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Senior Chris Harper is still succeeding on the football field despite two gruesome injuries.
Chuck Steenburgh | VMI
VMI senior linebacker Chris Harper has missed three games this season after his second shoulder surgery in seven months was performed just before the Keydets’ season opener.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
LEXINGTON — He almost died in a harrowing personal watercraft crash at 13.
At 15, he broke his left leg and severely severed his left calf muscle when he flipped a 1,250-pound all-terrain vehicle and was trapped underneath.
Yes, believe it or not, Chris Harper is still with us.
Despite missing three games this season with a troublesome right shoulder, the senior VMI linebacker from Richmond is still making plays as the Keydets (1-6, 0-2) continue their slow march toward termination in their final Big South season today at No. 3-ranked Coastal Carolina (7-0, 2-0).
Sour season so far. No doubt. Still, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Harper is treasuring the final games of a college football career that almost never got off the ground after a pair of reckless mishaps in his early days as a teen daredevil.
It’s Sunday afternoon of the 2005 Labor Day weekend on the immense waters bordering Virginia’s east coast near Deltaville, a marine haven for watercraft lovers and users.
Harper was having fun zipping around solo on a personal watercraft where Diamond Creek spills into the Atlantic bay, while his older sister, Gayla, and his close friend, Nolan Borzelleca, were riding together on another one.
“I’m sure I was fooling around all day, just spraying them with water,” said Harper, noting his mischievous side. “The waves were really choppy coming in. Then I saw they had run out of gas.
“So I decided to head their way. I came over one of those waves and hit their jet ski, throwing them off to the side unhurt. But because of the impact I flew about 20 feet in the air and my head hit the water at a speed of approximately 40 miles per hour. And that water is like concrete.”
The violent contact between head and water cracked Harper’s skull, carving a 2-inch fracture above his left ear — plus pinched his left carotid artery. Blood was flowing from both his ears on every heartbeat as he floated facedown in the water until his parents, John and Lisa, could hurry to the crash site in their boat.
“As a parent, it makes you want to puke,” Lisa said. “If Chris hadn’t had a ski vest on, he would have gone down and we would have never found him. He was floating facedown in the water, my daughter had a yellow bathing suit on and there was blood everywhere. It looked like a shark attack!
“We flipped him over and he was still breathing. But he was obviously bleeding out. There was about 3 inches of blood in the bottom of the boat. I saw John holding him and say, ‘Don’t you die on me!’ ”
After a trip via ambulance to a hospital in Kilmarnock, the Harpers were told by doctors that they recommended transporting their son to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond via helicopter.
“They had to shock his body to put him in the helicopter and then we had to drive to MCV,” Lisa said. “I had to drive along with three or four other kids white-knuckling it to Richmond. Of course, in the car the kids are like: ‘Is he going to die? I said, ‘We’ve all just got to pray.’ ”
Harper, who had been unconscious since the accident and had developed two aneurysms in his brain, was in a coma for a day and a half at MCV before regaining consciousness.
“I woke up late Tuesday morning and I had no idea where I was,” Harper recalled. “It was just plugs everywhere and stuff. And I asked my mom if I was going to live and her, being her character self, I asked her if I was going to be fine and she said, ‘Well, we don’t know.’ ”
After a month’s stay in the hospital, Chris Harper finally got to go home.
“It’s quite a story about that boy, I will tell you,” Lisa said, beginning to laugh.
“It’s amazing we still have him with us,” she said.
Two years later, Chris Harper put himself in harm’s way again. This time it came on land .
On the family’s farm in Buckingham County, the overzealous teen was riding a Kubota ATV with a friend. Harper, who obviously likes to go fast, sped down a hill too quickly to make a sharp turn and hit a dirt mound that launched it into the air and into a flipping mode.
In an attempt to prevent the crash, Harper threw out his left leg and tried to right the vehicle from going out of control.
“When I did that it fell on top of me and snapped my femur instantly and cut my left calf muscle,” he said. “They tried to lift it off me and couldn’t so they had to go get my dad and my friend. They got like a forklift tractor to lift it up.
“All I remember is the ride on Route 60 because my dad was going about 90 [mph] trying to get pulled over so we could get medical attention. He got pulled over and I wound up getting another chopper ride out of that one was as well.”
Unlike the first trip, Harper remembered this ride, plus some words.
“I will never forget the medevac gentleman who was with me,” Harper recalled. “He was like, ‘I know this is your second accident, you need to calm down … or you’re going to be buried very soon.’ And that’s when it hit me: I was like, ‘I’ve got to change my life around, I can’t keep doing this to my parents and doing this to my body.’ So I’ve tried not to be so reckless!”
All football now
As a result of his penchant for off-field thrill seeking, Harper’s high school football career at Douglas Freeman High was curtailed to only one season because of the physical problems. Close to regaining clearance to join the team in 2007, Harper snapped his left leg in the ATV crash.
“Three years and I hadn’t played a game of high school football,” Harper said. “I desperately wanted to come back and prove to myself that I could still play.”
He finally got his shot his senior year as a tight end and defensive end for the Rebels. He displayed enough potential to draw a look and ultimately an offer from VMI, which he accepted.
“VMI was looking out for me and said: ‘Hey, Chris we want you to play here, we’ll give you a preferred walk-on position here, and if you make first or second team we’ll consider you for a scholarship,” Harper recalled. “I worked real hard, knew I could do it my freshman year when I got redshirted.”
Harper bulked up his 200-pound frame and didn’t take long to pay dividends, starting nine games as a redshirt freshman in 2010, registering 29 tackles, including three stops for loss. He started every game the next two years, making a collective 99 tackles with 5 1⁄ 2 sacks.
“I was able to get into the groove of things and was able to play hard and fast,” he said. “I played and had a big impact, I think.”
Unfortunately, this season Harper was forced to have surgery on his right shoulder for a second time in seven months right before the season opener at Richmond. Despite playing only four games, he has registered three stops for loss, including a pair of sacks.
Keydets defensive coordinator Greg Harris likes having the tall and rangy linebacker on the field.
“Chris is a guy who walks on here as a nonscholarship player, signed as a defensive lineman and he redshirted and worked as a scout team defensive lineman and then we moved him to outside linebacker his redshirt freshman year,” Harris said.
“And he’s played ever since. He’s been a great player, has a great motor, plays hard every play. He just throws his body, that’s probably why he gets hurt more often than we would like. He just throws his body around, he tore his labrum last year in a game and played two more games afterwards. Then he had surgery after the season and comes back for his fifth year this year and hurts it again the week before the season.
“Overall, though, it’s been pretty good production for a guy, whom I guess, was pronounced ‘dead’ when he was young.”
Harper, scheduled to graduate in December, will be done with football the end of his month. What does he hope to tackle next?
“My next step, which I know is going to make some people a little woozy if they hear this, is to fly helicopters for the National Guard, if possible,” he said.
When jokingly asked if he can’t get the choppers out of his mind after a being involved in a couple of emergency-victim flights, Harper flashed a wide grin and said: “Yeah, I fell in love with them ... they saved my life twice so I just want to keep doing it!
“Who knows? I’ve had an accident on water and an accident on land. And my last one might be in the air!”
John Harper doesn’t plan on trying to dissuade his venturesome son.
“He’s over 21 now, so you can’t tell him what to do,” the father said.
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