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More Than Memories : His Football Career Ended 12 Years Ago by a Tragic Accident, Arthur Hemingway Jr. Has Found Other Ways to Serve as a Role Model in Vista

October 17, 1990|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Arthur Hemingway Jr. is happy just to be around football again. Although he is confined to a golf cart or wheelchair, he still assists in the coaching of Rancho Buena Vista High School's football program in Vista. It's a good way to stay close to the game.

But he remembers when his role was different.

On Aug. 23, 1978, Hemingway's life was just were he wanted it to be. As an 18-year old freshman fullback in his first week of practice at USC, Hemingway was fulfilling a lifelong dream.

After a celebrated career at Oceanside High, Hemingway was considered one of USC's top recruits. His future appeared bright that late summer night. Then it suddenly took a tragic turn.

Hemingway had just left a campus restaurant to call his girlfriend when man driving a stolen car, speeding to escape pursuing police, swerved up and over the sidewalk, sending him hurtling through the air.

Hemingway suffered severe head and internal injuries, as well as a broken leg. Doctors did not give him much chance of recovery as he lay in a coma for 28 days in the intensive care ward at California Hospital in Downey.

Before his accident, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Hemingway was noted for his strength and power on the football field. Those same qualities helped him survive the near fatal-accident, after which he underwent 22 operations, two of them brain surgeries, and his weight dropped to 160 pounds.

"The doctors just told me after the accident that they did the best they could and that the only one who could bring Arthur back is God himself," said Arthur Hemingway Sr., who was at his son's bedside daily. "Then one day, Arthur opened his eyes and said, 'Hi, Dad.' "

Hemingway, a Hawaiian-born Samoan, then began his struggle back. He had to overcome a severe impairment of his motor nerves and brain bruises that caused him to shake terribly. His speech was slurred.

"Arthur really was in bad shape," his father said. "He had to have someone feed him, just like a baby. He recovered little by little."

Said Hemingway Jr.: "It is difficult to explain, but I just couldn't talk. I had to relearn everything. It took a little over six months before I got to the point were I got comfortable."

Faced with the reality that he would never get a chance to block for his freshman teammate, Marcus Allen; catch a pass from Paul McDonald, or score a touchdown on the Coliseum turf, Hemingway had his problems.

"It was tough at first because I was used to being the man . . . the big boss," Hemingway said. "It was hard seeing those guys play, knowing that I couldn't join my teammates. I was mad at myself because I thought that I should have been playing. But there was nothing I could do. It was difficult to be really positive and not just give it lip service."

As a standout blocking back in high school, Hemingway nevertheless gained 765 yards in 86 carries and had a 71-yard touchdown run his senior year. His play earned him scholarship offers from schools all over the country, among them Alabama, Notre Dame, Colorado and Arizona.

John Robinson, who was coaching at USC at the time, remembers Hemingway before the accident.

"He was a great prospect who was a very bright kid who reeked of success," said Robinson, who had recruited Hemingway. "In our estimation he was with that group of top freshmen (that included current NFL players Chip Banks, Riki Ellison and Allen). There was a very charismatic way about him. He was a very impressive person who had a lot of potential.

"It was so shocking when we found out what happened to him. It was a numbing thing. It is sad that he was just getting started and was never able to be established."

Still, Hemingway's tragedy played a role in USC's success that season, according to Allen, and the success was major. The Trojans won the national championship and the 1979 Rose Bowl game.

"It was unfortunate that something like that happened to (Hemingway)," Allen said. "But, I'm quite sure that its impact brought the team together and made us think about how we felt about one another. Just to think that you were just practicing with somebody and the next thing you know that person is on a life-support system is something unexplainable."

Neither Robinson nor Allen has seen Hemingway recently, by Hemingway's own choice, he said.

"I used to go to their games a lot, but I haven't talked or seen any of the old guys in years," Hemingway said. "I just don't like to bother them now. I don't want to be called a groupie."

In Oceanside and its surrounding communities, though, Hemingway is widely known. Nearly everyone recognizes his smiling face and knows about his accident.

A local newspaper and the Oceanside High Pirate Booster Club co-sponsored "Arthur Hemingway Night" on Sept. 29, 1979, and an Arthur Hemingway Pirate Pride Award was created, to be given to the student who best projects a positive image for the school.

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