A month or so ago, I woke up with a blind spot that occupied the majority of the vision in my right eye. I’m no stranger to needing to take trips to the emergency room, but those trips are usually prompted by pain. For the first time in my life, this trip was prompted by fear.

Years ago, a baby-faced version of me was the captain of my high school football team. My best friend and co-captain, Matt Perry, and I were the only two players to have three years of varsity football under our belts, as we were the only sophomores to make the team a few years prior. Football was my life: It was the only sport I was good at; it provided me with social credibility; and it formed a bridge between my older brother, my father, and I. Three weeks into the season, my team made the long journey to Middlebury, Vermont. As one of the few Division One programs in the state, we were accustomed to three-, five-, and even seven-hour drives to away games in order to find another school that could field a competitive team.

I played defensive end, and just before the end of the first quarter, I came around the corner on a pass play with my sights set on the quarterback. I didn’t notice the fullback approaching from my left, and as I closed the gap between the ball carrier and myself, I felt the sudden crunch of shoulder pads and a helmet blowing through my ankles. It didn’t hurt right away, but my stomach immediately dry heaved as I laid on the ground. I knew something was wrong, but back then, I saw the game as life or death, and there was no way I’d leave the field if I could help it. I sprang up onto my good leg and hobbled back to the huddle. The next time the ball was snapped, I tried to put pressure on my right foot and crumpled into a heap. Certain that I just needed to find the right way to apply pressure, I popped up again, ignoring the huddle and remaining on the line of scrimmage until the ball was snapped again, and again, I found myself in a pile on the ground.

This time I didn’t get up. It was beginning to hurt, but still genuinely wasn’t too bad—my body had just quit.  Our head coach jogged out onto the field, looked me over, and calmly said, “I gotta tell you, 52, I don’t see anything too wrong through your sock and cleat. I can get some EMTs over here if you think you need them…” He didn’t finish his sentence before I grabbed his arm and shoulder so he could help me back to my feet. I hopped to the sideline without any more help, secretly proud of myself for living up to what I thought my coach expected of me.

I spent the rest of the first half trying to “get my foot back into its socket,” as I’d convinced myself that it was dislocated. I wouldn’t learn until later that one can’t dislocate a foot. I stood on my good foot, bit down on my mouth guard, and stomped my bad one into the ground, trying to get the damn thing to pop back in—to no avail.  Some of my teammates wrapped it tightly with tape and ACE bandages, hoping I could make it work, but that didn’t work either.

I made the long drive home with my ankle wrapped in ice, wondering if my season was over, and trying not to cry on a bus full of football players.

My parents were asleep by the time I got home, so I climbed into bed and lay there for hours. When my mom (a seasoned emergency room nurse) woke up, I told her calmly that I needed to go to the hospital. She and my dad, who were still together at the time, brought me there without any real sense of panic. After all, whatever it was that had gone wrong had already happened. We even stopped to pick up my longtime girlfriend along the way. As I lay in the hospital bed waiting for the X-ray results, my parents ran out to grab a cup of coffee. Five minutes after they left, a doctor came running in. My tibia and fibula were not only broken, but the bits of bone I’d been breaking off as I tried to stomp my leg back together had done a fair amount of tissue damage. I was leaking bone marrow into my blood stream, and from the looks on the faces of the team that rushed me into surgery before my parents had even made it back, it was something that required immediate care.

I had never done drugs or even drank alcohol, and as the morphine set in, I recall being amazed at how the pain subsided, then the world melted away until all that remained was my warm blanket and my girlfriend’s hand pressed into mine. Then even that faded.