The game began and the opposing team won the coin toss. Emeka Nnaka was on defense first, where he thrived.
The ball was booted into the air. Nnaka shed the first tackle, and then ran through a block. The returner was the next one in line facing Nnaka and coming full speed. CRACK. The sound of the helmet-to-helmet contact reverberated throughout the crowd.
“I remember the impact…BOW,” Nnaka said with his eyes closed. “Right then and there I could feel my head change directions, but I couldn’t feel my body drop. Have you ever just had a weird day? Everything surrounding that day felt different,” Nnaka said as he laid back in his mechanically-enhanced bed.
He looked up and pointed to a massive poster on the wall. The poster was of him and teammates walking onto the field during his last football game.
“That was about eight minutes before the injury,” he said.
It was the last time the 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound defensive end would play football.
Nnaka grew up playing sports but loved football the most. He planned to walk on for a college team, but those plans were seemingly shot down when his parents insisted he go to ORU.
“I initially didn’t want to go,” he said. “They didn’t have a football team, and I really wasn’t focused on what they had to offer.”
He was accepted despite turning in a late application.
“I was heated,” Nnaka laughed. “I guess God wanted me to be there.”
Nnaka would bump into Paul Willemstein while working at the Aerobics Center. Willemstein noticed Nnaka’s massive frame and suggested he play semi-pro football.
Nnaka got in touch with the Oklahoma Thunder football team. He made the squad. By his second season he had made a name for himself with punishing tackles.
Then June, 2009 came. The weird feeling returned.
“The whole day started off weird. I didn’t ride the team bus, and I’d forgotten a lot of my gear,” Nnaka said with a reminiscent tone. “I remember before every game my mom and I would pray Psalm 91 together. But this particular day mom was unavailable. As I ran onto the field, I just felt swaggy,” he said flashing his wide, contagious smile.
Seconds into the game the feeling was gone. Nnaka laid on the ground motionless, not knowing what was happening, but still conscious of his surroundings.
“My teammates kept saying, ‘Meka, get up, the play is over.’ I said, just give me a second; I’ve got a stinger. The feeling you get when you hit your funny bone…imagine that, but all over your entire body; that’s what it felt like.”
The chaos of the moment caused frenzy amongst the trainers and coaches on the field. Meanwhile, Nnaka was stuck to the cold, hard turf unsure of why his body wasn’t responding.
“I tried to move my right hand, but it was completely locked up. It wouldn’t budge. I lifted my left hand, but it came back down instantly, smacking my helmet. The only thing I could hear was people repeating, C5…C6.”
The trainers, coaches and staff weren’t yelling out plays. They were yelling the number of vertebrae Nnaka had fractured.
“I was laying on my right leg. The trainers began to lift it up from under me, and I remember looking at it thinking, foot…ankle…shin…thigh. It’s all there, but I just couldn’t feel it,” said Nnaka.
The clock ticked slowly as the ambulance made its way from a neighboring town. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
An hour and 18 minutes passed before the ambulance arrived.
“I remember growing up seeing professional players, when they got hurt, put their thumb up to show the crowd they were okay. I wanted to do that, but for the life of me I couldn’t get my hand to do it… I just couldn’t do it.”
Later at the hospital, there were other things Nnaka had trouble doing.
“The doctors cut my uniform off and put me into the MRI. I remember trying to breathe was so hard,” he said, holding his chest as if he was running out of breath. “I felt like I was fighting for my life.”
Nnaka was paralyzed.
“At one point even during the first couple months of therapy, I was thinking of getting back on the field for the rest of the season,” he said with a grin.
The conversation fast-forwarded to the rehabilitation process, which Nnaka explained passionately.
“The pain I felt while in therapy was excruciating. I also lost over 30 pounds of muscle mass in 10 days,” he said. “They pushed me. They asked me to do things I should have been able to do, but my body was saying I couldn’t do. I was getting frustrated with my body and the physical therapist. I just felt like I was living in a nightmare. I felt like my masculinity was taken from me.”
Emeka Nnaka the football player is long gone. What remains speaks of faith, strength and confidence.
“I know people need to see how I endure a seemingly unbearable circumstance before I can enjoy my paradise,” said Nnaka. “I believe I will walk again. One day. My injury doesn’t define me. It’s not who I am; it’s just what happened to me. I’m defined by how I respond to my injury,” he said boldly suddenly perking up in his bed. “A diamond is a piece of coal that withstood great amounts of pressure. I am that diamond.”