When St. Frances wide receiver Tyree Henry stepped out of the front door at Kennedy Krieger Institute in East Baltimore on Tuesday for the first time in almost six weeks, he could only describe the feeling as "joy and excitement."
Henry put one foot in front of the other without thinking much about it. He headed to St. Frances for a brief visit before riding home to the Eastern Shore, where a big turkey dinner including his favorite sweet potato casserole awaits at his aunt's house Thursday.
Making it home in time for Thanksgiving is "wonderful timing" for the 17-year-old who has been hospitalized since suffering a traumatic spinal cord injury in a football game on Oct. 7.
As he lay on the turf at Gilman that Friday afternoon, Henry thought he might never walk again. He couldn't move and he couldn't feel anything.
Even though feeling began to return a little before he was taken by ambulance to Sinai Hospital, he couldn't stand by himself for a few weeks and he had to learn how to walk all over again. By all accounts, his recovery has been remarkable.
"For someone who's high functioning and an athlete as Tyree is, such a fast recovery is not entirely unanticipated, but it's pretty miraculous how fast it's been, the progression from the first night being here to now," Dr. Eboni Lance, a pediatric neurologist who treated Henry, said recently.
The day of
After the injury, Henry never lost consciousness. He remembers everything.
"I caught the ball and I ran. I was on [Gilman's] side of the field. I hit him and we went head-to-head and I lost feeling in my hands and everywhere," Henry said. "I thought I had a stinger, but then I realized that I couldn't move anything. It was pretty scary. It took a while for feeling to come back."
St. Frances coach Henry Russell said the play was a short pass to pick up a few yards, but that Henry — at 6 feet 5, 230 pounds — isn't easy to take down. Henry broke one tackle and was fighting to break another when the hit that stopped him was unintentionally helmet-to-helmet between the two.
"I saw them tackle him," Russell said, "and I'm on the headphones and one of our coaches says, 'I think Tyree might be hurt.' I get over there and he's talking and at first, he says, 'I think I just got the wind knocked out of me.' Then he says he can't feel his hands and you hear the panic in his voice. I knew right then, this is something that could really be serious."
Russell was afraid fear and shock would overcome Henry as the trainers, coaches and Gilman's doctor attended to him. But, for Henry, the panic and thoughts of being paralyzed disappeared the moment he heard his mother crying.
"I tried to keep myself calm, to keep my family calm, my mother and my father," Henry said.
His mother, Michelle Pritchett, and his father, Tony Henry, had come to see him play as they always did, making the trip from the Eastern Shore after their son transferred to St. Frances over the summer from Stephen Decatur, near his home in Berlin.
They were closer to the play than Russell was.
"It was the worst feeling I ever had," Pritchett said, "probably because I know how much he loves football and I know how much it means to him. He couldn't move anything. It was a mom's worst nightmare. I started crying and he heard me and he said, 'I'm gonna be OK.'"
When Tyree didn't get up, his parents began to pray.
"I just started praying like I never prayed before," Tony Henry said, "and when I walked back over to him after we finished praying and he said, 'OK. Thank God. I can feel it. I feel my legs. I feel my legs,' I just started bawling. I was thinking, 'I know where help comes from and I'm grateful.'"
The road to recovery
Henry's journey to get back on his feet began as feeling gradually returned to his extremities that night. He went from Sinai to Johns Hopkins Children's Center the night of the injury, and five days later he moved to Kennedy Krieger to begin rehabilitation.
Although he didn't suffer a paralyzing injury, Henry's diagnosis was extremely serious. He wore a cervical collar to support his spine until he was discharged Tuesday.
"His injury was mainly in the cervical spine area, the upper part of the spinal cord," Lance said. "Basically, the cord was showing some swelling and the possibility of compression in that area — probably from the collision, the impact. So, some of the blood supply to the cord may have been cut off, but also there was some injury from the impact as well."
Physical therapist Rachel Wilhide said Henry was weak when the rehabilitation process started at Kennedy Krieger. She began with basic things such as having Henry move around in bed and sit up. The first day he stood up at the edge of his bed, he needed two people to support him.
When he started walking, he used a walker as well as a harness. Being 6-5 made it a bit more challenging to recover his balance. With such a high center of gravity, he needed more strength and control to stay steady and keep from swaying like a tall building, Wilhide said.
"We use a lot of repetitive tasks, a lot of electric stimulation to get all that input into the nervous system to reteach it and relearn how to walk, relearn how to do everything," she said. "Every day you saw great progress, more strength, better muscular control. His balance was very impaired at first … but he's progressed very quickly."
As an athlete, Henry was used to physical training and was always raring to go, sometimes wanting to push himself too far.
"Football practice is harder than physical therapy," he said with a grin.
Another factor in Henry's quick recovery has been his positive attitude.
"I got injured before and the 'why me' moments are over with," said Henry, who has had broken tibia and a torn ACL in the past three years. "I understand everything happens for a reason. You just have to get over it and overcome it."
At Kennedy Krieger, Henry inspired just about everyone around him. Children in the physical therapy room loved him. He spent time with them and encouraged them. One boy refused to leave without a picture of Henry. A girl made him a woven bracelet in St. Frances colors; black, yellow and white.
"Tyree is a man of few words, but all the kids gravitate to him and it's so heartwarming," Russell said. "I had parents come up to me and say what a great kid he is. The security guard said, 'Tyree is our own little celebrity.' In my opinion, God has a plan for everyone and Tyree's probably impacted more people than the rest of us put together."
The St. Frances team dedicated its season to Henry. He wore No. 4 and they raised four fingers to salute him before and after every game. Several times, the team gathered in the lobby at Kennedy Krieger to watch its games with him. The No. 1 Panthers went on to finish 10-2 and win the first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship in program history.
"I think he had everything to do with that championship," Russell said. "He had as much to do with it as anyone did. He was truly an inspiration to the team."
For Henry, who also played basketball, the only goal is to get back on the field. He has drawn the attention of Division I college football coaches and he aims to play in the NFL.
Lance didn't rule it out, saying, "At the rate that he continues to progress, I'm hopeful that there's not going to be anything that he can't do."
Both of his parents support his ambition to return to the game.
"I'll be OK because I pray," said his father, who remembers 2-year-old Tyree watching a football game on TV as if he understood every move.
"If he wants to play football, I want him to play. I don't want him to look back on it and say, 'Dad, I should have done this.' I want him to do what he wants to do, but he also understands — and we talked about it a long time ago — the risk, the risk in football of injury, concussions. But I think everything's going to be OK."
Henry can't run yet and he needs more physical therapy. He said it's up to his parents when he should return to class at St. Frances in East Baltimore, where he boards. For now, he'll go back to watching football on TV.
Fortunately, there will be a few games to watch in the comfort of his aunt's home Thursday as he and his family give thanks that he can walk to their dinner table.