December 26, 2014. It’s the day after Christmas, and Penn State soccer forward Brett Gravatt is home for winter break and enjoying a day on the slopes with his brother. A sophomore transfer from Akron, Gravatt was one month removed from his first season at Penn State, playing in 11 matches and starting three. Despite not recording a goal in more than 300 minutes during the regular season, the defenseman from Dunn Loring, Va. scored his first career goal when it mattered most, a game-winner in the Lions’ 2-1 NCAA Tournament First Round victory over Hartwick.
For head coach Bob Warming, that game marked Gravatt’s arrival as a key contributor to the team, able to step up in big moments with the game on the line.
“The message to the guys before the game was ‘Don’t blend in. Stand out,’” Warming said after the game. “When the game is over with, know that you stood out and made some play. That you did something to help your team. And obviously Brett did that.”
“He wasn’t just another guy out there,” Warming added. “He took advantage of the moment, and helped our team go through.”
During the season, Gravatt overcame a knee injury and atrophy in his leg to make it onto the field, starting in the team’s final game, a 2-1 loss to Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Coming over from Akron, where he made two starts in 11 games as a freshman, he was ready to be a key piece for the reigning Big Ten champs. Warming wasn’t quite ready to play Gravatt in meaningful minutes, but he took note of his desire to keep working.
“The thing that was passionate about Brett was he wanted to play in the starting lineup now,” Warming said. “He just wasn’t quite ready yet, and that was very frustrating for him. I’m just pleased that he hung in there, kept his head in it, and made some progress.”
During the post-game press conference, the word “perseverance” was used often to describe Brett’s journey. After changing schools, swapping teammates, and battling through injuries, he could have let his first season at Penn State pass him by. But because of the support of his team, he continued to work hard and was able to step in when they needed him most.
“I credit the coaches, I credit the players. They’ve been encouraging and welcoming to me,” Gravatt said. “I just keep going, never stop, and it payed off in the end.”
Little did he know, Gravatt would need that persevering attitude to overcome the most challenging moment of his life, when he broke his back after a nasty fall while snowboarding, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. And just like during the season, his teammates were there for encouragement every step of the way.
“It all happened so fast. It was just a blur,” Gravatt remembers of the accident that would change his life forever. “All I really remember is going off a jump and then being in the hospital. My first thought was, ‘Is this really happening’? What’s going on?’ I was just trying to figure out what I injured.”
Gravatt’s brother immediately called their mother, Lora, to tell her what happened. Lora was out running errands at the mall to make last-minute preparations for the family vacation, a hiking trip at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia. Lora and the rest of the family were planning on picking up Brett and his brother at the ski resort the next day.
“That Friday night, I got a call from his brother that Brett was hurt,” Lora recalls. “And I didn’t really know at that point what was going on, and I don’t think he even knew. He just knew that Brett was hurt. But I just sensed then that something was horribly wrong, and I just started praying for Brett.”
Lora raced home and gathered the rest of her children and Brett’s father and started to head toward Lynchburg General Hospital, where Gravatt was admitted to the emergency room. On the way there, they received a call from the hospital, notifying them that Brett had suffered a serious spinal cord injury and was going to be airlifted to the hospital at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. An hour later, they met him in the E.R.
“As the night unfolded, we began to learn how significant of an injury this was,” Lora said. “When he first saw him in the E.R., he’s very calm and he’s communicative, but he’s in shock. All of us are. So basically at that point, we’re all trying to wrap our heads around what actually is going on.”
“The first thing I said was, ‘I love you, everything’s going to be okay.”
Gravatt underwent emergency back surgery at 1 a.m. to stabilize the fracture, requiring two rods and eight screws. Here, he learned he would no longer be able to walk, ending his college career and dream of playing professional soccer.
“Once I found out I was paralyzed and couldn’t use my lower limbs, I just asked my nurses what they thought my chances of walking were again,” Brett said. “And they all were very shy, ignoring the question. They were like, ‘we’re not supposed to answer that’ and tried to avoid it. But eventually, they said it was very unlikely [to walk again], but they couldn’t tell the future.”
Perhaps the enormity of the situation hadn’t sunk in yet, or maybe it was Brett’s way of coping with the news, but either way, he wasn’t shaken. He’d persevered before, and was just going to have to put his head down and get back to work — just like he did during his first season at Penn State.
“I wasn’t saddened by it,” Brett said. “I don’t know. It never really hit me. I accepted it, and it was just news. Of course it was this awful thing, but I didn’t take it like how I thought I should. I should have taken it a lot worse than I did, but I just accepted it. I was fine with it.”
That pragmatic mindset is what has allowed Gravatt to remain positive. He has a unique brand of self-deprecating humor that he voices on Twitter, often poking fun at himself for being in a wheelchair.
Always nice to relax and get off your feet at the end of the day
— Brett Gravatt (@BrettGravatt) April 10, 2015
For height now am I still 6foot or 4 foot nothing ?
— Brett Gravatt (@BrettGravatt) April 9, 2015
Two reasons I would not be good at stand up comedy 1. I’m not funny 2. I can’t stand.
— Brett Gravatt (@BrettGravatt) April 9, 2015
“It’s not about having to cope with anything,” Brett said, explaining the jokes. “It’s just how I feel about my situation. It’s good laughs and humor.”
