BELVIDERE, Ill. — When Heriberto Avila (pictured) lost his leg as a result of an accident during a high school wrestling match in January, he and his family could have started calling lawyers. They could have turned bitter or angry.
But on the day Heriberto, a Belvidere North High School senior known as Eddie, woke up in a hospital bed and tearfully struggled to deal with the shock that his left leg had been amputated, he reminded his family and his pastor, who were in the room with him, that he was not the only one who needed solace.
He was worried about his wrestling opponent, Sean McIntrye, a senior at Genoa-Kingston High School, whose legal take-down had caused the broken bones and the rupture in a blood vessel that led to the amputation.
“We need to pray for Sean too,” Eddie said, “because he needs to have peace in his heart.”
For his displays of courage and grace, Eddie, 17, the son of Mexican immigrants, has become something of a hero in Belvidere, known for its Chrysler plant and one of the state’s highest unemployment rates. Eddie lives in a modest duplex with his parents, Armando, 40, and Adriana, 39, who work in factories, and three younger siblings.
“A lot of families in this situation would have been looking at lawsuits,” said Richard Kirchner, the principal at Belvidere North. “These people never pointed any fingers. It’s not their way.”
It has not been easy for either of the young wrestlers.
When Eddie visited the Genoa-Kingston team last week, he and Sean wrapped their arms around each other and wept.
“I told him he was an awesome guy,” said Eddie, who has made it plain he has no hard feelings. “There is no one to blame here. This was an accident.”
Eddie said that Sean tried to speak at the meeting, “but he got too choked up to talk.”
Sean, who could not bring himself to wrestle in his team’s first meet after the accident — which deeply concerned Eddie — has not talked publicly about it.
It was Senior Night at Belvidere North when the two teams met Jan. 12. Sean placed his hand on the back of Eddie’s heel and his head on a shin and took him down with a textbook move, said Dirk Campbell, Genoa-Kingston’s athletic director. Bones snapped, and Eddie screamed so loudly that his mother ran from the bleachers to the mat.
Eddie was rushed to St. Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, where doctors on that Wednesday night diagnosed a broken tibia, a broken fibula and a severed artery . His mother said that doctors operated on Thursday and again on Friday, but that Eddie’s left foot was losing oxygen and turning dark, and internal organs were showing signs of stress. On Saturday, doctors saw no choice but to amputate his leg above the thigh.
Wrestling, for all of its throw-downs and vise-grip holds, is not usually known as an especially dangerous sport. Bacterial infections from the mats are more common than serious injuries.
Marty Hickman, executive director of the Illinois High School Association, said he had been involved in prep sports for more than 30 years and “cannot ever recall a situation like this occurring in a wrestling match.”
The Avilas have medical insurance, and the school’s policy will cover some expenses. But it is unclear how much the out-of-pocket expenses will ultimately be.
Schools throughout Northern Illinois, and some in Iowa and Wisconsin, have been mailing cards to Eddie stuffed with cash collected from students. In Belvidere, residents and school staff members organized a pancake fund-raiser at a local restaurant, where members of the wrestling team served as waiters. The event drew so many people that a long line snaked outside, and many were unable to get in.
“I looked up and saw Sean,” Eddie said. “He had tears in his eyes.” After the fund-raiser, they went to church.
When Eddie traveled to Genoa-Kingston High School two weeks ago, he was wheeled to the auditorium, where some 600 students had stayed after school to stand and cheer for him for nearly two minutes.
Eddie says he has been humbled. Even in little towns in Mexico, he said, where most of his relatives live, people have been offering special Masses for him.
He has some dark days. “My psychologist says it’s O.K. to cry,” said Eddie, broad-shouldered and husky. On his wrist, he wears a bracelet with the words “Courage for Chloe,” in support of a classmate at Belvidere North who recently suffered severe head injuries in a car accident.
At school, Eddie takes the most challenging advanced-placement classes and plays five musical instruments. He mentors a grammar school boy whose parents are also Mexican immigrants. He is a member of the Key Club and vice president of the Psychology Club. He hopes to become a doctor.
He insists he is going to be fine. But as he talks about the wrestler from Genoa, his lip begins to tremble.
“I’m just really worried about Sean,” he said.
Monday, March 7, 2011
The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 4:30 PM