A kid in a California hospital bed has been told he’ll never play football again.
Dylan Lopez made his Fowler High School debut nine days ago. He opened the season as a sophomore starter at cornerback, a key figure on the left side of the defense.
As the clock wound down on the second quarter, Lopez saw Firebaugh High running back Michael Leyva headed for the end zone and attacked.
Then a teammate swung Leyva toward the sophomore just a moment before Lopez made contact.
“When I hit him, I blacked out for about five minutes,” Lopez said. “When I opened my eyes, my arms were swinging by themselves, my legs were moving. … I couldn’t control my body.”
Finally helped to his feet, Lopez walked off the field. Fowler trainers checked him for a concussion, but he passed all tests, and he thought he might get back in the game after halftime.
Then Lopez’s neck stopped moving.
Lopez, 14, had snapped the C5 vertebra in his neck. Doctors told Lopez that a millimeter’s difference could have left him paralyzed. Then they told him the game he has been playing since he was 4 is no longer an option.
“I was just crying,” Lopez said. “I lost hope. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I hated everybody.”
Kenneth Corona had other ideas. Lopez’s uncle had been doing some research, and he found a story on Delvin Breaux, the Saints cornerback who broke his C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae in high school, only to fight his way to the NFL.
Corona headed into Lopez’s hospital room with a message.
“Don’t give up, mijo,” Corona said. “You still have a chance to play.”
Lopez spent the next couple of hours poring over any story he could find on Breaux. He hooked up “Madden NFL 16,” inserted Breaux into the starting lineup and started making digital interceptions.
All of a sudden, Lopez had hope again.
His cousin, Izaiah Moreno, snapped off a tweet at Breaux, one of dozens of people who peppered Breaux’s Twitter account after last weekend’s confirmation that he had made the Saints roster.
Breaux responded with a message to stay strong.
“I probably shouldn’t have done it, but he tweeted me back, and I started jumping for joy,” Lopez said.
Lopez has been through three surgeries this week. A long process has barely begun.
But his new hero has given him hope.
“When I heard about that, I knew I had a chance,” Lopez said. “We’re going to make it.”
Breaux has been reaching out to people like Lopez for a long time.
Three years ago, Breaux, then playing with the Arena Football League’s New Orleans VooDoo, found Corey Borner’s story on Twitter.
Borner was paralyzed from the neck down on a Texas high school football field in 2009. Then a sophomore cornerback at DeSoto High, Borner tried to make a tackle on a bubble screen in spring practice and hit the receiver with his head down.
“Everything started to tighten up. I tried to get up, but my neck had an unusual feeling, a feeling I’ve never felt before,” Borner said. “I couldn’t get up.”
Borner thought he would go through surgery, get some crutches and head home. Nine hours of surgery later, he found out he had been paralyzed below the waist.
He has been fighting to walk again ever since.
“I’ve gotten a lot of stronger, and a lot of things I couldn’t do, I can do now,” Borner said. “I don’t have full function in my hands, but I eat better, I eat by myself, I brush my teeth, I pull my (wheelchair) better. Things like that, that’s progress to me.”
Borner is turning his paralysis into a positive. He makes appearances as a motivational speaker, talking to football teams in the Dallas area. He still loves the game.
Breaux and Borner connected immediately, trading encouragement, finding common ground in shared experience.
Three years later, they still haven’t met in person. Every couple of months or so, though, Borner and Breaux reconnect.
“He keeps me motivated,” Borner said. “Tells me to keep my faith in what I’m going through, because it isn’t easy.”
When Breaux takes the field this season, Borner will be watching.
‘The little guys’
Ronald McCaleb always wanted to see Johnny Thomas face off against Breaux.
Thomas, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver, played for McCaleb’s Louisiana Bayou Vipers in 2009, three years before Breaux resurrected his career with the same semi-pro team.
“If we had the same coach, and he’s saying that we’re probably on the same level, I feel like I can make it, too,” Thomas said. “I’ve just got to get my foot in the door somewhere.”
Thomas is trying to follow the same unlikely path that led Breaux to the NFL.
He came close earlier than most. A New Orleans native displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Thomas parlayed a Kentwood High career into a scholarship at Southwest Mississippi Community College and a contract with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders at the age of 19.
Two days before the first preseason game, Thomas got promoted to the starting lineup when the Stampeders’ veteran receiver hurt his hamstring. But Thomas pulled his own hamstring the next day, costing him a chance in Calgary.
McCaleb was waiting with an offer to play for the Vipers when Thomas got back to Louisiana. A season with the Vipers led to a scholarship at Texas College.
Four years later, Thomas started chasing his NFL dream again, this time through the indoor football ranks, and he has spent time in an alphabet soup of professional football organizations. He found himself in 2013 with the Knoxville Nighthawks of the Professional Indoor Football League. The next year, he played for the San Angelo Bandits of the Lone Star Football League.
Thomas thought he’d finally struck gold when he signed with the Arena Football League’s Tampa Bay Storm last season. For a player like Thomas, the AFL represents a doorway, a chance to get to the CFL and the ultimate prize beyond.
