As the Carolina Panthers get ready to play the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 this week, they’ll do so on the campus of San Jose State University. And hopefully at some point while the NFC champs are preparing for the biggest game of their lives, the Panthers’ players will stop to think about Neil Parry, who nearly gave his life to get back on the same Spartan Stadium field.
Ten miles south of Levi’s Stadium, the site of Sunday’s game, Parry waged one of the most inspirational battles in football history from October 2000 through September 2003. It started with a badly broken right leg, suffered in a home game against UTEP, and culminated with his return to game action 35 months after that leg had to be amputated seven inches below the knee.
Parry’s first game back, against Nevada on Sept. 18, 2003, was witnessed in person by only 10,173 fans, and it surely wasn’t seen by 100 million more on TV. The Thursday night matchup between the Spartans and Wolf Pack probably didn’t become water-cooler fodder at many offices around the country that Friday, and, in a cruel twist of fate, Parry’s team didn’t win.
But in some ways, it was still Parry’s Super Bowl. Watching No. 32 jog out to block on an inconsequential fourth-quarter punt return was — and still is — among the most moving sports scenes a fan is apt to see, and as uplifting football moments go there’s nothing that Cam Newton or any of his teammates will do next or any other Sunday that could possibly compare.
"It changed my outlook on what football’s all about," said Oregon State offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin, San Jose State’s head coach at the time of Parry’s injury. "It definitely came to be more about the student than winning football games.
"I still refer to it all the time," he added. "I tell kids how incredible it is to play this sport and how lucky we are, and then I’ll tell them the story of what we went through with Neil, and how this young man fought just to come back and play football. I tell them how special that is and remind them to never, ever forget how special this sport can be."
It changed my outlook on what football’s all about.
Former San Jose State head coach Dave Baldwin
The moment he was hit, on the opening kickoff of the second half of San Jose State’s game against UTEP on Oct. 14, 2000, Parry knew his leg was broken. It was the kind of injury that left little in the way of doubt. The former walk-on was on kickoff duty, his favorite assignment, and as he pivoted to chase down the Miners’ returner, a teammate was knocked down into the front of his leg.
"I remember the sound and the feeling — but it didn’t hurt right away," Parry told FOX Sports last week "It’s more just like, ‘Whoa, did that just happen.’ … I went down and kind of just tried to stay still. I didn’t want to move my foot because I really didn’t have control of it. It was just kind of hanging there. It was pretty gross looking at it, so I tried to just stare up at the sky and wait for the trainers."
While Neil lay helpless, his brother Josh, a senior star linebacker, was coming onto the field for the first play of the ensuing UTEP drive. Then he saw the injury — the sophomore Neil’s fibula and tibia poking through his skin — and turned away, unable to look on.
"As soon as I saw it, I headed back to the sideline just out of pure shock, to be honest," Josh Parry said. "I’ve seen a compound (fracture), but I haven’t seen anything like that."
Despite the gruesome scene on the field, no one in the stadium had any inkling that Parry might not recover and someday return to play again, just as former Louisville guard Kevin Ware did after suffering a similar injury at the Final Four in 2013. And in the moment, Parry says his biggest concern was that his injury would likely keep him out of a potential bowl game later that season.
It wasn’t until two or three days later, after team doctor Dan Haber performed surgery to fix the break, that Parry’s situation began to look dire, starting with a fever and an odd smell coming from his cast at the hospital.
Because of the temperature spike, doctors moved Parry into the ICU, where they also cut open his cast. An infection had taken hold — "a freak thing" Haber later said — and given way to painful compartment syndrome. Parry underwent another procedure to reduce the swelling and was moved shortly thereafter to Stanford Medical Center. It was there, after a strong treatment of antibiotics failed to contain the infection, that doctors informed Parry that amputation was likely his only option.
It got to where if we don’t do this soon, it’s going to become life-threatening. And that was when it became, ‘OK, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to still be on this planet.’
"It got to where if we don’t do this soon, it’s going to become life threatening," Neil Parry said. "And that was when it became, ‘OK, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to still be on this planet.’ "
Thankfully, doctors told Parry that the infection was contained enough that they only needed to remove his foot and ankle — still a life-altering procedure but one that left the door open to an eventual return to the field.
"I can remember the day they made the decision," Baldwin said. "We were in there and the doctor walked in and he said, ‘Neil we’re going to have to amputate, otherwise you’re not going to be able to make it,’ and he looked at the doctor and said, ‘You’re going to cut it off and save enough so I can come back and play?’ And he was serious.
