Paralysis fails to slow athlete’s drive
Brett Gravatt’s hair hangs below his shoulders.
Sometimes it’s in a ponytail, sometimes it’s tamed by a headband. When the brown locks are tucked behind his ears, they reach toward his chest and back, loose and free for the wind to tousle.
It’s not uncommon to see unique hairstyles among soccer players – it’s something they take pride in. Gravatt has always wanted long hair since he was little. “I don’t know why, it’s just me,” he said.
Since September, Gravatt has been debating whether to cut off his hair to donate it to charity to make wigs for people who lose their hair because of medical conditions. That was until he learned that an acceptable donation would require cutting at least eight inches.
“I might just grow it really long, give it some time,” Gravatt said, his mind seemingly made up. “That way I can still have my long hair after I donate it.”
It’s admirable, of course, that anyone – never mind an athlete whose hairstyle is so important to him – would cut off his hair as a gift.
In Gravatt’s case, it might even be more so.
About a year ago, on the day after Christmas, he was paralyzed from the waist down in a snowboarding accident.
Gone was Gravatt’s ability to walk. Gone were the days of being able to even reach the top shelf of a bookcase.
Gone were his dreams of playing professional soccer.
Yet, Gravatt hasn’t slowed down just because he’s bound to a wheelchair.
He’s going to school. He’s driving a car with hand pedals. He’s working as a student assistant coach of the Penn State men’s soccer team. And, without missing a beat, he’s once again a competitive athlete – this time in track and field.
Gravatt races in his wheelchair on weekends around the country and has consistently improved his times in the 100-meter, 200, 800 and 1500. He began wheelchair racing at a national meet in New Jersey last spring.
“In April, we put him in his first racing chair,” said Teri Jordan, Penn State’s disability recreation programs coordinator, who also coaches the university’s disabled athletes. “Four days later, he came in fourth. I kind of pushed him a little bit.”
His new athletic adventure is fostered by the Ability Athletes program at Penn State, which allows disabled students to compete. Penn State, the University of Illinois and the University of Arizona are the three schools that have track and field programs.
“It’s a crazy coincidence I happened to be at Penn State,” Gravatt said. “I probably wouldn’t
have gotten into wheelchair racing without being here. It’s a blessing to have it here and to be able to train right away, just four months after getting hurt.”
Gravatt didn’t grow up wanting to be a soccer player.
The whole family is athletic, and Brett was always playing some kind of sport with his older siblings, Christian and Brittany.
His mother, Lora, and father, Carlton, would join their children in the yard to play Wiffle ball.
“He’s a little goofball. He’s laid back and goes with the flow,” Christian said. “He’s always been very competitive. He hates to lose.”
Gravatt immersed himself in a world of sports: Wiffle ball in the backyard, traveling with a baseball team, playing basketball at the gym with his siblings, or watching sports on television.
His other major interest is movies, with his love of comedies reflecting his light-hearted personality. Although he’s grown to appreciate the art of cinematography, it is comedians like Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell who have kept him laughing. “I like to have fun, it helps you deal with problems,” Gravatt said. “I’m never too serious. I like to make people laugh.”
Gravatt primarily played baseball until he reached seventh grade and his middle-school soccer team needed more players. He said he didn’t think twice about dropping baseball and moving to soccer, even though it was a sport his family had never played or watched.
He eventually decided he wanted to make his life all about soccer. When he was in high school in Virginia, he transferred to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, an institution known for attracting and training talented young athletes. The boarding school has small classes and a soccer program that is highly recruited by colleges. Playing at IMG, Gravatt caught the eye of many coaches, including those from the University of Akron and Penn State.
He chose Akron.
Evan Finney hadn’t seen Gravatt in a year. The two had attended the IMG Academy together, both aspiring to play soccer at the highest levels. Then Finney enrolled at Penn State and Gravatt at Akron.
In the spring of 2014, Finney invited his old teammate to see what Penn State was all about. They went to see Hardwell, an electronic dance music D.J., and it was the perfect environment for the two to reunite.
