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April 11, 2014

Bouncing back

The car accident that occurred on June 12, 2013, is referred to as "minor" in media reports. It occurred at Stadium Boulevard and Monk Drive, a failure-to-yield on a left turn resulting in a collision with a vehicle traveling in the left-bound lane.

The driver, Missouri track athlete Danielle Williams, and one passenger, Missouri linebacker Eric Beisel suffered minor injuries -- despite the fact that Beisel allegedly hit the windshield.

The third passenger in that left-turning car was Missouri defensive back Anthony Sherrils. His injuries were also listed as minor. The reality was anything but. Just a week after enrolling at Missouri to begin his college career, the former star at Kansas City's Hogan Prepatory Academy almost had his football career ended when his head smashed off the window. The resulting force of that collision caused a traumatic brain injury for Sherrils -- and bleeding inside his head.

His high school coach at Hogan Prep, Phil Lascuola, received a phone call from a member of Missouri's coaching staff that day, trying to get contact information for Sherrils' mother.

"The information I got at the time, it wasn't that big of a deal," Lascuola said. "They didn't think it was a major accident. Then, a few days later he was still in the hospital."

Now, Sherrils doesn't remember any details about the accident. Only what he was told. He doesn't know the location or what happened in the minutes after. He said he only recalls waking up in the hospital. But the consequences of that wreck are fresh on Sherrils' mind. After he left the hospital, Sherrils returned home to Kansas City, spending about a month and a half away from the program, he said.

"I was 20 pounds lighter," Sherrils said. "I lost 20 pounds in about three days because I was asleep and stuff like that. I could barely walk so I had to do rehab and stuff like that.

"It wasn't a concussion. My brain actually bled. It wasn't a concussion, it was like a real brain injury."

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, Sherrils said "football wasn't even a question."

"I wasn't thinking about football," he said. "But as I started to go through rehab and stuff like that, I wanted to get back on the field. I was upset but I really attacked rehab, and I was out of rehab in about a week. I went home and I got my mind back right, and I came back and it was -- it made coming back bigger. It made coming back bigger. I know I had a mission. I want to play at the next level."

That goal is omnipresent in an interview with Sherrils, now healthy and "full-go" for the football team. Recently, the team moved him from cornerback to safety. When asked about his preference, Sherrils mentions that he thinks cornerback would provide an easier path to the NFL.

"But defensive back is defensive back," he added.

The NFL is a dream on the horizon -- still not tangible because Sherrils has yet to play a down for the Tigers. Ten months ago, Sherrils said he "could barely walk" and his "left side was messed up." He had to rehab his mobility and strength.

"I was really, really weak," he said.

He weighs 195 pounds after dropping to 176 pounds in the days after the accident, and Sherrils is working with the second-team defense. Yet the specter of head injuries looms large in all levels of football. This spring, some college teams are using a new helmet, the Riddell SpeedFlex, that is supposed to absorb the impact of hits better than past helmets. Others are testing new technology that could alert medical staff to hits, or a combination of hits, that may result in a concussion.

Sherrils said he suffered "a few" concussions in high school. After the accident, he said his step-mother, Debora Smith, and his girlfriend, Ciara May, wanted him to stop playing football.

"I think anytime you're looking at a head injury from an adult standpoint, there's always that possibility," Lascuola said. "Sometimes, as teenagers, we feel like we're invincible. He had to bounce back and do things to get back. It was an eye-opening experience for him."

May remembers the day vividly. Now a student at Missouri studying business, May had recently begun an internship at the Federal Reserve in Kansas City. That Tuesday, she received a call from Missouri defensive end Charles Harris, who was friends with both her and Sherrils. Soon thereafter, May spoke with Sherrils' stepmother before leaving her internship to head to Columbia.

Once she arrived at the hospital, along with Smith and Sherrils' aunt, May said she realized the severity of the injury.

"He was asleep, wearing a neck brace," May said. "He would wake up randomly, screaming that his head hurt. He didn't understand what was going on, and would go back to sleep. It was the same thing for a while, just sleeping and then waking up, angry and in pain."

May said it was like that for a few days. When he finally passed his cognitive tests and was released "two or three days later," May said Sherrils' sole focus was getting back to football. For May and Sherrils' family, that wasn't an option.

"He wasn't worried about his condition," May said. "I wasn't sure if it was a good idea, especially because it was more than a concussion. It was an actual brain injury. We just reminded him what was important. Football is only temporary, and I didn't want him to rush into it and hurt himself again.

"It took some time for him to get back to normal. He was just... aside from being angry, he was just different for a while. After that passed, he started being normal again."

Tyrone Flowers, a prominent lawyer in Kansas City who runs a non-profit organization for at-risk youth, met Sherrils in 2003. Flowers' organization, Higher M-Pact, identifies children and teenagers who show leadership qualities in the Parker Square housing projects in Kansas City. Sherrils was one such candidate, and Flowers began to mentor Sherrils, as well as drive him across the country for football combines once Sherrils reached high school.

Flowers was paralyzed from the waist down in a shooting when he was 18. Before then, he had scholarship offers to play basketball in college. Eventually, he went to Missouri where he received his degree. After Sherrils' accident, the duo become bonded by another twist of fate.

"Ironically, I went to the same rehab facility at 18 that he was now going to," Flowers said.

Flowers offered support, but more importantly with his legal background and connections, he gained confirmation that Sherrils' scholarship would be honored if his football career ended that day in June.

"You can't be defined by that thing, athletics," Flowers said to Sherrils, speaking from experience.

He also assisted him in rehab, joking that many caregivers thought he -- in a wheelchair -- was the patient, not Sherrils.

"The left side of his body, it was basically paralysis," Flowers said. "It wasn't functioning."

Sherrils' goal -- of playing in the NFL -- is too big for him to pass up. Both May and Flowers acknowledge that. Whatever way you look at, whether you see this comeback as a folly of youth or a noble cause for something greater, Sherrils isn't letting the accident slow him down. He said he's met all the team's SEC standards for lifting, and recently ran the fastest 40-yard time on the team (4.31-seconds).

"It was really weird how it happened," Sherrils said. "I got into the wreck and about seven, seven days later, I felt like I could do it again. I feel like it was just a reality check for me, that I have to work hard. It could be gone in a second.

"Just to be humble about everything I have."

"I don't have as much apprehension as I did (back then)," May said. "I just remind him to be careful. I don't know how careful you can be in football, so I tell him to be smart, don't lead with his head.

"That's Anthony's dream, and he has the best support from his family."

Flowers echoes those thoughts. He said when Sherrils' made a full recovery, it surprised the medical staff.

"It's not usual," Flowers remembers them saying.

Now, when Sherrils is manning the defensive backfield and going in for a tackle, that specter of a traumatic brain injury may loom large for some. Certainly, it gives this media member pause. But there's no slowing down, there's no second thought for Sherrils. It's full steam ahead.

"I don't get hit hard," Sherrils said. "That's why I play defense. That's why I play defense."

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