"I got tears in my eyes," he continued. "Because I’m thinking, ‘Let’s just save this kid’s life.’ "
That Saturday, the team played the Wolf Pack with Josh Parry in tow — he didn’t travel with the team Friday but made a career-high 17 tackles after arriving in Reno in time for the game — and after the game, he told the team about his brother’s pending amputation.
"I was done — I wasn’t even going to play," Josh Parry said. "Like anybody going through something like that, sometimes it’s just like, ‘I don’t want to do it anymore.’ But (Neil and my wife, Kelli) saying, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ that’s what kind of pushed me to get over that hump and say, ‘All right, let’s move forward.’ "
On Oct. 23, 2000, nine days after the initial injury, doctors amputated Neil’s lower right leg, but it was the lead-up to the procedure that Neil says was the most difficult part of the entire process.
"They had blocked a surgery slot off early in the morning, and the night before they had come in with the paperwork," Parry said. "All this stuff has to be signed off and approved and all that, and since I was still coherent, I could sign for myself. They needed that to move forward with the surgery, and on the form the doctor had written what the procedure is, and reading it — amputation of lower right leg — I knew that as soon as I signed my signature, I was going to be an amputee.
It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do to this point. Signing my name meant my foot was gone.
"I didn’t actually sign the form until right before the surgery," he continued. "It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do to this point. Signing my name meant my foot was gone. And then after the surgery, when I woke up, I was in the recovery room and it kind of reminded me of the actual injury because I didn’t want to look down at my foot. You hear about phantom pains and all that, and it’s real. I felt like my foot was still there, and I didn’t want to look down and see how it was now."
A few days after the operation, the entire San Jose State roster stopped by the hospital, where it congregated outside and and sang the fight song to Neil, who had been rolled over to the window after hearing of their arrival. Then that Saturday, as Neil and his father, Nick, watched the Spartans play at Hawaii, Neil began seriously considering whether playing again might be an option.
"I was just shooting questions back and forth, and I was really unsure about what I’d be able to do because I didn’t know anything about prosthetics or anything in that field," Parry recalled. "So it was all new to me, and I was asking my dad what he thinks I’ll be able to do, and his response was that I was only going to be limited by what I wanted to try to do.
"I asked if he thought I’d be able to run, and he said, ‘Yeah, you’ll be able to run. Probably not as fast as you could before, but you could be darn close,’" Parry continued. "And then I asked him, ‘Well, if I can run, why couldn’t I cover a kick and make a tackle?’
"He didn’t answer at first," Parry said of his father, a high school coach in his hometown of Sonora, Calif. "Then he thought about it and said, ‘I guess you can.’ That’s how it came about, and from then on it became about what I had to do to get back on the field."
Naturally, there were many who told Parry that playing again wasn’t necessary and that adjusting to his new life was going to be challenging enough. No one will think any less of you, they told him, if you just move on. But giving up simply wasn’t in Neil’s or any of the Parrys’ nature.
"We were always raised to set your sights as high as they can go," Josh Parry said. "Because if your sights are set lower and you achieve it, then you feel like you’re done. But you’re never done, so set them as high as they can go and give yourself something to work for. So I was on board when he was saying that he wanted to play. It was, ‘How fast can we go? Let’s get moving.’"
Plus, for Neil, this was personal.
Parry led the Spartans on the field when he was able to get back into uniform.
"I felt like I had kind of been cheated a little bit, to be honest," Parry said. "I wanted to finish when my time was up, not because of something that had happened to me. I really just wanted to walk out on Senior Day and have my name called as a player and not have it be a ceremonial type of thing. I wanted to finish what I’d come to San Jose State to do. I wanted to finish what I’d started."
Less than two weeks after his amputation, Parry returned to San Jose State for the team’s home game against TCU. One day after meeting President Bill Clinton, in town stumping on behalf of Vice President Al Gore, Parry watched from a mezzanine-level box as the Spartans stunned the No. 9-ranked Horned Frogs, led at the time by LaDainian Tomlinson. Three weeks after that, in the team’s season finale against Fresno State, Neil and Josh Parry served as team captains, with Neil walking on the field for the first time using a basic prosthetic.
"When we walked out there together, it was special," Josh Parry said. "Those are times as a brother, as a teammate, as family — you just never forget those kind of things."
At that point, though, Neil was nowhere near ready to play, and he wouldn’t be for more than two years. Parry underwent 36 surgeries before he was able to commit fully to getting into game shape — he’s now up over 40 — with each one representing a minor setback, and there were moments when Parry began to wonder if reaching a goal was worth all the trouble.