“In life, being able to laugh at yourself is a measure of humility and good health, so to be able to see Brett accept his situation and find humor in it and embrace the challenge of it is just inspiring,” Lora added. “It’s hard to be in his presence and feel down about the situation because he’s accepted it and moved on to what’s next.”
Lora explained that oftentimes when people encounter someone in a wheelchair after a catastrophic injury, it can be awkward because the person doesn’t know what to say. With Brett’s humor, he lowers those barriers, making it easier for people to interact with him.
“I’ve been thrown a lot of challenges in life and been taught it’s just how you react to it,” Brett said. “And so you can complain and sulk about the challenge, or you can embrace it. Being happy is a choice that you make. This whole process has been a challenge. Its been a challenge every day. You have to wake up, problem solve, and live life.”
Those thoughts were only echoed by his mother when she was first able to speak with him after surgery. He was flown to Shepherd Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta a week later on Jan. 6 to start his recovery process, the beginning of his journey back to living a normal life.
“The first significant conversation that I remember having with him was ‘Don’t let anybody tell you what you cannot do,’” Lora said. “You’re an overcomer, and God has been preparing you for this your whole life. You’ve overcome many things, so whatever this is going to be, you just attack it with the same tenacity that you’ve attacked every other goal in your life.’”
While the recovery and physical therapy period is a grueling process for some, as a college athlete, Gravatt found it quite easy. He’s already completed the mandatory rehab, but continues to go the gym everyday to lift weights and play basketball.
“God left me with a lot of hard work and an athletic body, so compared to some of the other patients, it was a breeze,” he said. “I can go to the gym and workout on my own, and it’s all on myself to stay in shape, to build muscle. Anything that I want to do, I can do.”
Though he was far from defeated by the news, Brett still had to come to terms with the idea that he could no longer play soccer. After growing up playing baseball, Brett switched his allegiance to soccer and became a highly sought after recruit, choosing to play for the 2010 NCAA Champions and two-time NCAA runner-up Akron Zips.
“Soccer was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a professional,” Brett said. “But [the injury]opened up many opportunities. The Paralympic sports, stuff you never dreamed about because you don’t think you’re going to have a spinal cord injury, but all these opportunities come up.”
“I want to get into wheelchair racing and see how far I can go. The next Paralympics is 2020 in Tokyo. I dream of the Paralympics, so take that for a ride and see where it goes.”
But while his involvement with playing soccer might be over, he’s still going to be part of the team. After taking summer classes, he plans to return to Penn State as a full-time student in the fall, where he’ll serve as a student coach. He’ll help with video analysis, cutting film for the players, and helping out the coaches in the office.
Though it will be at least another few months until he’s reunited with his teammates, Coach Warming and the soccer team have made it their mission to be with Brett every step of the way, promising the family their support. Warming went to visit Brett in the hospital within days after the accident, and a group of teammates soon followed, bringing with them a reminder of his Blue and White family.
“After Virginia, when I had my surgery, a couple of players came down, and they brought Penn State gifts.” Brett said. “They brought a pillow and blankets, and I had those wherever I went. It was a great reminder whenever I was in my room that there were people thinking about me at school.”
“It was just a great feeling,” he added. “The coaches would call me every week, and players would come down and just to know that they cared and were worried about me — just to see their faces was a huge relief. It made everything better. It motivated me to want to get back and around those guys. Be a part of the team again.”
In addition to visits, Warming lobbied Penn State for funds to fly players down to visit Brett during the three months he spent in Atlanta. He arranged for Brett to have a conversation with former USA soccer star Landon Donovan. For Brett’s welcome home party in March, Warming coordinated vans to drive the team to see Brett for the afternoon at his home in Virginia.
Even parents of other players are showing their support. Last Sunday, Brett went and watched the Nittany Lions play a scrimmage at Loyola, and the parent’s arranged to have a party to celebrate Brett’s birthday a week in advance before April 12, complete with a decorated cake.
“They’ve really gone above and beyond,” Lora said. “You think okay, he’ll get some cards and things like that, but the Penn State community and the soccer team has just gone above and beyond.”
Along with the emotional support, the Penn State community is helping to lift the financial burden. Lora said the family has been so consumed with Brett’s recovery on a day-to-day basis that it’s hard to identify what their needs are. With the support they’ve received through donations on “Praying 4 Brett” YouCaring page, the Gravatts have raised $50,202 of their stated $60,000 goal, covering accessibility upgrades to the Gravatt’s residence, transportation to support his mobility, and treatment and rehab.
“The financial contribution of the team parents and alumni and current families of Penn State has been so substantial and so helpful at a time when families can be completely financially devastated by a catastrophic injury like this,” Lora explained. “The financial support has been so life-giving, and we just really want to thank the whole Penn State community.”
Moving forward, Gravatt is excited about getting back on campus to be with his friends and teammates. The long recovery process is far from over, but with new goals in place, including reaching the 2020 Paralympic Games, he’s ready to start living his life anew.
“I feel like life will reset and be back to normal as close as it was,” he said. “We’ll get out of the stage of recovering from the injury and then enter life after the injury, which will be good mentally and help me move on to the future.”
And who knows. If Gravatt has it his way, maybe we’ll see the Penn Stater carrying the torch at the opening ceremony in Tokyo.
Featured Image: Brett Gravatt/Instagram