For Bills fans that were at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept. 9, 2007 it might be the only day they wished they were somewhere else. Not because the Bills lost their season opener by a point on a last second-field goal to Denver, but because the end result of the second half kickoff by Buffalo was a motionless Kevin Everett who was quickly carried off the field and taken to Millard Fillmore Gates hospital for emergency surgery.
Everett’s story was one that ended in triumph as he was walking again just a few months removed from his career-ending cervical spine fracture. This Sunday will mark five years since that fateful day, and while some might imagine a long and difficult journey for Everett, they’ve flown by for the former Bills tight end.
“These five years shot by so fast it’s unbelievable to tell you the truth,” Everett told Buffalobills.com. “They’ve been fast because I’ve been staying busy.”
Busy raising a family of girls. Everett is a full-time stay at home father to daughters Famatta (3) and Faith (2), with another girl set to arrive in December.
“My wife was so sure it was a boy that she wanted to find out, so she said, ‘We’re going to find out right now.’ But nope, it’s a girl. So I’ve been busy,” said Everett chuckling.
Everett’s wife, Wiande, has returned to work as a teacher not far from their Texas home. Famatta now attends Pre-K at her mother’s school, leaving Everett with his youngest, for now, Faith, at home during the week.
“It’s everything that I thought it would be,” said Everett of being a father. “It’s just a beautiful thing. I always wanted to have a family. It’s interesting I’ll tell you that. I love it. I enjoy every minute of it every day. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Powerful words from a man who still admits that being unable to play football still eats at him.
“Sometimes I catch myself lying back in my chair with my eyes closed tight just thinking about playing,” he said. “It’s something I can’t get over just quite yet, especially when I’m watching football. I was trying hard to block it out in the beginning, but it’s coming stronger now. I was blocking out the whole ‘not being able to play again,’ but I see it and I just come back to thinking about it. I’m still really in love with the game.”
Everett’s passion for football has never been debated. Harnessing and controlling the desire to play has been a process, but he feels he’s in a much better place than he was a few years ago. He’s proud that he did not get professional help to deal with his feelings about what he lost. He credits his wife and his pastor for helping him with what he calls his “spiritual growth.”
The phrase is an ironic one knowing the man he hit on that kickoff return five years ago credits Everett for his own spiritual growth.
Despite the fact that it was Everett that hit Broncos kick returner Domenik Hixon, the return man harbored an enormous amount of guilt after learning what had happened to the player that tackled him.
“I was devastated,” said Hixon. “It was one of those things that I talked to my parents about giving up football after that happened. I was just like that’s not what I want to play for. I just felt so bad that I changed someone’s life like that. I wondered about just giving up on football.
“The next three games after that, it was bad. I was having nightmares.”
Hixon’s game was so negatively affected that Denver released him. He was promptly signed by the Giants, giving him the opportunity to meet Everett again when the Bills hosted New York just 15 weeks later. December 23rd was also the same day that Everett returned to Ralph Wilson Stadium to publicly walk for the first time.
“Being able to meet him when we went up there to play… he was a huge influence on me and he changed my life, and just a God fearing man and Christian,” said Hixon. “He changed my life then and I finally started… I felt like I played like myself.”
Hixon is now the Giants number three receiver and had three receptions for 55 yards in New York’s Week 1 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys.
“I didn’t feel like I would have any animosity or anger in the conversations with him,” said Everett. “I just talked to him and was straight up with him about it. I told him, ‘It’s not your fault. Don’t feel guilty about anything.’ It could’ve been him and not me. It’s a part of the game.
“I tried to tell him to focus on what he’s doing with his career because I wanted him to do the best he can while he’s on the field. I’m proud of him just watching the things that he’s been doing out there for the Giants. I’m real glad that it didn’t affect him in a negative way.”
There are still players on Buffalo’s roster that can call Everett a former teammate. The Bills’ special teams captain in 2007, George Wilson, remembers every detail of that play having run down the field with Everett. The result of that play is all too frequently jogged from the back of his memory.
“I think about it every time I see somebody lying on the ground and not moving,” said Wilson. “Whether it’s a concussion issue or a shoulder, anytime someone is on the ground that’s my first thought. That day.
“I always hope that the player starts moving so we know it’s not a situation like Kevin’s was. After experiencing something like that though, it’s not something that you can forget about or erase from your mind.”
After a brief pause Wilson smiles when he ponders his next thought.
“I will also never forget him walking out on that field at the end of the season.”
Everett admits he doesn’t keep in touch with Buffalo’s athletic training staff as much as he used to since the incident. Bills head athletic trainer Bud Carpenter and his staff will again be going through their annual review of emergency procedures later today. The same procedures that played a part in saving Everett’s life. The tight end’s spinal cord was nearly severed when one of the vertebrae in his neck practically folded over on the one underneath it from the impact.
“Obviously Kevin will forever be in our thoughts as we go over our procedures,” said Carpenter. “Kevin's life has taken a different turn and no, he was not able to return to football, but quality of life is more important in the grand scheme. He will always have some residual effects from his major injury, but thankfully he has been able to move forward and lead a very productive life.”
Everett acknowledges that many of the physical limitations he experienced a year or two after his recovery still persist. Finger dexterity and full sensation of his extremities aren’t what they were before the traumatic injury. His role as a father however, makes many of those physical shortcomings less of a focus in his life.
“I don’t give myself much time to sit back and be depressed or get down about anything,” he said
He still occasionally does speaking engagements and tries to raise funds for his Kevin Everett Foundation that assists those with spinal cord injuries both financially and emotionally. He’s also become the same kind of devoted Bills fan as those who supported him through the most trying time in his young life.
“I’ve been keeping up with them,” said Everett. “I’ve got the Bills app on my I-phone. That’s my team. I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, but I’m a Bill for life. They fulfilled my childhood dream of wanting to play ball. That’ll make you change your heart right there. I’m watching, keeping up with every update so tell them that.”
Everett still gets mail from Bills fans and those dealing with traumatic spinal cord injuries. His family was amazed by the outpouring of support for him in Buffalo, and he shakes his head today with the encouraging words that still come his way from fans.
“I’m glad people still remember me,” he said. “I wish they could remember me for making touchdowns and making big plays for the Bills, but they still remember me as a person and what I went through in my life. So I very much appreciate that and I love every fan out there that supports me.”
While the desire to play still flares up from time to time, it doesn’t keep Everett from getting close to the game. That’s why come Week 9 when the Bills are in his backyard at Reliant Stadium in Houston to play the Texans he intends to be there. Some might see it as a painful reminder of what he has lost. For Everett it’s a perfect opportunity to rekindle old friendships.
“When I was there we had a good bond and good guys being friends and doing things together,” he said. “That’s the thing that counts most. It just feels good that guys remember me as a guy that didn’t stay down and got back up and tried to show strength. I want to be there with my new family. I’ve got to be there. Believe that I will.”
No one has a reason to doubt him.
Michael Eisen contributed to this story