Comment by the judge: An emotional then-and-now look at a success story against the odds.
By Rich Scarcella
Wayne Sebastianelli had been with Adam Taliaferro from the moment he fell awkwardly to the field at Ohio Stadium and couldn’t get up.
Sebastianelli, the Penn State football team doctor then and now, stayed with Taliaferro in Columbus, Ohio, until his father arrived the following day. He visited him often at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, first when he couldn’t move his arms and legs and then after he began his miraculous recovery.
So Sebastianelli was a bit apprehensive almost a year later when Taliaferro warned him about what might happen on the night of Sept. 1, 2001.
“I remember him goofing around a couple days before that night and saying he was going to run out of the tunnel and onto the field,” Sebastianelli recalled. “He’d pop in every now and then into the office and tell us that. I’d say, ‘Be careful.’ He was just going to do it.”
Less than 12 months after suffering a severe spinal cord injury at Ohio State, Taliaferro thrilled the record crowd of 109,313 at newly expanded Beaver Stadium and a prime time television audience when he led the Nittany Lions onto the field before their season opener against Miami (Fla.).
On that night 20 years ago, he wore his blue No. 43 jersey, waved to the roaring crowd as he waited to be introduced, walked onto the field and surprised everyone with a hop, skip and jog.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Taliaferro said. “We were in the locker room and I felt like I was a player all over again. I had that nervous feeling I’d get before every game. Doc Sebastianelli came up to me at my locker and asked if I was OK.
“He said, ‘Adam, whatever you do, people are going to appreciate it.’ I went out there and this peace just came over me.”
It was very unlike how Taliaferro had felt a year earlier, Sept. 23, 2000, as a freshman cornerback. He tackled Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks late in Penn State’s lopsided loss. He tried to use his arms to pull himself up and couldn’t. Then he tried to stand using his legs and couldn’t. He couldn’t feel his arms or his legs.
“The thought of being paralyzed never went through my head,” he said. “I remember Bhawoh Jue, our other corner, saying, ‘Adam, c’mon, get up!’ I remember him reaching down toward me and I started panicking because I couldn’t move anything.
“I remember looking up and seeing Doc Sebastianelli and Coach (Joe) Paterno. As time went on I started to panic. I remember telling Doc, ‘I can’t move! I can’t move!’ From that point it kind of got blurry.”
Sebastianelli, trainer George Salvaterra and other medical staffers from Penn State and Ohio State carefully placed him on a stretcher. Dr. Chris Kaeding, Ohio State’s orthopedic surgeon, helped stabilize Taliaferro, who received a steroid injection about an hour after the injury to reduce swelling. The following day, neurosurgeon Dr. Gary Rea performed a two-hour spinal fusion surgery on him at the Ohio State Medical Center.
After four days there, Taliaferro was flown to Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, near his home in Voorhees, N.J. He slowly began to progress and was moved in early October to the Magee Rehabilitation Center a few blocks away.
“About four or five days into my stay at Magee, my dad (Andre) rolled me up to the rooftop so I could get some fresh air,” he said. “Two guys were playing basketball and I broke down. That was the first time it hit me that I was disabled. I realized I was broken. My body didn’t work anymore.
“That was the first time I cried. My dad said, ‘Get it all out. We were waiting for you to have this moment.’ That was probably one of my lowest points.”
He was told he had a 3% chance of walking again. About three weeks later, however, the turning point in his recovery happened. After his mother, Addie, and his father had gone home one night, one of his nurses looked at the end of his bed and noticed he was moving his toe.
“She asked me to do it again and I did,” Taliaferro recalled. “It was about 10:30 or 11 at night and she called my dad. He drove back to see it for himself. We had a celebration in the hospital room that night.
“He called Coach Paterno and some of my teammates to finally tell them good news. It was probably one of the best moments of my life.”
Andre Taliaferro also called Sebastianelli well after 1 a.m. and screamed the news to him.
