TULSA, Okla. — "It happened right here," Dan Bitson said. "I went all the way back to that light."
He pointed off in the distance. The wind blew and the sky was gray and Bitson, a senior wide receiver for Tulsa, stood by his black Chevy Blazer. He was in a parking lot off Eleventh Street, a few feet from the spot where he nearly lost his life in an auto accident two years ago.
It is a busy, four-lane street, and cars buzzed by on this blustery afternoon. Route 66 through Tulsa.
Six blocks up this road is Skelly Stadium, home of the Golden Hurricane, the spot where, on several occasions, Bitson has lost part of his soul.
He was an Associated Press All-American in December, 1989. One dream was a few days away, another on the horizon.
In 12 days, Tulsa would play Oregon in the Independence Bowl. And that would be only the start. After that, he would decide whether to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft or return to school for his senior season. He would be an early-round pick, NFL scouts told him.
Six blocks. A football stadium on one end, a car crumpled like an aluminum can on the other.
Six lousy blocks.
Bitson looked out onto Eleventh Street toward the small hill where the car came veering toward him over the center line at what police said was about 70 m.p.h.
"I thought I could see over that hill," Bitson said.
He replays that thought as often as any of the catches leading up to his 3,300 receiving yards. It occurred to him more than once this season as he struggled to return after sitting out in 1990, and as he struggled to complete his chase of Howard Twilley's school record for receiving yards. He only needed 173 yards to set the record. He finished 1991 with 129. No dice . . . bowl games don't count.
\o7 I thought I could see over that hill.
\f7 He couldn't. Or didn't. It really doesn't matter now. An unlicensed, uninsured 20-year-old male driver had an epileptic seizure, blacked out and smashed into Bitson's Nissan Sentra.
It took 45 minutes to extricate Bitson from his car with the Jaws of Life. It happened so close to school that Tulsa Coach David Rader received a phone call almost immediately from someone who told him there had been an accident, a bad accident, and it looked like Bitson's car.
Rader and an assistant hurried out of the office. When they arrived at the scene, Bitson was still in what was left of the car.
"Dan was unrecognizable," Rader said.
Just hang on, Dan, Rader told him. Just hang on.
"I don't know if he heard it or not," Rader said.
Surgery that day lasted 10 hours. Bitson had two broken thighbones, a shattered right kneecap, a multiple fracture of the right wrist, severe nerve damage in his right foot, ligament and cartilage damage in both knees and lacerations to his face and tongue.
His right leg was shattered so badly that doctors couldn't find one piece of bone, which they figure is still lodged somewhere in the muscle tissue.
He stayed in the hospital 49 days and lost 53 pounds.
As Bitson stood on Eleventh Street, he was wearing a green University of Oregon sweat shirt. Oregon, which defeated Tulsa in that Independence Bowl, 27-24, sent it to him while he was in the hospital.
He also received an autographed hat from John Elway and calls from Denver Bronco Coach Dan Reeves and former NFL stars Steve Largent and Drew Pearson, both of whom went to Tulsa.
"I received the works," Bitson said. "It was really great. I received a lot of support."
He ticks off details matter-of-factly. The accident occurred Dec. 4, 1989, at about 8 a.m. His right leg went through the steering wheel. His left was hanging out the door, which was ripped open. He ended up laying across the front seat, leaning on the passenger seat.
So many details. He tried to get out of his car but couldn't. He remembers begging a woman to pull him out of the car. But she took one look at his broken body and passed out.
"When I saw her pass out," he said, "I was just tired of it."
Weary and racked by pain, Bitson said he decided to end it right there. He would start his car and ram it into the side of the nearest building. But he couldn't move.Then he passed out.
He talks as if speaking about happier times in Tulsa, when he was growing up not too far from the stadium.
"I talk about it so much, it's like my own counseling or therapy," he said, shrugging.
He remembers pain, lots of pain. Skin grafts onto his right leg. Nurses cleaning the skin grafts twice a day.
"It hurt like heck."
After laying in that hospital bed for so long, he remembers that simply getting up to go to the bathroom was dizzying. Play football again? He wasn't even interested in walking.
"I was like, 'Hey, man, leave me in the wheelchair. This is too much,' " Bitson said. "Let me stay in bed and be a hermit."
There was no getting around therapy.
He met Kathryn Livingston of the Eastern Oklahoma Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Clinic, with whom he would spend \o7 every day\f7 from January through June, 1990. Then, they worked together three times a week through October.