Realizing that Gravatt was unhappy at Akron, Finney asked his friend to consider transferring to Penn State. The Nittany Lions weren’t quite the soccer powerhouse that Akron was, but Gravatt would get the playing time he wanted, and he would be at a school that valued both sports and academics.
Luckily, he wouldn’t have to make the move alone. A teammate, Riley Grant, was also looking to leave Akron. “Neither of us were getting the minutes we wanted. I knew I needed to transfer but I didn’t know where,” Grant said. “Brett suggested I look into Penn State with him, a big school with great academics — the total package.”
In the fall of 2014, the two made the move to Penn State, where they would be roommates.
However, Grant would get his start with the Lions that fall much sooner than Gravatt.
In the summer before arriving at Penn State, Gravatt suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee that required surgery. He missed training camp and the start of the season. A blood clot in the knee further delayed his return to the game.
Penn State coach Bob Warming said it was hard to watch his new player suffer. “He had very high expectations for himself,” the coach said. “His surgery over the summer had gone bad and he was on blood thinners. If you bumped into him, he could internally bleed out. It was really a life-threatening situation.”
Warming gradually worked Gravatt into the lineup that fall by letting him sub occasionally.
Finally, Gravatt got his first start of the season, against Akron.
“He was just so hyped because it was a perfect situation,” Grant said. “It was one of the best games I’ve ever seen him play. Some of the things he was doing were unreal.”
Gravatt, a defenseman, started the last few games of the season and into the NCAA tournament.
He prolonged Penn State’s stay in the postseason with his first collegiate goal.
With his left foot, his weaker one, Gravatt blasted the ball from 20 yards out, placing it just inside the far goalpost and beyond the reach of the Hartwick College goalkeeper. The goal sent Penn State into the second round of the tournament.
“It was perseverance,” Warming said. “Here’s a guy who was really having a rough time and was really frustrated, but he stuck with it.”
Gravatt celebrated simply, “acting like it was nothing,” Grant said.
It would be the only collegiate goal Gravatt would ever score.
Gravatt visited his brother Christian at Liberty University over the 2014 winter break to get a feel for what his life was like in Lynchburg, Virginia.
On Dec. 26, Christian took Brett to a mountain near the campus where he frequently snowboards. Brett, who had snowboarded occasionally, was not as seasoned as his brother, but he was up for the afternoon activity anyway.
As he made his way down the snow-covered slope, he lost his balance.
The next thing he remembers is waking up in an ambulance.
When he landed on his back, Gravatt had fractured his T6 thoracic vertebra and injured his spinal cord. Within an hour of arriving at a local hospital, Gravatt was airlifted to the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, where two rods and eight screws were surgically inserted that night.
Warming received a text from Gravatt shortly after the accident. “It read that he had fallen in a snowboarding accident and that it was stupid, or something like that. And,” – Warming paused for a second – “he said he wouldn’t be able to walk again.”
After Warming took some time to grasp what he had just learned, he sent a text to his team to tell them the sad news.
Even before receiving his coach’s message, Finney had suspected something was wrong. Gravatt had gotten a GoPro camera a month earlier and was posting videos or pictures almost daily from it.
Gravatt had told his teammate he would be going to an artificial snowboarding park at some point over winter break, and Finney said he was looking forward to seeing what Gravatt captured there with his new camera.
“One day went by, I got no text,” Finney said. “Two days went by. I was thinking, ‘This is kind of odd.’”
Finney himself had gone skiing a few hours before receiving the text from Warming. That made the terrible news resonate even more. “It was a big reality check for me,” he said.
Once Gravatt was moved to a rehabilitation center in Atlanta, Warming set up trips for Gravatt’s teammates to visit.
Grant visited him around St. Patrick’s Day. He said it was weird to see the usually upbeat Gravatt struggling. “He was doing all right,” Grant said. “Obviously he wasn’t in the best of moods.”
