Saturday, April 20, 2002

Bengals fan finally home

Ends 154-day stint in hospital beds

By Tom O'Neill,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        His brain nailed the assignment, signaling to his atrophied right hand, which curled unsteadily around a football covered in Bengals autographs.

        Stewart Williams, having suffered a severe brain injury when he was struck by a car while walking to a Bengals game last fall, is getting a handle on this whole miracle thing.

        The Bengals fan from Middletown was wheeled out of Drake Rehabilitation Center Friday — and into the rest of his life.

        A life he came very close to losing on Nov. 18.

        That's when a motorist driving a car not equipped for his disability lost control and plowed through a crowd in front of Paul Brown Stadium, killing a Mason teen and injuring four other fans.

        “Very cool,” Mr. Williams said to ex-Bengal Eric Ball, now the team's director of player relations, when presented at Drake with a game-worn Bengals jersey with “Williams” on the back.

        Mr. Williams, 22, is the last of driver Darrin Stafford's victims to be released from medical care. It has been 154 days, more than half of which he spent in and out of a coma. He remembers nothing from the day he was hurt.

        “Congratulations for a well-fought battle,” Mr. Ball told him.

[photo] Eric Ball, now a Bengals staffer, strolls along as Stewart Williams is wheeled out of Drake Center by his stepfather, Carl Roddenberry. Behind them is Bengals business manager Bill Connelly.
(Glenn Hartong photos)
| ZOOM |
        Media cameras flashed away. His mother and stepfather smiled. From a medical standpoint — realistically — this wasn't supposed to happen.

        “The first three months, I wouldn't have predicted this,” said Tom Watanabe, a staff doctor at University Hospital and the medical director of neurological rehabilitation at Drake. “But after the last two months, the sky's the limit.”

        Early on, Mr. Williams' condition was “very, very tenuous,” he said. “When I saw him (recently), I was just floored.”

        Doctors removed a piece of Mr. Williams' skull to alleviate brain swelling and bruising that could have been fatal.

        Mr. Williams' recovery is long and ongoing. He's battled pneumonia and infections. He'd been at Drake for the past five weeks, having been treated at several other facilities. On Thursday, he suffered his first seizure that doctors consider common and unalarming.

        He still wears a protective white helmet, but can walk and eat with assistance, and his speech is improving steadily. He essentially had to start over, relearning muscle control and fine motor skills.

        Nearly 1.5 million cases of traumatic brain injury (TBI) are reported each year in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

        About 50,000 of the people who have a TBI die, and about 80,000 leave the hospital with a disability. Today, about 5.3 million Americans live with a disability from such an injury.

        Because of the complexities of brain injuries, it is not clear how far Mr. Williams can progress, according to Dr. Watanabe.

        But Mr. Williams knows about incremental progress.

        “I just want to go home,” he said slowly.

        His mother, Cheryl Roddenberry, had another idea. “I think maybe I'll make him make us lunch,” she joked.

        It was lunchtime on Nov. 18 when everything changed.

        The day brought a blue-sky, unseasonably warm autumn afternoon, and a terrific matchup between the Bengals and Tennessee Titans.

        Making their way down Elm Street, fans saw traffic officers waving them across Second Street.

        The vehicle never slowed. Its horn never blew. There were no skid marks. Just screams.

        “We heard a horrible noise and I saw a body flying over the vehicle,” Titans fan Ken Mink, 65, of Knoxville, Tenn., said moments after the tragedy.

        Scott Asbrock was killed. The son of a state police trooper in the Hamilton post, he was 15. Of the four other fans hurt that day, Mr. Williams' injury was by far the worst.

        The driver, Mr. Stafford, 30, of Evansville, Ind., spent that night at the Hamilton County Justice Center. Mr. Williams, who was at the game as a birthday celebration for his brother, spent that night in critical condition at University Hospital.

        Mr. Stafford remains jailed on $45,000 bond, charged with one count of aggravated vehicular homicide and three counts of aggravated vehicular assault.

        Mr. Stafford had a restricted Indiana driver's license that required special adaptive steering and hand controls. The SUV he was driving had no such devices. If convicted, he faces up to 21 years in prison.

        Asked about the hardest aspects of his rehabilitation, Mr. Williams paused.

        “Standing up, all the time standing up,” he said. “And sitting up in bed. I couldn't do that for a long time.”

        Now, he's talking about going to another Bengals game, and expressed concern to Mr. Ball over whom the Bengals might draft today.


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