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My Super Bowl highlight

Twelve years ago tomorrow, the Buccaneers won, and so did I.

January 25, 2008|Woody Woodburn | Woody Woodburn is a writer living in Ventura.

Superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong's world was famously turned upside down on Oct. 2, 1996, the day he was diagnosed with cancer. Now a survivor, he celebrates 10/2 as the moment his life changed unexpectedly for the better.

I have my own 10/2 -- as, I believe, do most of us -- on 1/26. That was the date of Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego in 2003, which I covered as a sports columnist for the Torrance Daily Breeze. A few hours after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned the Oakland Raiders into twisted, total wreckage, 48-21, an uninsured drunk driver did the same to my Honda Accord.

Police estimated that he was flying at 65 mph on a downtown street before ramming my car as I waited to make a right-hand turn. The impact was so violent that the driver's seat was ripped off its bolts. When my wife called the towing company, she was offered condolences; the worker couldn't believe I hadn't been killed.

"You're a very lucky man," one of the police officers told me after he finished documenting the accident scene.

Lucky, indeed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 17,602 people were killed in alcohol-related accidents in 2006, about the same number as in 2003. Last year's figures will also surely be tragically high.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, January 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 25 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Superbowl date: The headline on an Opinion article Friday about a Jan. 26, 2003, accident said the event occurred 12 years ago. It was five years ago.

Still, luck is relative. I suffered a ruptured disk in my neck and underwent a two-hour operation called an "anterior cervical discectomy and fusion five-six with iliac graft." Translation: The neurosurgeon sliced my neck open from the front, delicately removed the damaged disk between my fifth and sixth vertebrae without damaging the spinal cord, used a power saw to cut a wedge of bone from my pelvis and then shoe-horned this slice of bone between the two vertebrae to allow them to fuse together.

The surgery left a 3-inch scar running across my Adam's apple that allows me to honestly tell people who ask about it, "Oh, it's from an old Super Bowl injury." Unfortunately, I had nerve damage that proved irreversible. Now, five years later, my left thumb and fingers remain numb and slightly uncoordinated. I found that hunching over a keyboard in a cramped press box was tortuous after about an hour.

All the same, I look back on 1/26 as a blessing.

For starters, it forced me to leave a job I loved too much to leave on my own. Sportswriting had me away from home too many nights a week, almost every weekend and most holidays. Yes, I miss the press box, but in return I have not missed so much more. My wife and I recently celebrated our silver wedding anniversary on the correct date, not the nearest night with no game. Instead of covering the Lakers or Dodgers, I attended every performance of two plays my daughter wrote in high school. I have not missed a single one of my son's high school cross-country or track meets. I wouldn't trade the Super Bowl, Final Four and Olympics for that.

Sports is still part of my life. I write for magazines and am working on a book that includes words of wisdom from athletes I have interviewed over the years. Olympic track champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, for instance, who shared, "When you have hard times or low moments, that just makes the good times more valuable and special." Or UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's adage, "Make each day your masterpiece." And of course, Armstrong, who told me: "My philosophy is to never waste another day thinking about tomorrow or next week or next year. Cancer taught me that today is all I have. I want to live today like there is no tomorrow." I didn't fully appreciate these insights before having my life spun around by a drunk driver.

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Sure, there are times when my fingers feel like they are on fire and I fall into self-pity. I sometimes curse the drunk driver who rear-ended me because my neck aches 24/7. I had to "retire" from playing men's rec-center basketball and give up tennis. Still, I was lucky. I completed a marathon (3 hours, 18 minutes) two years after the accident, and I didn't have to do it in the wheelchair division.

As much as I lost because of a drunk driver, at least it wasn't my life. As much as I lost, I have gained much more -- such as the perspective that Lance Armstrong's 10/2 and my 1/26 and so many people's 9/11 should make each of us realize that our days are numbered.

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