The Evans brothers were about one mile away from returning to their Finksburg residence after attending a party in April of 1996, when their lives changed forever.
Brad Evans remembers being on Louisville Road, not too far from the Brauning family farm he called home, when the car older brother Bryan was driving struck a culvert ditch, Evans said, and went tumbling. Evans said he felt the roof of the car collapse on top of them during the accident.
Then he noticed something else — no feeling in the lower half of his body.
A broken wrist gave way to an injury Evans feared once he arrived at University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Doctors told Evans he suffered a severed spine at the fifth thoracic vertabrae (T5). The 19-year-old, who graduated from Liberty High School the year before, was paralyzed from the waist down.
“It was tough, but I do have an extremely strong family, so they were right there. Good to lean on,” Evans said. “The biggest thing was, I wanted to drive again. I just wanted my independence again. I wanted to get out and be on my own again.”
Evans grew up playing rec football at Gamber and then at Liberty before graduating in 1995. He was a “one-sport guy,” he said, but dabbled in tennis as a teenager. Evans’ rehab at University of Maryland included several therapy options, one of which was tennis, as a way to stay active.
Evans said he took to it right away. His father Neil helped by hitting him tennis balls at home. The competitiveness returned, and Evans went from swinging a racket to finding a modified wheelchair he could use on the court.
Evans, 42, said he’s been playing for more than two decades. And he’s also doing what he can to give back — the Reisterstown resident is set to take part in the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute’s Adaptive Sports Festival in Baltimore on Sept. 28.
“It definitely raises the spirits,” he said. “You hope it does that to all the new people that are coming out, to see that there is more to [life] than just sitting in the chair and not doing anything. You can get out and do stuff.”
Evans got started with Baltimore Adapted Recreation and Sports following his injury, and stuck with tennis through a BARS clinic. He competed against some more experienced players, learned the nuances of the game, and picked up on what it took to improve.
Evans found success, and wound up making plans for a handful of adaptive tennis tournaments in and out of Maryland. He still finds time to play, when he’s not working as a Maryland State Police dispatcher at the Westminster barrack, but Evans said he’s looking forward to being a volunteer at the Baltimore festival.
“I think the real benefit is feeling connected to people, because you’re part of a team,” said Cindy Kelleher, president and CEO of the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute. “And then just knowing that you can do all of this stuff, even with whatever illness or injury sort of led you to this disability.”
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The adaptive sports festival is set to include wheelchair basketball, rugby, amputee soccer, golf, tennis, bocce ball, dance, cycling, volleyball, and more. Evans said the free event is designed for demonstrations and clinics, and the goal is to show people what they can do despite some physical limits.
“It’s one of those classic, ‘What happens now?’” Kelleher said. “And there is life after, because we’ve had several people ... it gets [them] reconnected. It really takes them into healthy lifestyles. They are true athletes.”
Evans is a member of the Spinal Cord Injury Support Group at UM Rehab, and he’s also a peer mentor and wheelchair tennis instructor. Evans said this year he was awarded the Challenged Athlete Foundation grant to purchase a new wheelchair for his tennis matches.
Life changed for Evans 23 years ago, but it did not end.
Evans said he doesn’t have any plans to slow down right now. He’d like to add a few tournaments to his schedule, and he’s always up to talking to those with similar challenges about how to cope and maintain a quality of living.
Being involved with the adaptive sports festival is a great chance to do that, Evans said.
“That’s my main goal, to definitely inspire," he said. "And hope that I can go out and show somebody that’s newly injured — hey, you can do anything that you want to put your mind to. And yeah, it makes me feel a little good at the end of the day.”