When Finney visited, it was an even more difficult time for Gravatt. With about a week left of his rehabilitation, Gravatt had developed Clostridium difficile colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine resulting from an infection. He was bedridden for over a week.
“I was in the hospital for two months, and I should have only been there for one. I was depleted and had no energy, stuck in bed for eight days,” Gravatt said. “I couldn’t even watch television. I just sat and bed and watched the clock go.”
Gravatt did know that he wanted to return to athletic competition.
That’s when Jordan, who has been working with disabled athletes for nearly two decades, entered the picture.
“After his injury, I reached out to Bob Warming and said that when Brett’s ready, if he’s interested, we would be happy to help him transition to a new world of sport,” said Jordan. “Around February, Brett called me and we talked for a bit.”
Gravatt said he was considering basketball and track and field, and he ultimately chose track and field because of his endurance from training as a soccer player.
Gravatt had accepted that he would never walk again. Now he finally realized that he wouldn’t have to give up sports.
During Penn State soccer’s home opener on Aug. 28, Gravatt wheeled himself across the empty field after pregame warmups. The imprints left by his wheels traced his path to the locker room, where his teammates were preparing for the home opener against the University of San Francisco.
As he rolled past them at a leisurely pace, spectators in the student section saw Gravatt for the first time since his accident eight months before. They stood and cheered.
On Sept. 27, there was a celebration. For the first time during the 2015 season, Gravatt, who is still on scholarship, joined his teammates on the field as the lineup was announced.
His parents stood behind their son wearing white T-shirts with his old jersey number 16 in the middle of a blue and white soccer ball. Fans in the crowd and the rest of the Penn State team were wearing identical shirts.
The soccer team was celebrating Ability Athletes Day, and Gravatt was the star.
He was joined on the field by three of his track and field teammates and Jordan, their coach.
Gravatt said he appreciates the opportunity to promote what he and his new teammates do despite their physical limitations. But sometimes ceremony humbles him. “I just show up wherever they tell me to be,” he said.
Now, he said, he works to be an inspiration.
Having Gravatt back with the team was important to Warming. He talked to Gravatt about being an assistant coach, learning recruiting and making videos for the team.
Gravatt, a junior communications major, missed a semester because of the accident, but he is still on a soccer scholarship and is working to graduate in May 2017.
“Now his role on the bench was going to be even more important because he was going to help us lead the team,” Warming said. “I have valued his input as a player. I didn’t know all the talents Brett had. He is really, really talented.”
Finney said it never really made him or his teammates uncomfortable to see Gravatt in a wheelchair instead of running around on the field. But what astonished Finney was how quickly Gravatt moved back into being a student-athlete.
“I knew if I was in his position, I knew I would still be so depressed and distraught,” Finney said. “He just has a different outlook on life. And that just sets him apart from everybody else.”
Christian, his brother, said he wasn’t surprised.
“He’s always been very determined,” Christian said. “There’s a lot of things we can’t control, but almost always does he accomplish it one way or another.”
Most days, Gravatt wakes up early, practices on the track, goes to class, works on video for the soccer team, helps out at practice, and then does homework.
When he has down time, as rare as it is, he’s usually resting or catching up on homework. He said he lives in the moment.
Gravatt said he doesn’t know how far track and field or coaching will take him. But, he said, he does know he wants to do them as long as he can.
Competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is unrealistic, Gravatt said, but the 2020 Games in Tokyo are certainly a goal. In the meantime, he is working toward racing in marathons and practicing with his teammates who will compete in Rio.
As for coaching, Gravatt has always been interested in teaching soccer. Working with the Penn State team has reassured him that coaching is a good fit.
“I can’t run or ... be out there to kick a ball,” he said. “That part I’ll never be able to do. But to be able to do something helps me out a lot. It is hard not to be on the field with them, but to work behind the scenes fills that niche of wanting to be in soccer.”
Gravatt said he is unsure of what life has in store for him, but he said he’s not worried. Whether it has been changing schools, changing sports, or even changing the way he moves around, Gravatt has always adjusted to change.