Brad Ebner, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing tailback… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
The former star running back boards first.
It's a few minutes before 7 on a Tuesday morning as Brad Ebner gives his father a hug and ambles onto a small yellow school bus that has pulled up outside his Goleta home.
The bus has been modified inside with a large open space for a wheelchair on one side and three seats with room for another wheelchair on the other.
As the driver navigates the Santa Barbara area, five more college-age passengers come aboard: two men using wheelcairs who have cerebral palsy; a man with autism; and a man and a woman who have mental disabilities.
The group is headed to Santa Barbara City College for a transition program designed to teach basic life skills to 18- to 22-year-olds with special needs.
These are Ebner's new teammates.
Everyone else has been afflicted since birth. Ebner, 21, is the exception. He was playing football for Dos Pueblos High four years ago when he suffered a head injury that nearly killed him.
The trauma to Ebner's brain left him unable to focus on simple tasks and with excessive impulsive behavior. He also has limited short-term memory, though as the bus passes San Marcos High he suddenly announces that was the place where he was injured.
Then, just as quickly, his attention shifts elsewhere.
"Look at those mountains," Ebner says. "Aren't they beautiful?"
Ebner finds splendor in everything — flowers, birds, trees and cars, especially Ford Mustangs. He spends most of the bus ride inquiring about each of them.
"Do you know what kind of flowers those are?" he asks no one in particular. "I love flowers."
Though he looks the same, his family says Ebner is the boy they knew before the injury in name only.
In a paper she wrote for a high school class, Ebner's younger sister, Brittany, recalled going to her brother's room for a soda before that last football game. Brad had risen from his chair, wrapped his arm around her and given her an affectionate squeeze.
It was the afternoon of Sept. 29, 2006.
Wrote Brittany: "That was the last time I saw him."
Ebner had just broken off a long run in the third quarter of a game against Santa Maria Righetti when he violently collided with a defender. After briefly returning to the huddle, he retreated toward the sideline, his knees buckling as he collapsed into the arms of a physician.
Rushed to the hospital, he underwent surgery for bleeding in his brain and slipped into a coma for eight days. When he emerged, he embarked on an agonizingly slow recovery in which he had to relearn how to walk, dress himself and use the bathroom.
Empowered by adolescent invincibility and tales of NFL stars returning from concussions within the same game, teenage football players are shaking off potentially traumatic brain injuries as if they're little more than a hangnail.
Chuck Ebner believes his son suffered from second-impact syndrome, a condition in which a person suffers a second concussion before the symptoms of a first concussion have subsided, producing devastating results.
He recalls Brad's taking a blow to the head and getting his "bell rung" early in the game against Righetti, and that he had played sparingly before the hit that caused him to lose consciousness.
There were signs of trouble even before then.
Cheryl Ebner said her son told a friend during the week before the game that he had ringing in his ears and that he was having trouble concentrating since he had taken a hit in a previous game. However, Brad said nothing to his team's medical staff.
"He wanted to play, so he probably thought, 'I'm not going to tell anybody,' " Cheryl said.
Dr. Mark Brisby, who was on the Dos Pueblos sideline as Ebner collapsed, said he didn't remember Brad's suffering a previous blow to the head. But, he added, "That doesn't mean it didn't happen."
Chuck Ebner said he has no interest in studying video in an attempt to pinpoint exactly what triggered his son's injury, and he doesn't begrudge the team's medical personnel. However, he does hope that his son's plight prompts decision makers to consider the consequences of sending an injured player back onto the field.
Brad Ebner looks intently at the behavioral therapist seated next to him.
"What is your name again?" he asks. It's the same query he's made three times in less than an hour. "Beth?"
The young woman shakes her head.
"Claire," she says finally.
The therapist is working with Ebner on his tendency to touch others inappropriately. Earlier in the day, he had grabbed a young woman's hand and tried to kiss it while she was being introduced to her new classmates in the transition program.
Mostly reserved before his injury, Ebner now acts as if he's running for public office during daily strolls along Santa Barbara City College's seaside campus.
"What is your name?" he asks a blond girl who momentarily stops to humor him, triggering his ubiquitous follow-up line: "Did you go to Dos Pueblos?"