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Hart begins life anew after football stops Sept. 11, 1982

September 10, 2007|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

It was the end of Todd Hart's life as he knew it.

But it wasn't the end.

Twenty-five years ago Tuesday, on a day that gave Sept. 11 resonance to the then-Long Beach State defensive back long before the tragic events of 2001 would scar the date forever, Hart was left paralyzed when he suffered a broken neck in the third quarter of a 41-10 UCLA victory at the Rose Bowl.

His football career was over.

He would not walk again.

He had nearly died.

But it tells you all you need to know about Hart, 44, that he will mark the anniversary not with mood downbeat but with glasses raised.

"I'm going to the Ritz-Carlton with my family, and we're going to have a great evening," he says, noting that past anniversaries have been celebrated with nights out, parties and barbecues. "We're going to have dinner and probably a couple of bottles of wine and maybe a cigar -- just enjoy everybody's company."

Adds Hart, "There is nothing I would change about my life."

An attorney living in San Juan Capistrano -- ironically, he got his law degree from UCLA -- he is director of government relations for the Orange County district attorney. He and wife Polita, who met a year after his injury and are parents of two sons and a daughter, will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary Oct. 10.

His main hobby, Hart says, is "following the local sports scene," which includes supporting the athletic endeavors of his kids. Son Steven, a Long Beach State sophomore, played football and baseball in high school, and daughter Christina, 15, plays for a club soccer team that won a national championship this summer.

An Angels and San Diego Chargers season-ticket holder, Hart also attends football games at Anaheim Servite, his alma mater, and once or twice a year makes the trip up to Pasadena for a UCLA game.

"I really love to tailgate at the Rose Bowl," he says.

UCLA, which used to play at the Coliseum, had its first regular-season game at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 11, 1982, against Long Beach.

Hart, a sophomore safety, was defending a pass play late in the third quarter. UCLA's Jojo Townsell came streaking down the middle of the field, Hart remembers, and was the intended receiver. Hart, fellow safety Darrell Pattillo, Townsell and Rick Neuheisel's pass all met at the same spot on the field.

The three players collided, Pattillo intercepted the pass and Hart landed awkwardly on his head, the other two players falling on top of him.

Face down, Hart thought he'd had the wind knocked out of him.

But he couldn't move.

"They rolled me over and then I felt some pretty bad pain," he says. "I knew something was up, but I had no idea what was ahead of me."

At Huntington Memorial Hospital, where he would spend the next 10 weeks while his parents patiently stood vigil, he was hooked up to a respirator, unable to breathe on his own. The prognosis was not good. He had fractured two vertebrae near the base of his neck. He developed pneumonia and other complications. His lungs collapsed. Doctors told his family that he might not survive and, if he did, he might not ever breathe on his own again.

But Hart was determined.

He says his "Why me?" phase "passed like a radar blip."

The support, Hart says, was phenomenal. Terry Donahue, then the UCLA coach, visited his hospital room before every Bruins home game that season.

A year after breaking his neck, Hart returned to school part-time while continuing therapy. One day, out of the blue, he got a call from a high school cheerleader and homecoming queen who had read about him and wanted to voice her support. Four years later, they were married. Hart eventually earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Long Beach State and, in 1992, his law degree from UCLA.

Still a competitor, he passed the bar on his first attempt.

"I always had kind of an attitude of, 'Well, it is what it is, so let's make the best of it,' " Hart says of his resolve. "I always knew that I had lots of people supporting me, and I think that made a big difference. I wanted to do well because everyone else wanted me to do well. Of course, I wanted to do well for myself too, but it always helps when you have a lot of people pulling for you.

"I just always kind of had that attitude of, 'Life's worth living.' "

And celebrating.

Of Tuesday's anniversary, he says, "It marks a rebirth. Putting aside the national issue regarding Sept. 11, for me personally it's a date to reflect, really, on how great life is, how quickly it passes by and really how good I have everything. I do reflect back on what I had to go through, spending all that time in the hospital and being paralyzed from the neck down. It was clearly a very difficult thing to have to go through, but to see where I am now, I'm so grateful. . . .

"I never thought I'd be around for another 25 years. And having what I have now -- my family, my friends, my job -- there's nothing I would change about my life. I look forward to another 25 years, and hopefully to another 25 after that too."


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