By BJ PICKARD
New Orleans VooDoo rookie defensive back Delvin Breaux has plenty to celebrate this Thanksgiving.
He's got the support of a loving family, a clean bill of health and a contract to play professional football.
It doesn't get much better than that.
But while Breaux's current situation is not much different from many athletes, the fact that he got to this point is nothing short of miraculous.
At this time six years ago, Breaux was lucky just to be alive.
A Bright Future
There's no sport more physically demanding -- or potentially dangerous -- than football.
It's an inherently violent game and the unfortunate reality for every athlete, regardless of level or position, is that they're always a play away. In a split-second, a career -- sometimes even a life -- can be over.
That was almost Delvin Breaux's story.
Six years ago, Breaux was a blue chip prospect at McDonogh 35 Senior High in New Orleans. He had fielded more than 30 offers from Division I schools by his junior year and appeared destined for greatness. Despite the attention from some of the nation's finest college football programs, Breaux always knew exactly where he wanted to go.
And when the call came from Head Coach Les Miles at Louisiana State University, Breaux was off the market.
"LSU was my dream school," Breaux said. "My dad played there and I always wanted to follow the tradition."
The 17-year-old "shutdown corner" signed his letter of intent and was poised to enroll for spring football in Baton Rouge, joining a Tigers recruiting class that included quarterback Jarrett Lee, running back Stevan Ridley, receiver Terrance Toliver, and defensive back Chad Jones.
Breaux was expected to be the next big thing at "Cornerback U".
That all changed during a routine kickoff on October 27, 2006.
"I wasn't supposed to be out there, but my coach was like, `Hey, you're a big playmaker. There are a lot of LSU scouts in the stands and they're here to watch you play. Go down there and show them you can tackle,'" Breaux remembered.
From the gunner position, Breaux was first down the field to lay a hit on the return man.
"It's kind of crazy; I made a regular tackle," Breaux said. "It was a normal hit... and I was just out."
The scene was every football parent's nightmare and every player's worst fear.
Breaux lay on the field, unable to move.
"It was just dark," Breaux said. "Maybe like two seconds later, a bright light came and I just woke up. I remember everybody coming over to me saying, `We've got to finish this game off, you ain't hurt. You gotta get up.'"
And somehow, Breaux got up. Under his own power, he walked off the field and over to the sidelines. His neck hurt, but not bad enough for him to want out of the game.
"When the coach came over, he asked how I was feeling and I said, `I'm doing good, ready to get back in there and make another play,'" Breaux said.
That's when his body began to stiffen and he realized something was seriously wrong.
"As soon as I stood up, I started getting dizzy," Breaux said. "They tried to give me some ibuprofen and the pills got stuck in my throat. I started coughing them up and I was in excruciating pain. My dad came over and I told him he needed to take me to the hospital."
Paramedics helped Breaux onto a stretcher and he was ambulanced over to neurosurgeon Miguel Melgar at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic for testing.
"The doctor kept asking me if it was a `Play of the Week' kind of hit and I was like, `Oh yeah!'" Breaux said.
The levity came to a sobering halt when the x-rays came back.
"[The doctor] came back and said, `Man, you're supposed to be dead.'"
The hit broke Breaux's C4, C5, and C6 vertebrae. It also caused severe damage to a major blood vessel leading to the brainstem, making the pending operation far more complicated, as fewer than five percent of spinal injury patients also suffer a vascular injury at the same time.
It took 10 hours of surgery and four weeks in the hospital to repair Breaux's neck, but his recovery was beyond anything that doctors could have expected. One month removed from narrowly escaping life in a wheelchair, Breaux walked out of the hospital to enjoy Thanksgiving with his family.
But while he and his family celebrated the good news that holiday season, Breaux began to focus on refusing to let his football dreams be stolen from him.
"I was blessed with a second opportunity to live my life," Breaux said. "I can't give up. I see a lot of guys coming back from serious injuries and I'm going to try too. I'm not going to give up."
Indeed, modern medicine has enabled many to overcome significant injuries and return to play. A plethora of players each year come back from broken limbs, torn ligaments -- a handful have even beaten more serious diseases like cancer.
But nobody comes back from a broken neck.
Breaux wanted to be the first.
The Road to Recovery
It took nine months to heal what doctors thought would take two years to rehab. Breaux ran track the following spring and, against all odds, was cleared to play football again by his personal physicians.
When he finally arrived on campus in December 2008, LSU stayed true to its promise and honored his scholarship, in spite of the injury. The program granted him participation in 1-on-1 and 7-on-7 drills. They even made him a "player-coach".
What they would not do was clear him for action.
