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Jim Weber

Finding Adam Taliaferro: 10 years later, devastating injury spawns professional passion

Jim Weber
Dr. Saturday

Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, devoted to keeping tabs on former players and other bits of nostalgia. Today he tracks down Penn State’s Adam Taliaferro.

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It's been 10 years since Penn State's Adam Taliaferro, in a split second, went from a prized football recruit to wondering if he would ever walk again.

Penn State was in garbage time of a 45-6 blowout loss at Ohio State that would drop the Nittany Lions to 1-4 on the 2000 season, giving the former New Jersey prep star a chance to see the field in just his fifth career game. It would be his last game. With 1:39 left, Taliaferro ducked his head to tackle Ohio State running back Jerry Westbrooks. Taliaferro's head slammed into Westbrooks’ knee, crushing Taliaferro's fifth cervical vertebrae.

"When I was laying there not able to move, I thought I had a stinger or a concussion," Taliaferro said. "I never had a stinger or a concussion before so I thought I had something like that. The thought of being paralyzed, even though I couldn't move, never really went through my head because when you're playing football, you think that's going to happen to somebody else."

[In his own words: Taliaferro podcast on becoming lawyer, upcoming nuptials]

Taliaferro was taken immediately to the Ohio State Medical Center just a couple hundred yards from Ohio Stadium, where he was given an intravenous treatment of methylprednisolone, a steroid used to prevent swelling and a crucial step that aided Taliaferro’s chances of recovery. Two days later, doctors stabilized his neck with spinal fusion surgery that required a graft from the fibula of a cadaver and a titanium plate screwed into Taliaferro's vertebrae.

Four days after the injury, he was transported to a Philadelphia hospital. The next step was a rehab center, where Taliaferro spent months draped in a Penn State blanket. His parents prohibited him from hearing the doctors' prognosis that he only had a 3 percent chance of ever walking again.

The support from the community was overwhelming, with thousands of get-well letters and the entire country pulling for him. Joe Paterno visited Taliaferro every other week and his wife, Sue, would drive the three hours from Happy Valley to Philadelphia just to deliver cookies.

Taliaferro's recovery was miraculous. Just days after the injury, he moved his toes. Then just before Christmas, Taliaferro took his first steps with the aid of crutches. He continued his rapid progress and on Sept. 1, 2001 – less than one year after his catastrophic injury – Taliaferro led Penn State onto the field for the season opener vs. Miami, walking and then jogging out in his No. 43 jersey.

Having always planned on a career in the NFL, Taliaferro instead discovered a passion for the legal field. After graduating from Penn State in 2005, he earned a law degree from Rutgers in 2008 with the goal of becoming a sports agent. Taliaferro started off in corporate law, but realized his passion lies in personal injury cases due to his personal experience. He now specializes in it for the Philadelphia firm Segal, Berk, Gaines & Liss.

He also runs the Adam Taliaferro Foundation that provides support for local student-athletes who suffer head or spinal injuries, knowing many others aren't nearly as lucky as he has been. Washington safety Curtis Williams, who suffered a spinal-chord injury later in the 2000 season, died in 2002 from complications due to paralysis. And Ohio State wide receiver Tyson Gentry – whom Taliaferro is now close to – broke his neck during a 2006 practice and remains in a wheelchair.

As for Taliaferro, he's fortunate enough that there are only lingering effects of the injury a decade later, such as tightness in his right hand that has required several surgeries.

"It's still tough to run and my entire right is still just a little bit weaker than my left side," Taliaferro said. "But if you saw me today, it’d be hard to even know I had this injury."

Even better news? Taliaferro is now engaged to former Penn State swimmer Erin Mulshenock, whom he's dated since his junior year in college. The wedding is planned for September 2011, carefully scheduled at the beginning of football season to accommodate Penn State games the rest of the fall.

Said Taliaferro: "We're looking forward to hopefully having some little Penn Staters in the future."

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Jim Weber is the founder of LostLettermen.com, a historical college football and men's basketball site that links the sports' past to the present.

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