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Cibola soccer coach returns from paralyzing injury

Of the many physical remnants from that terrible day, the most visible of them is the scar on the back of his once broken neck.

There are others, of course. A weakened handshake. High blood pressure. Continued swelling on his spinal cord.

But through all these residual setbacks, there is also this truth: Cameron Clarke is able to talk about all of them while standing on his own two feet.

More than that, even.

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“I’m a quadriplegic that can walk,” he said.

A mere 53 weeks after a horrific diving accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down, Clarke, fiercely determined and admittedly stubborn, not only is walking on his own — unlikely as that seemed a year ago —  but has returned to coach the Cibola High School boys soccer team.

“Personally,” Cougars senior Shea Cosper said, “I’m shocked. But it doesn’t surprise me.”

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Cibola High School Boys Soccer Coach Cameron Clarke sports a scar on his neck from the surgery. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

It was July 8 of last year that Clarke, on a hot summer night, took several dives from the edge of the roof of his single-story home in the Northeast Heights, and plunged a few feet below — into the above-ground, 4½-foot deep pool in his yard.

“That was why I put the pool there,” Clarke, 34, said. “I was planning to jump and dive into it.”

The air conditioning in his home was broken that day, and he had been working outside most of the afternoon.

Clarke, his wife Jodie and some friends were enjoying the comforts of the water that night. None of his three small children was there, and Clarke vowed he would never allow them to witness him diving from the roof.

“He has done so many crazier things than that,” said Jodie, his wife of nine years. But, she also conceded, “It was not the smartest thing to be doing.”

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Cameron had completed several dives safely already, he said, and this was to be his last. He was not, he said, intoxicated.

On this final dive, Clarke said, he probably jumped a little higher on the takeoff.

When he splashed down, and before he could shallow himself out, his forehead smacked hard against the bottom of the pool.

Right then and there, everything in his life changed.

Dark days

This was not, he said with unexpected candor, the first time he had been overly rambunctious.

“There’s a lot of things I’ve done in my life … that I shouldn’t be here,” he said, although he politely declined to elaborate. “I never grew out of it.”

This incident, however, was very nearly catastrophic.

The collision caused a clean break of the C5 vertebrae in his neck and bruising to his spinal cord. He lost movement in his legs. A six-hour surgery at UNM Hospital the next day, July 9, fused several of his cervical vertebrae to lend support and stability to the swollen cord. The damage to the cord was causing nerve signals from his brain to be shut off from reaching his spine.

His injuries were serious enough to send him to the renowned Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver two weeks later. And by the time he arrived there, Clarke was beginning to come to grips with his possible grim reality.

“I was planning to spend the rest of my life in a power chair,” he said.

He spent 11 weeks in Denver. While he could stand on his own, nothing more, it wasn’t for long. He had limited use of his fingers and arms, though technically he was still classified as a quadriplegic.

When he was discharged from Craig, he had enough power in his arms to wheel himself out of the facility. His legs could feel the prick of a needle, but he was nevertheless unable to walk on his own.

But that was always the plan.

“He’s always been such a driven person,” Jodie Clarke said.

Clarke’s competitive nature was important during those nearly three months in Colorado, he said. He wanted to be a fully mobile husband and also father to his three children: Chase, 7; Brayden, 5; and Lexi, 3.

And, he knew he also wanted to return to Cibola, to teach and to coach.

“It was a challenge I gave myself,” he said. “To get back to living my life as normal as possible.”

Back home

He was discharged from Craig in early October. Through his whole stay there, he had no voluntary movement in his legs. His doctors did not verbalize any pessimism, but neither did they outwardly raise his hopes about him walking again.

“They never wanted to tell me that I could get there,” Clarke said. “Because they didn’t want to promise something that might not happen.”

Clarke’s primary goal in Denver was to show Jodie something new when she came up from Albuquerque every other week.

“They never said he would walk again,” Jodie Clarke said. “But they seemed optimistic that he would be able to have a full life.”

When he finally did come home to Albuquerque, he soon was presented with something he didn’t expect.

“There are a lot of moments I won’t forget,” he said. “I got home, and I had poles (to help me stand), and my little daughter comes up to me and holds out her arms and said, ‘Hold me.’ My wife was screaming at me, don’t even think it!”

His biceps were strong enough to lift Lexi, but only for a few seconds. Most of the time after returning home, Clarke was navigating his way around in a way he never had to before — in a wheelchair. He could still stand up to grab something out of a kitchen cupboard, but little more.

In February, Clarke was able to resume his physical therapy. And the progress was noticeable. By early May, he was taking his first unassisted steps since July 8. As he oversaw a Cibola summer practice session earlier this week, Clarke was walking smoothly. Whether or not he is a medical miracle is not for him to say, he said.

“I feel blessed and lucky,” Clarke said. “There’s no rhyme or reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

Said Jodie: “Deep down, I thought he could walk again. But I was prepared for him to be in a chair.”

This traumatic road back, as fraught as it’s already been with physical and emotional turmoil, is far from over. He can stand for a few hours now, but his energy drains quickly.  His right hand has 20 percent of its former strength, with no guarantee of improvement. When he walks, his right foot sometimes drags — partly, he explained, because of a pre-existing ankle injury he suffered playing soccer years ago for the Albuquerque Asylum.

“We haven’t figured all this out yet,” Jodie said. “We have always been such an active family.”

Clarke also has high blood pressure now as a result of the accident, and acknowledged that his wheelchair will probably always be a necessary appendage wherever he goes.

A new life

His overall goal, to attain normalcy, is a work in progress as he re-integrates himself into his old life.

“It’s something I have to try and have to do,” he said.

He won’t be teaching full time at Cibola, anymore. Rather, he’ll teach two physical education classes leading up to his soccer duties in the afternoon, either practices or games.

“He’s had to relearn how to walk and everything,” Cibola junior Matt Berlint said. “He showed us what he has inside him. It could have ended his life, but he’s back like nothing happened.”

In a moment of brevity, Clarke — who was able to attend a couple of Cibola games late last season as his brother Michael ran the team — admitted that he likes having the upper hand should his players start to whine about being tired.

“I have the leverage every coach wishes they had,” he said, laughing.

“It’s amazing (that he’s back),” said Cosper. “I think everyone would have understood if he took another year off.”

But that was not part of the plan.

“It’s been a long, tough road,” Clarke said. “I never figured I would walk again. And I still don’t know if it (coming back to coaching) is gonna work.”

He’s come this far, and is not going to yield ground now.

“I think that determination will get you through anything,” Clarke said, as he pondered what lesson was gleaned from all of this. “I have a lot to be thankful for. You have to be thankful for everything you get.”

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