COLUMBIA CITY – His short-term memory may not be what it was and things are still a little fuzzy, but one thing is crystal clear for Sam Dailey 10 months after suffering a severe brain injury during a football game.
“I believe I benefited from it,” Dailey said recently, sitting in his Whitley County home near Columbia City. “If you can benefit from such an injury. The short-term (memory) is still a problem, but it is not so much of a problem that I can't go day to day and live a normal life. It changed a lot of things. The way I look at life has definitely been changed. I am happier. I am thankful to be here, and there are a lot of things I don't take for granted anymore that I would've if I didn't have the injury that I had. I live life a lot more – happy.
“I felt like ‘why me?' I have to think about my faith and realize that's not what he wanted me to do. He didn't want me to play football. He knows best. I am not going to lose faith. Yes, I am frustrated, but I realize there are a lot more things I could do with my life than one thing. I am fine with that. I would have had maybe four more years of football left, but I have a lot more life to live.”
The head injury cost him a lot of his senior year at Columbia City, his football career and almost cost him his life. But Dailey feels nothing but fortunate to have gone through the ordeal.
“The great news is my long-term memory wasn't affected at all,” he said. “I could remember family and friends. I struggle a little bit with names and faces. I quickly got over that. My short term, of course, was damaged quite a bit. For the injury that I went through, there wasn't that many issues with what it could have been.”
It was a seemingly routine play during the season opener Aug. 23 at Warsaw. To this day, no one seems to know how the injury occurred.
Dailey's memories of what happened have been enhanced by teammates, family and friends.
From his linebacker position, Dailey was locked up with the Warsaw tight end and was able to get to the running back and knock the ball out of his hands. The Eagles recovered the ball and moved to offense. Dailey was also the team's running back but was nowhere to be found.
He was on the sidelines attempting to drink water from an empty bottle.
“For some reason, I had known something was wrong, something just wasn't adding up,” Dailey said.
Then he began to hit himself in the face, was foaming at the mouth and wasn't responding to his teammates or his coaches. Eventually his father, Dan, jumped a fence and stopped him from hitting his face, which caused bruises on Dan's arm because of the force Dailey was hitting himself.
There was a delay in getting medical assistance to Dailey, causing some frustration and confusion among fans who saw Dailey's struggles on the sideline, but help eventually came.
At first, Dailey was taken by ambulance to Kosciusko Community Hospital in Warsaw and was later transported by helicopter to Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne. Dailey said the emergency medical technician, who chose Dailey over a call for a man having a heart attack, probably saved his life.
“That was good to know that he was fine, too,” Dailey said of the heart-attack victim, the uncle of a close friend.
Soon after arriving at Lutheran, Dailey had a CT scan that revealed a sudural hematoma, bruising of the brain and a midline brain shift. In essence, the right side of his brain was in the middle of his head.
A blood vessel in his brain had also ruptured which was putting pressure on his brain. A 2 1/2 -hour surgery was performed early the next morning, and Dailey now has a C scar on the side of his head where the incision was made.
“I am just thankful it happened quickly and to the best of their ability,” Dailey said. “My surgeon and his team were notably the best in the Midwest in my opinion.”
Dailey was in a medically induced coma for a couple of days and spent a week in the intensive care unit before going to another unit in the hospital for recovery for a few additional days. Eventually he was moved to a nearby rehabilitation center, where he spent three weeks.
At the rehab center, Dailey went through occupational and physical therapy, with a little bit of speech therapy toward the end of his stay.
“They know what they are doing, so I respect what they did and how they did it,” he said. “My road to recovery was a lot easier because of them.”
He continued therapy in an outpatient method with road trips back to Fort Wayne. The physical and occupational therapy ended by February with the speech therapy still ongoing as he enters college in the fall.
When he first returned home Sept. 19, Dailey would sleep 12-13 hours a day and didn't do much during the harsh winter. One day, he noticed the scar on the side of his head.
“I would wonder is this a nightmare or a dream and all in my mind,” he said. “For a very long time I thought it was not real; the life that I was living was not real. A lot of it was because there was a part of my life I just didn't remember. I thought of things as fake.”
He had his mother, Rita, taking care of him and fixing him meals.
Eventually, Dailey took an online class at home and then one at Columbia City. By the start of February, Dailey had returned to school full time and his memory was improving.
“Taking classes made me feel like I was back to a normal life,” he said. “That's when it started to get back to the swing of things.”
Support came from everywhere from schools such as NHC rivals Carroll and Homestead to Heritage and Warsaw and of course, Columbia City. It also came in the form of a benefit by the Columbia City community, the sale of T-shirts and a web site, www.doitfordailey.org.
There was moral and financial support, all directed toward Dailey and his family to help on his road to recovery.
“I want to express the need of thank-you,” Dailey said. “That's what I want to pass on. I feel a debt onto people who gave to me. It was not expected. But it was a lot. It was people in schools where it was like ‘we are not even in the same conference or same community, and we don't play each other – ever.'
“There are times I will step back and feel humility. But then I also see grace in it and feel very fortunate. I will see (the T-shirts) at the mall, something simple like that. It brings joy because I overcame something that a lot of people are like ‘How did you do that?' There are so many feelings that hit you at once that you can't pinpoint to an exact emotion. It's a great feeling.”
Dailey graduated from Columbia City a couple of weeks ago and will begin taking classes at IPFW in the fall toward a major in exercise science and a minor in business. He would like to be a personal trainer. The future has changed for Dailey, but at least there is a future.
It is a future without football.
“I really, really wanted to be a Division I athlete and a Division I football player,” said Dailey, who has been told by doctors to never play football again. “I feel like I may have gotten noticed, but being a walk-on would have even been a possibility because I really enjoy playing the sport and it's something I have a passion for.
“I love the sport, what I could have done with it? But I may do other things around the sport, like coaching or broadcasting. There are so many things I could do, and I am fine with that. I will embrace that. Like most teenagers, they go into school thinking they are going to do one thing and come out doing a completely different thing. That could be me, too.”
With so much talk in professional, college and high school football about the severity of concussions and brain injuries, where is the future of football going?
Dailey, who wore No. 80 after his idol and NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, said he hopes there will still be football in the future. He recently talked about this with a group of EMTs and nurses in a seminar on concussions.
“I don't know where it will go,” he said. “I don't think it will drop off because, really, how many times is an injury like mine sustained in an athlete's life? It doesn't happen very often at all. I hope it doesn't drop off because I know there are kids out there who enjoy playing the sport like I do.”