Level of Injury: C5-6
: A
Cause: Football injury
Age at onset: 16

There are certain things Van Brooks won’t tell you.

He won’t tell you that he was a leader on his high school football team—you’d have to hear that from his former coach. He won’t tell you that people consider him a star with a great sense of humor and “twinkling eyes.” You’d have to hear that from his college counseling director.

There are certain things Van Brooks won’t tell you because he’s not a young man who brags.

But he will tell you the simple facts of what happened on September 25, 2004 on a high school football field: that he lowered his head to make a tackle and collided full speed with the powerful leg of another player. He’ll explain how that moment after impact felt like a “stinger, like when you hit a funny bone and it tingles. My whole body felt like it was vibrating.”

He’ll tell you what went through his mind as he lay on the field: “I thought I would get up after 3 seconds. But then someone came over to help me and I couldn’t feel him touch me. The trainer did tests, moving my legs, asking me if I could feel it. But I couldn’t. I felt like I was floating. And I was scared. That’s pretty much it: I was scared.”

As Van’s head made contact, his spinal cord compressed, resulting in paralysis from the neck down. And what should have been a heroic football game at the start of a promising career became a tragedy.

But in many ways it remains heroic. Because since that day, Van has fought and won to regain almost complete movement in his upper body. He can put on clothes, brush his teeth, drive, attend college fulltime—things he never thought twice about are well-earned victories.

There are other heroic results of September 25, 2004. Like the fact that Van has reached levels of closeness in his personal relationships that he’d never thought possible. “I’ve come to appreciate the people I have around me. Because everything we take for granted can be taken away in a moment.” He values his family above all else.  He’s proud that they no longer have to worry about him as much, proud that they’ve raised a man who won’t give up, a man who can take care of himself even if he can’t walk (yet).

He’s also proud of the muscles in his legs, those football-playing muscles he never really lost, muscles due in part to his routine on the RT300. He uses the RT300 for an hour twice a week, passing the time by playing games or even sleeping. But however he spends the hour, he always feels tired when he’s done, pleasantly exhausted from his cardio workout. The main improvement he says, besides the maintenance of his muscle mass, is a reduction in spasms. Fewer spasms means Van can keep adding victories to the list that grows longer by the day.

To anyone going through what Van went through—what he’s still going through—he has advice much older than his 20 years: “There’s light at the end of your tunnel.” For himself, he’s still unsure if the light will be a career in radio, television or journalism. But there’s one thing he is sure of: what’s helping him reach it are friends and family worth more than any touchdown.