"It was tough," Breaux remembered. "Some days I went to practice and I'd just start crying. I felt I could be out here playing with these guys and they're not giving me the opportunity to. I could've played at LSU, but they didn't want to clear me because of the liability."
Though he appreciated the school's sentiment, being a player-coach just wasn't enough. Eventually, the emotional toll was too much to handle and Breaux stopped going to practice. Without football, it wasn't long before he stopped going to school altogether.
"I was coming out of high school still thinking I was going to play despite my injury," Breaux said. "Going to school was great, but it wasn't the same as being a `student-athlete'."
Football was the lynchpin that held Breaux together. Like many athletes, his sport was his identity and without it, he was lost.
So he did everything he could to get back onto the field.
He routinely met with doctors. He trained hard. He even found some solace in flag football, but it still wasn't the same.
After coming to terms with the fact that he'd never suit up for the Tigers, Breaux began looking for an opportunity elsewhere.
"I was going to go to Arkansas-Monticello to get on scholarship and play football," Breaux said. "I went to their doctors and they cleared me. I thought it was weird that they cleared me when LSU wouldn't."
Unfortunately, Breaux's neglect of the classroom came back to hurt him.
"My grades weren't good enough to get in," Breaux said.
So he moved back home to New Orleans.
After a tryout with the New Orleans Saints fell through, Breaux was just about ready to resign himself to becoming a flag football lifer.
That's when he was approached to play semi-pro ball and on June 2, 2012, Breaux suited up for his first game in nearly six years.
"It was kind of rough at first because I wasn't used to it," Breaux said. "After the first game, I'd caught a pick, had a couple of tackles and some pass breakups and I was like, `This ain't bad at all!'"
Breaux seemingly picked up right where he left off, earning recognition as both an All-Star and the league's premier "shutdown corner".
His play also put him back on the radar.
Fulfilling a Destiny
"Delvin's name kept coming up," New Orleans VooDoo Head Coach Pat O'Hara said. "He was this high school phenom who had this tragic event happen to him, but he had freakish skills."
Those skills were on full display at a combine workout in September.
"My agent set me up with a combine in San Antonio and I ran a 4.35 40 [yard dash] and a 3.99 shuttle," Breaux said.
The numbers caught the attention of New Orleans General Manager Gary Gussman. Not long after, the VooDoo brought Breaux in for a tryout.
"He came to open tryouts and ran a 4.39 [40-yard dash] twice," O'Hara said. "He tested unbelievable and he was good in individual drills. He's 6-foot-1, 200 pounds -- he looks the part."
It was an impressive enough showing for O'Hara and Gussman to make Breaux the VooDoo's first acquisition on the opening day of unrestricted free agency earlier in November. However, given Breaux's history, it was not a decision that was taken lightly.
"We're doing our due diligence medically to make sure that he's protected, most importantly," O'Hara said. "He had his surgery at Tulane Hospital, which is affiliated with us, so we did research and -- make no mistake -- we continue to do more research to make sure all is good. He's played limited football since his injury, so he's going to have some ground to make up. How quickly he can learn and respond at the professional level remains to be seen, but he's got the skills. He's got an NFL body and NFL speed. We felt like because of his testing and his measurables, he was worth doing more research."
What he will be able to contribute to the VooDoo in 2013 is still unknown, but Breaux says all he's looking for is an opportunity.
"I'm just hoping to get a shot," Breaux said. "I'm coming off a season with 45 tackles. I believe anything is possible and I've been blessed to get to where I am. What I want to get out of this is a great experience."
He's due for one. The road to recovery has not been an easy one -- and he knows the decision to play football again will be met with concern and questioning. After all, one hit six years ago nearly cost him his life. That alone would be enough for most to call it quits.
But not Breaux.
"I want to be the guy who came back from a neck injury," Breaux said. "I want to give other people an opportunity to see me not letting an injury stand in the way of my dreams. I'm going to keep fighting and keep the faith."
His optimism is admirable and his conviction is unquestionable... but no athlete has ever come back from an injury like this. The risk is too great. The danger is too high.
Of course, no athlete has ever recovered quite the way Breaux has. That alone is cause for celebration.
And while the Breaux family will indeed celebrate his remarkable recovery this Thanksgiving, Delvin is driven by a memory from just before Thanksgiving six years ago.
"I asked the doctor if I was ever going to play football again or if this was my career," Breaux remembered. "Before I walked out he said, `Make sure to send me some tickets when you make it to the Super Bowl.'"
Six years ago, Breaux was celebrating the fact that he was still alive. Today, he can celebrate that his dreams are too.
And that is plenty to be thankful for.