's bedside in Oregon, a calmness came over her, and she spoke to God. "I know one thing," she said. "If he dies tonight, he'll be in heaven. If he dies, I will accept that. And in order to prove that to you, God, I'm going to write his epitaph."
That tended to, she threw her entire being into trying to save her son. At his side she whispered repeatedly, "Eddie, you can't leave us. You're too important to our family."