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An Amazing Return

Nearly three years after losing part of his right leg, Neil Parry plays again for San Jose State, as a blocker on a punt runback

September 19, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — It was a punt, a simple play, except it was everything but that.

For Neil Parry of San Jose State, it was everything he has been daydreaming about for almost three years, sometimes even as he lay in bed and thought about scratching the bottom of his right foot because it itched.

That couldn't be, though. Parry does not have a right foot and part of his right leg. He lost them, had them amputated nearly three years ago after suffering a severe injury during a football game on the very same Spartan Stadium grass field where he played again Thursday night.

On a clear and balmy evening, before a small crowd of 10,173 scattered around the aluminum stands of the cement shell, Neil Parry played in a football game. He did it wearing a carbon-graphite prosthesis, attached about 10 inches below his right knee, where his right leg and foot should have been.

As athletic comebacks go, this one was remarkable, although Parry wouldn't find it that way. He sees his story written in simple terms.

"Football's been my life," he said.

And so when Parry ran on the field with 13:23 left in the fourth quarter, Nevada facing a fourth-and-22 situation, the crowd started chanting his name. Derek Jones punted. Parry retreated to help block on the punt return.

After a short return, the whistle blew and Parry ran quickly back to the Spartan sideline as the crowd chanted his name again.

One by one and then all at once, Parry's teammates came over and shook his hand and patted his back and slapped his helmet. Backup quarterback Dale Rogers was first, then receiver James Jones, followed by quarterback Scott Rislov, then everyone ... they all congratulated the football player and welcomed him back.

The records are sketchy, but the list of amputees who played college football is short. Brian Hall, a kicker for Texas Tech from 1974 to '76, and Richard Busacca, a defensive tackle for Division I-AA Marist for 1991 to '94 are believed to be the only others, so Parry would be the third.

He probably wouldn't be playing at all if not for technological advances in science and medicine. Parry's carbon-graphite prosthesis was designed by Mike Norell of Norell Prosthetics and Orthotics of Mountain View.

But Parry, 23, a fifth-year senior from Sonora, Calif., also wouldn't be playing if he were not so driven to do so.

"Just seeing him in uniform again, after three years, on the field where he belongs, it's unbelievable," Nick Parry said of his son.

The elder Parry said he never doubted that Neil would be back in uniform.

"It's been kind of a mission for him. And now, part of that mission is done."

Parry's comeback was hardly overlooked.

An hour before kickoff, when he and the Spartans in their electric blue uniforms ran out of the tunnel in the end zone to stretch, they were greeted by more than two dozen mini-cameras and still photographers and nearly that many reporters.

After the game, a 42-30 Nevada victory, Parry held his own news conference in a university building outside the stadium.

"I'm kind of mad I didn't do anything," he said of his one and only play. "I just ran downfield. I didn't hit anybody, [and] that's all I wanted to do.

"But just playing, being on the field, is better than I was three years ago. I'm happy about that."

There was at least some doubt that Nevada would be forced to punt to the Spartans, who had not done much on defense in their other two games against Division I-A teams, allowing 969 yards and 96 points.

Until the fourth quarter, it seemed as though Parry would have to wait another week to start his football life again.

Parry was a sophomore walk-on special teams player for the Spartans when his life changed forever on Oct. 14, 2000, in a game against Texas El Paso.

Deonce Whitaker's 44-yard touchdown run in the third quarter had put the Spartans ahead by three points, and on the kickoff, Parry ran downfield, his job to defend the center of the field. The return came toward Parry, who planted his right foot and moments later heard his leg break.

A teammate had been blocked into Parry and made contact with his right leg and knee.

Parry said he knew right away something was very wrong. When his teammates saw blood pouring through his sock, they knew, too.

"When I hit the ground, I glanced at it," Parry said. "I didn't look at it after that. I didn't know the bones were sticking through the skin. They told me to lie down."

Parry had a compound fracture of two bones in his leg, and an artery and a nerve had been severed. Later, an infection worsened the situation. That's what they told him at O'Connor Hospital.

But as Parry lay on the field, some already had guessed the severity of the injury.

His brother, Josh, who was a linebacker for the Spartans, rushed over to check on him and had to look away.

Josh was there again Thursday night, and this time, he couldn't stop looking at his brother.

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