“I still feel chills when I think about that call,” Sebastianelli said. “I knew then that he was going to be able to walk. He was the miracle. He just took off after that. It was meteoric.”
Adam Taliaferro walked out of Magee on crutches in January 2001, underwent therapy there as an outpatient for four hours every weekday until April and returned to Penn State as a student in May. He still expected to play football again and fulfill his childhood dream of playing in the NFL.
That was until preseason camp began in August 2002.
“I was sitting in the locker room and the guys were putting on their shoulder pads and helmets,” he said. “I felt like I was going to cry. It hit me that I wouldn’t be playing anymore. Then I thought back to the patients at Magee who were struggling just to walk and struggling to breathe on their own.
“I thought, ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ I never thought about it again. I always thought how fortunate, blessed and lucky I am.”
Tom Bradley, who became Penn State’s defensive coordinator in 2000, said Taliaferro would have had a great career in college and maybe in the NFL. A three-sport athlete at Eastern High, he was a first-team all-state selection on offense (running back) and defense. He was widely considered one of the best high school football players in South Jersey history.
“He was the best young defensive back I ever coached,” said Bradley, who was on the Penn State staff from 1979-2011. “He had great skills. He could do everything. He was tough. He was smart. He understood the game. He was coachable. He was just an exceptional talent.”
Taliaferro served as a student assistant coach, graduated from Penn State and earned his law degree from Rutgers-Camden. He joined Bristol-Myers Squibb as a health-care advocate and later became a politician. He’s seeking his fourth full term as a New Jersey state Assemblyman.
Now 39, he’s married to Erin, a former Penn State swimmer he met in 2001. They have two children, Cruz, 6, and Chloe, 3.
He said he wouldn’t have met his wife or become an advocate, a lawyer or a politician if not for his injury.
“Of course, I can be bitter about not playing football,” Taliaferro said, “but it really taught me how to discover myself. I truly thought I was just a football player and that’s all I could do. The injury was horrible, but the life lessons I learned going through it were priceless.”
Since his injury, he has put his name on a foundation that provides emotional, financial and educational support to individuals who suffer catastrophic spinal cord injuries and their families in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Delaware. He often visits patients with spinal cord injuries at Magee.
“The biggest thing is to provide hope,” he said. “When I was at Magee there was a guy who had the same injury and he would walk into my room to visit me. It made it real for me. I remember how that inspired me. If I can serve in that capacity, I’m honored to do it.”
Sebastianelli and Bradley are not surprised by what Taliaferro has accomplished in his life. Sebastianelli said he had nightmares “for a long time” about that afternoon in Columbus in 2000.
Almost a year later and inspired by a prediction Bradley had made at his bedside, Adam Taliaferro made a walk at Beaver Stadium that will be remembered forever at Penn State.
“I was on our sideline and I could see the tunnel,” Sebastianelli recalled. “I saw Adam walk out. As soon as the crowd saw him, it was just over. I had tears streaming down my face. There was a referee standing near me and he asked if I was OK. ‘I’ve never felt better.’
“I’ve been doing this for 40 years and you just don’t see that. You don’t get that special gift very often. That was one of them. That was truly special.”
College: Penn State.
Background: This is Scarcella’s fifth FWAA award dating back to 1992, but the first time he’s received a first-place honor. A former FWAA board member, he’s also been recognized many times in the Associated Press Sports Editors, the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors and the Keystone Press writing contests. Born in Dunmore, Pa., and raised in Hazleton, Pa., Scarcella began his career at the Hazleton Standard-Speaker in 1981 and covered high school sports and Penn State football. He moved in 1986 to the Reading Eagle, where he’s covered high school sports, motor sports and professional golf. He started covering Penn State football at the Eagle in 1989 and is in his 34th season on the beat. Scarcella’s work has appeared in Lindy’s for three decades and in The Sporting News.
He and his wife of 38 years, Sandy, live in Leesport, Pa., with their dog, Captain. They have two sons, Eric, 35, and Joshua, 31.