Shawnee Dispatch

Opinion: Tragedy has happy ending

August 30, 2006

It's been three years since former Mill Valley football player Michael Kowal was severely injured on the practice field.

The accident, a traumatic neck injury, which left Kowal partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, occurred during a routine practice drill.

Although the events on the field that day in August of 2003 changed Kowal's life forever, he has gone on with his life and is flourishing the way any normal 20-year-old should be. He graduated in 2005 and recently began his second year of college at the University of Kansas, where he and three roommates live off campus in a house he owns.

His goals haven't changed, but his mindset has. By all accounts except the wheelchair, Michael is a well-adjusted young man living it up in the prime of his life. In fact, he's so immersed in his life as Joe College that he doesn't have time -- or the desire -- to dwell on the past. In fact, just the other day he was talking to a roommates about his injury when it hit him -- it was the three-year anniversary of the incident.

"I guess the whole thing isn't really something I want to remember," he said. "But it is interesting to look back at it. It changed my life so much, and it's done so more in a good way than a negative way."

He continues to go through rehab -- some weeks more than others. He plans to graduate with a degree in sports management. And he's still banking on turning his passion for sports into a job as an athletic director someday.

Several years have passed since Kowal's injury, a few football seasons have come and gone. But the lessons learned were not lost on Jags coach George Radell.

"I've never forgotten that day," Radell said. "It never goes away. We've always been aware of that risk, but something like that is just such an unfortunate, tragic accident. Give the kid credit for courage, for persistence and for that hang-in-there mentality. When we hear that Michael's doing well, that's great. We're so glad to hear it."

Hearing that means a lot to Michael.

"I would hope (Radell) uses what happened to me as a positive," Michael said. "I don't want him to change the way he coaches or feel like it was his fault. You have to play aggressive and you have to play with that killer instinct, and I hope that's how they're still playing."

Awareness for these injuries has been an important part of the high school football scene since 1976 when the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research Center took a stance on helmet-to-helmet contact and poor tackling techniques.

In a world when outdated concepts and negligence lead to trouble, it's refreshing to see the organization hasn't stood pat on its findings. Every February they release an updated version of their report, which details and draws attention to any new emphasis on existing rules. This year's report outlines a chapter in the Head and Neck Injuries section that further condemns careless tackling.

Such reports and rule changes don't do anything to prevent what happened to Michael. But he doesn't care. He recognizes their importance and appreciates that they might help prevent another high school athlete from suffering a neck injury in the future.

"I think it's important to let people know that you're not invincible," Michael said. "Stuff happens, but I'd like to try to get that message out there."

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