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Still a believer: Mike Patrick pens e-book about his injury, life in wheelchair

Mike Patrick is carried off Trojan Field on a stretcher on Sept. 3, 1971 (game photos by Jim Brandenburg).1 / 2
Mike Patrick2 / 2

Sept. 3, 1971

It's a date that's infamous in Worthington history, especially for the people who had congregated then to watch the Worthington Trojan football team take on the Owatonna Indians in the opening game of the season at Trojan Field. Anybody who was there remembers the tragic scene that played out before them: Worthington free safety Mike Patrick getting injured in the second -- and ultimately last -- play of his varsity career and being carried off the field on a stretcher.

The front page of the Sept. 4, 1971, Daily Globe carried a small photo of Mike with this caption:

Mike Patrick, Worthington football player injured in Friday night's Worthington-Owatonna game, is reported in "serious condition" at the Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls. Patrick underwent surgery this morning. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Arlin (Colleen) Patrick, West Shore Drive. Mr. Patrick is a counselor at Worthington State Junior College and is the college track coach.

"Serious condition" hardly did justice to the extent of Mike's injuries. While making a tackle, he had damaged his spinal cord and was severely paralyzed. He had holes drilled into his skull to insert Crutchfield tongs to stabilize his spine and spent six weeks lying on a Stryker frame that was flipped every two hours. When he eventually left the hospital, it was in a wheelchair -- his mode of transport ever since.

Today, Mike is a motivational speaker and health educator living in the Twin Cities. He shares the odyssey that has been his life since that fateful day in 1971 during speaking engagements and seminars and now has compiled his story and the lessons learned in the process into a book, "I Still Believe in Tomorrow," available online in e-book format.

The book, while written with an intended audience of medical professionals in mind, also gives Mike a platform for sharing his story and motivational philosophies with a larger audience and should be of great interest to local residents who know Mike and his family.

It starts, of course, with the accident itself. Mike said he remembers "everything" about the day and what transpired on the football field. Chapter 1 includes this account from Mike's point of view:

I remember the pain as if it was yesterday. The back of my neck just pounded, and my head felt like it wanted to blow right off. The throbbing was intense, and there was this very sharp tingling sensation over my whole body. It felt as if thousands of sharp needles were poking me all at once.

I remember I started to cry, because the pain was so intense. It hurt so badly, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Nobody could do anything to stop it. The looks on everyone's faces were so scary. Everyone looked so serious, and I remember people saying everything was going to be all right. I must have heard that a hundred times those first few minutes.

"You are going to be just fine." "Don't worry, everything will be OK." They wanted to believe that, but like me, they had no idea it was the end of my first life.

Others have told me how quiet everybody in the stands were during those first few minutes while Dr. Hallin directed what was going on, and we waited for the ambulance to get there. Later, in a comment on my blog, one of the students, Carol Radke, not only spoke of the silence; she added that it was a very eerie feeling.

"I'm real proud of the book," said Mike during a recent phone interview. "It's not a long read, but it's a read that people are telling me once they pick it up, they can't put it down."

The title, "I Still Believe in Tomorrow," came from a poster that somebody posted on the wall during his initial hospitalization. Mike originally had another title in mind, but it had already been copyrighted.

"I initially wanted to call the book 'I'm Not Done Yet,'" he said, relating an incident from a speaking engagement in 2004 (shortly after actor/paraplegic Christopher Reeves died) at an Iowa Job Corps campus where a kid had committed suicide by lying down on the train tracks. "I did three breakouts, and during one a kid was leaning on his forearms, looking at me with a look that he was zoned into what I was saying. I told them how 33 years before when I broke my neck, the doctor pulled my family out of the room into the waiting room and told them my life expectancy was nine years. The only person who remembered that was my 14-year-old sister, Kathleen. Superman only lived nine years after his injury, and now 33 years later, I asked them, 'Why am I still here?' And this kid doesn't move a muscle, but he says, 'Because you're not done yet.' I end a lot of my programs with that story."

Writing the book took "the better part of five years," said Mike, who uses adaptive devices to hold a pen, type -- and drive his van to engagements. A reviewer noted the "conversational" tone of the book, which is understandable since he "talked it" -- dictating the story into computer software that transcribed his words. He also worked closely with an editor, who pared his original manuscript down to 35,000 words.

While Mike no longer has family living in Worthington, he remains connected with his former hometown, visiting for King Turkey Day and starting a scholarship fund to honor his former football coach, Milt Osterberg, through the Worthington High School Dollars for Scholars program. He's still in touch with many of his high school classmates and enjoys hearing from them, even if it's just through a comment on his blog.

"I don't regret playing football," he asserted. "I loved playing football. I regret getting hurt playing football. I still have friends from all the sports I played, and I was always outgoing, always a leader."

Mike finds it especially gratifying when he gets feedback from someone who has been touched by one of his presentations.

"I tell people I'm like Johnny Appleseed," he said. "I plant the seed when I give a speech or somebody reads my book, and then I turn them back over to themselves to do what they will with what's happened to me."

In the book, Mike discusses about the five stages of grieving -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance -- and his journey through them as he came to terms with spending the rest of his life as a paraplegic.

"But I've never let the circle come all the way around," he admitted about not taking the final grieving step. "I think I'm going to come out of it some day, that stem cells, a computer chip or something somebody else is working on will be the answer for regenerating nerves 40-plus years post injury. But science has to take its course and move on to find a solution to deal with the problem."

The book, however, has been the next step in Mike's mission to make the most out of his situation and help others to cope with the reality of the changes and losses in their own lives.

"I needed to figure out what the reason was for breaking my neck," Mike writes in the forward to "I Still Believe in Tomorrow." "I needed to learn why this happened to me and what I was supposed to do about it. Over 20 years ago, I started to journal about my experiences, and they became the basis for my memoir. Writing this book has been a part of my process of self-discovery while turning a tragedy into triumph.

"I know why I got hurt," Mike added during the phone interview. "It's to make a difference in the lives of people who hear me, hear about me, or read my blog or my book."

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Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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