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February 22, 2011

Tuesdays with Corey: Denver's DeBlois Takes Nothing for Granted

by Corey McLaughlin | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | McLaughlin Archive

Denver defenseman Brendan DeBlois, still nursing the effects of a February 2010 accident in which he was struck by a car while riding his bike, plays close defense Sunday against Tom Palasek of Syracuse. Bill Tierney hopes to bump DeBlois up to long-stick middie by the end of the season.

© Tommy Gilligan

Three days before the Denver men's lacrosse teams season opener at Syracuse last season and the day before the team traveled east, Brendan DeBlois, then the Pioneers' top long stick midfielder, embarked on what usually was a five-minute bicycle ride to an 8 a.m. class.

Along the way, he stopped at a busy intersection in the center of the University of Denver campus, pressed the pedestrian crossing button and waited for the walk signal. A bus and a car stopped to his left and he began pedaling in a crosswalk to the other side of four-lane Evans Avenue.

As he crossed a center median, he looked to his right and saw a car three feet away about to hit him. It was running a red light. The collision was violent.

He remembers it all: being hit by the car, sliding over the hood with his backpack on, crashing into and breaking the windshield, flipping over the roof and miraculously landing in the road with enough power to get up off the cold pavement and see if another car was coming.

"I was definitely in shock," he said. But he also thought, "I guess no Syracuse this weekend."

The car hit and fractured DeBlois' right ankle. The accident also left him with a separated right shoulder, fractured shoulder blade and broken left wrist. DeBlois momentarily rose after landing in the street, saw traffic stopped, and went back down when he felt pain.

Police and EMTs arrived as DeBlois said he was about to pass out on the chilly pavement. It was February in Denver. First-year coach Bill Tierney, driving to the lacrosse offices when he got a call from assistant Matt Brown about the accident, arrived on scene a few minutes later to see DeBlois buckled onto a stretcher. One witness said DeBlois had flown 15 feet in the air upon impact. He had enough time to comprehend what was happening.

"I was in the air," he said, and thinking, "Wow, I'm getting hit by a car right now."

An ambulance transported DeBlois, a junior and Rhode Island native, to the hospital where he was evaluated and the injuries were deemed non-life threatening. So he was released to a friend, given an air cast for his ankle, a pair of crutches and painkillers, and returned to his off-campus residence that day.

In the hospital, DeBlois had asked Tierney about still making the trip to Syracuse the next day. DeBlois didn't — and missed the rest of the season.

After the team boarded a plane for central New York to play at the Carrier Dome that Friday — and also to play a game two days after that at Jacksonville (Fla.) — DeBlois spent three days alone at home, unable to maneuver on the crutches since his left wrist and opposite right shoulder were injured. The crutches were relatively useless.

He spent the days alone in bed with a stack of bread, for food, and the painkillers. He hobbled to and from the bathroom when necessary, but didn't leave. He ate the slices of bread, and that was it.

His parents arrived after the weekend to begin to take care of him. But in the meantime, "It was miserable," he said. "It was a low point."

DeBlois stayed on crutches for about two weeks until returning to the hospital for surgery. He had a metal plate put in his ankle and a pin in his wrist. "They couldn't do anything for the shoulder," he said.

He had a cast on the wrist and ankle and, with nearly every limb inhibited, he drove around in an electric wheelchair as the Pioneers played the first season of the ballyhooed Tierney Era at Denver.

DeBlois wasn't as big a part of that era's start as he imagined. He sometimes used a walker to get around his house and rarely left his residence in the first months after the accident. If he did, it was to watch a Denver home game. Sometimes he drove the wheelchair into the locker room.

"It was very difficult for him," Tierney said. "You're in a wheelchair, your wrist is broken, your ankle is broken and your shoulder hurts. It's difficult getting around, even in a wheelchair. The saddest part for me was when we left for our next away game against Notre Dame. He came to the bus, and you just felt so bad. It was really tough."

DeBlois didn't play as the Pioneers won the ECAC and qualified for the NCAA tournament. Instead, he underwent rehab with the athletic training staff.

But after missing last spring and also this past fall because of the injuries, finally DeBlois was on the field Sunday for Denver. At the Carrier Dome. Facing Syracuse. How about those circumstances? Tierney's decision to schedule the best to open both seasons had unintended redemptive qualities for DeBlois' story.

Sunday was just like the opener was supposed to be last year, except now DeBlois started at close defense, not long stick. Tierney said DeBlois' body will take less of a pounding at that position, important since DeBlois still feels pain where he was injured.

DeBlois, still with junior eligibility, said he spends time in the training room "pretty much every day," icing, stretching or doing balance and weight exercises to eventually feel 100 percent physically. He doesn't feel that way now. He underwent a second surgery on the ankle about nine weeks ago to remove bone chips. That relieved some pain.

"By the end of the year, we hope he'll be our pole ,because he's really athletic and really fast," Tierney said. "At this point last year, until his accident, he would have been our pole. Now he's at close, because we're not ready to unleash him to the world of running for 60 minutes."

DeBlois was just happy to be back on the field, and even just on the road trip. He got his first taste of being on the team again in a scrimmage at North Carolina Feb. 5. "I just missed the experience of being in the locker room, being with the guys," he said.

Sunday he finished with four caused turnovers and two ground balls in Denver's 13-7 loss the Orange.

"I'm not where I was before in terms of quickness and speed but I'm pretty good," he said. "Over the next 2-3 weeks I'll get back to full strength."

Throwing checks sometimes hurts, DeBlois said, but he can handle that with some extra tape on his wrist. In general, he has a new perspective on the season and his career and life after being in accident that he said could have left him off a whole lot worse. He wasn't wearing a helmet, but had no head injury. Tierney said he doesn't remember seeing any blood at the scene.

"If I could snap my fingers and have it not happen that would be great, but having it happen has changed me," DeBlois said. "It made me appreciate things a little bit more, especially little, simple things. And definitely I'm less likely to be in a rush. It's not a bad thing to slow down a little bit. I'm a stronger person because of it."

"No, I wasn't rushing [that day]," he said. "I stopped and waited. But I would ride my bike pretty fast sometimes. I feel like now I'm more inclined to slow down a little bit and breathe the air and take it in."

Adding to that perspective was the fact the DeBlois had another second-chance of sorts a year earlier as a sophomore. He was one of several Denver players named in news articles regarding off-field incidents that year, which ended with the resignation of former coach Jamie Munro.

Three players were kicked off the team that season. According to reports from Denver's student newspaper, The Clarion, a woman said she and a male friend were attacked by a group of lacrosse players at a bar the night of Jan. 28, 2009.

DeBlois was arraigned on charges relating to that incident, but was not kicked off the team. He was originally charged with third-degree assault, but entered a plea to disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation and fined $242.

"I wasn't necessarily involved, but my name got mixed up in one of those incidents," he said. "I don't really want to go too much into the past, because I'm looking forward to this year, but I consider it like ... I had a good freshman year. Sophomore year and junior year was a wash, so I consider being here one out of three years. A lot of things have to come together to have a good season. I think I'm in a good position with our team, with our coach, and being healthy to have a good season this year."

Beyond this season, De Blois plans to use his redshirt year next year to play as a fifth-year senior. He also plans to use that time to add a finance track to his real estate and construction management major.

"With the last couple years, you really can't take anything for granted. It's something l learned. It doesn't take much for something to go wrong," DeBlois said. "Last year would have been a fresh start. I was primed for one, but it's delayed a year. I'm totally looking ahead to this season."

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