Then the Storm switched him into the slot. By moving Thomas inside, the Storm put him in direct competition with T.T. Toliver, an AFL legend who has scored 250 career touchdowns.
Thomas lost. Cut by Tampa Bay, Thomas hooked on with the Indoor Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers. Now 26, Thomas knows the odds, knows how few of the thousands who play in the indoor leagues ever draw the attention of NFL eyes.
He’s chasing the dream anyway.
“I just want a chance at the NFL,” Thomas said. “Even if I just went to training camp and they didn’t like me. … I feel like I’m good enough to play. I just want the opportunity to show it.”
Three years ago, right after Breaux made the leap from the Vipers to the VooDoo, McCaleb put the two in touch, hoping to set up that dream one-on-one.
The two former Vipers formed a friendship. Thomas talks to Breaux once a month, asking advice on his next move, picking the cornerback’s brain on coverages. Because of the places their careers have taken them, the two have never met face-to-face, but Thomas knows Breaux is always available, and if Thomas ever needs it, Breaux has connections in the CFL and now the NFL that could help the receiver realize his own dreams.
“Guys like that, those are the guys that deserve to make it,” Thomas said. “Guys who don’t forget about the little guys when they make it to the top.”
Back where he started
Breaux’s high school football team is between homes right now.
McDonogh 35’s new $55 million school site is still under construction, the football field that will someday sit outside the school nothing but a plan at the moment. The Roneagles practice on a makeshift field at the old John F. Kennedy site. If a thunderstorm rolls through, like one did Thursday, McDonogh 35 has to practice in the old school’s gym or the auxiliary gym. The new gym is still under construction.
The Roneagles are still flush with talent. A half-dozen or so already have FBS programs pounding on their doors, promising things they’ve dreamed about since they were kids.
Brad Stewart harbors those dreams. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound strong safety has drawn interest from Florida, Florida State, Miami and LSU.
Earn a scholarship and anything can happen.
“Everybody’s dream is to get to the league,” Stewart said.
Breaux’s story makes those dreams seem even more reachable. Breaux is not the only McDonogh 35 alum in the NFL right now — tackle Chris Clark plays for the Texans — but he’s right here, on the Saints roster, where he can be a constant presence and a fan of his brother, Lionel Breaux III, who plays for the Roneagles now.
Breaux is always around. During the summer, he showed up at 7-on-7 workouts. Two weeks ago, he came to McDonogh 35’s jamboree and jumped into the fray, teaching players like Stewart and LSU commit Clifford Chattman what he’s learned.
“It’s really good, especially when he comes from 35,” Stewart said. “You know where he’s coming from.”
In return, McDonogh 35’s players are following his every move, watching for Breaux’s No. 40 to appear on TV, tracking the footsteps of a player they someday hope to follow.
“It shows you that anything can happen,” Stewart said. “Say you weren’t to get any offers, you could still get where you’re trying to go. You just have to work hard.”
A captivating presence
Breaux’s rise from broken neck to NFL starter has captivated Saints fans — even the ones who sat through the team’s dark ages and learned not to fall in love too soon.
Sherri Strain is a native New Orleanian. Her dad and grandfather bought tickets when the team was founded in 1967. She sat in the stands as a kid and developed a deep, abiding love for her team that stayed strong even when she left after high school to go to UCLA.
A film producer and writer who has worked on more than 50 movies, Strain spent decades in Los Angeles, following her Saints from afar.
When she moved back to New Orleans a couple of years ago, taking advantage of the tax credits that have led to an explosion in Louisiana film production to satisfy a longing that began when she watched her city torn apart by Katrina.
A different Saints team, a different football feeling in the city, awaited her.
“We were the lovable losers forever,” said Strain, now 50. “That gets depressing after a while. Years and years of not expecting anything, and suddenly we weren’t lovable losers; we were contenders.”
Strain has seen so many players come and go over the years. She has never fallen for a player as fast as she found herself captivated by Breaux.
Breaux’s story is cinematic in nature, tailor-made to make him an instant fan favorite. He’s a local hero, a survivor, an inspiring story who made his hometown Saints the hard way.
But there’s something about Breaux’s personality, even though the two have never met, that makes him so magnetic.
“He seems to be so happy, so not bitter, so excited about having this opportunity,” Strain said. “You watch him, in the few interviews I’ve seen, on the field, he seems to have a great joy for the game.”
Strain has ordered a new Saints jersey for this season. Breaux’s No. 40 will be at her door soon.
Breaux, who will make his first NFL start for the Saints on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, remembers what it felt like to be a fan, a high school recruit chasing a scholarship (from LSU), a minor leaguer trying to stand out among the masses.
He remembers what it was like to be a kid lying in a hospital bed.
Back then, Breaux was on the other end of the keyboard, firing off questions to the guys he knew in the NFL — like Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Chad Jones and Brandon Bolden — and waiting anxiously for a reply.
“I used to message those guys. They’d message me back, (and) I used to be so excited,” Breaux said. “I didn’t know I was going to get an opportunity to be on the NFL level, but at the time I was going through it, those guys responded back to me, and that made me feel like I had hope.”
And Breaux realizes he’s a living, breathing example of how powerful hope can be.