Sports fans are often reminded of the parallels between the games they love and the realities of everyday life, the struggle and uncertainty of it all. And athletes live with the specter of an accident that can derail their career.
Members of the Cal Poly football team — and fans — were reminded of that Saturday night. As the playoff-bound Mustangs took the field against Northern Colorado at Alex G. Spanos Stadium for their regular season finale, Jake Javier — who was to be a preferred walk-on this fall but suffered a paralyzing injury in June — injected a heavy dose of perspective into the San Luis Obispo community.
Javier, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound offensive lineman, was the San Ramon Valley High School athlete of the year as a senior. But on June 9, the night before his high school graduation, he broke his neck during a swimming accident at a friend’s house, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
Over the past five months, Javier has maintained a mature, inspiring perspective as he’s worked through the early stages of a lifelong rehabilitation process.
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His first full day out of the Colorado-based rehabilitation facility was Saturday. The Javier family flew into San Jose on Friday night and drove to San Luis Obispo for the weekend so Jake could serve as honorary captain and be with his teammates as they tried to secure an elusive postseason berth. He planned to return to Danville on Sunday, where a welcome home party was planned.
Javier took the field with fellow captains Dano Graves, Chris Santini, Kori Garcia and Josh Letuligasenoa for the pregame coin toss, drawing a strong ovation from the more than 6,800 fans in attendance.
“That was pretty special,” an emotional Javier said during halftime. “I mean, being out there, getting to know the guys and the captains. Them being able to have me out there — it was really nice.”
Javier said he and his family have received overwhelming support from the Danville community and beyond. He was visited in the hospital by NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. Star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Andrew Luck have offered their support, as have several other NFL players.
It’s clear Javier made an impression that extended beyond football. A GoFundMe page has raised more than $219,000 to help with recovery expenses, and a gala and auction were held in Danville in August in an effort to increase financial support for the family.
This guy’s attitude has been phenomenal since the first time we met him. All the way through, all the things that he’s had to go through. He’s a battler and he’s a fighter, and we talked to our team about who he is.
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh
Javier, who underwent a cutting-edge procedure that injected 10 million stem cells into his severely damaged spinal cord, has been undergoing extensive rehab at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, since September. He was the fifth person in the world to receive such surgery, according to Bay Area news station KTVU — a procedure designed to help re-establish the connection of signals from Javier’s brain to other parts of his body.
He now has limited use of his wrists, hands and fingers.
“This guy’s attitude has been phenomenal since the first time we met him,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “All the way through all the things that he’s had to go through. He’s a battler and he’s a fighter, and we talked to our team about who he is.”
The Mustangs have worn green and black rubber bracelets this season with Javier Strong inscribed on the front. It’s a constant reminder for each player to appreciate their opportunity to play football, knowing it can be taken away in an instant.
That’s part of the reason why Joe Protheroe — Cal Poly’s All-American running back and one of the most widely respected players on the roster — wanted to do something special Saturday night.
After his 6-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, Protheroe gave the game ball to Javier, who later joined the team in the locker room for a postgame celebration.
“Just in that moment, I thought to myself, ‘Man, he’s like my brother, and he would kill to be in this spot that I’m in,’ ” Protheroe said. “I just want to go share a piece of that with him. I thought about it all week.”
Saturday’s victory was the high point of a rocky month for Cal Poly. It also was the start of a new chapter as the Mustangs prepare to begin the postseason.
The same can be said for Javier as he returns home to continue a battle many people will never fully comprehend. If all goes well, Javier hopes to be back in San Luis Obispo next fall to begin his freshman year of college.
He has the support system to do just that.
“The whole community has been great,” Javier said. “My family. My mom was with me pretty much all these last five months in the hospital. … It’s become less and less, but definitely in the beginning I had to rely on them.
“But I’m working more toward independence now.”