Fortunately, he had Josh to rely on throughout the ordeal. Undrafted out of San Jose State, Josh overcame several hurdles of his own and eventually latched as a fullback with the Philadelphia Eagles. The pact between the brothers, Neil said, was that I’ll keep playing if you keep playing, and that mantra helped put Neil back on the gridiron and led Josh to Super Bowl XXXIX.
"I think both of us knew that, if we were given a chance, that we’d both be able to accomplish our goals," Neil said. "We were there for each other, doing it for each other and also for ourselves."
"We were kind of going through similar situations as far as mentally," Josh added. "It was just pushing each other, talking on the phone, saying, ‘Move forward, keep going. There’s another play out there.’ And it was nice to have that."
The fans showed their support.
Still, simply getting back to the field wasn’t enough for Neil, and when he finally was able to return to practice, he asked new San Jose State coach Fitz Hill not to treat him like a sympathy case. He only wanted to play if he was the team’s best option.
"I didn’t want him to take away a spot from somebody else who could do the job better than me," Parry said of Hill, who could not be reached for this story. "I didn’t want to be treated any different than I was before my injury. So I told him that if he felt like I couldn’t do the job better than somebody, then I don’t want to be given special treatment. And I wasn’t going to tell him I was ready to come back until I felt that I could do the things that were asked of me in practice and in games."
That included overcoming the mental hurdle of taking contact.
"You can run and do all that stuff all you want, but it’s not until you’re physically engaged with somebody or you strike somebody and you know that there’s 250 extra pounds on your leg, that you know if it’s going to hold up," Parry said. "So it was really up until that first contact that I was kind of unsure about stuff. Then that first practice I was back, we did some tackling drills and some blocking drills, and one I got my first couple out of the way, it was like, ‘OK, this feels natural.’"
Finally, the week of San Jose State’s fourth game, Neil and the team decided he was ready to play. And one of the first calls Neil made was to Baldwin, who was at that point the offensive coordinator under John L. Smith at Michigan State.
"When that phone call came in, he said, ‘Coach, I’m coming back to play; I’m going to be one of the guys again,’" Baldwin said. "And for me, I said, ‘What do you mean one of the guys? You are the guy.’ It was incredible what he’d gone through, so to say that you want to be one of the guys — every guy on that sideline is going to honor you just because of who you are and what you’ve done."
In a moment nearly three years in the making, Parry suited up for his first game action, but it took almost the whole game before he was able to actually take the field.
Previously a member of the Spartans’ kickoff, kick return, punt and punt return units, Parry was only on the punt return unit at that point. A dominant Nevada offense had its way with San Jose State in what turned out to be a 42-30 win, and after three quarters, the Wolf Pack hadn’t yet been forced to punt.
Finally, with 13:20 left in the game, the San Jose State defense held and as Derek Jones came out to kick it away, the crowd at Spartan Stadium started chanting Parry’s name. Then after a 2-yard return from Jamall Broussard, the moment was over. And as Parry returned to the sideline, he sensed a feeling few likely expected.
"During the two and a half years up to that point, you try to visualize the play, and it didn’t work out the way that I had visualized," Parry said. "So after the play I was really upset because I felt like I didn’t do anything. I went out there, I ran down the field, but I didn’t really do anything to help the play or help the team or anything like that. So I was disappointed."
Then he looked up at the appreciative crowd, toward his family in the stands, and began to understand the significance of simply being where he was.
"I started to realize it was bigger than that," Parry said. "There were a lot of people watching who took inspiration from what I did. There might be a kid down the road who thought they could play football as an amputee now, and I realized it was a bigger deal to a lot of people. So I was happy because of that fact, but I still wanted it to be more."
After the Nevada game, Parry remained on the Spartans’ punt return team but never was able to make a tackle. Like returning to the field at all, playing on a kickoff — reliving the play that broke his leg and changed his life — represented a personal goal he felt he needed to meet to find closure. With no future as a professional, it appeared he’d never get a chance to live out that dream, until he got an invite to the East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco the following January.
It was there, in front of 25,602 people in what was then known as SBC Park, that West coach John Robinson of UNLV gave Parry the chance to play with the kick return team, and Parry made the most of the opportunity. In the second quarter, he tackled Arkansas’ Lawrence Richardson on a return, and that, he says, is when he truly felt like he was back — and not a moment too soon.
Obviously, I’d like to have both my legs, but I can’t complain about what I’ve been able to do and who I’ve been able to meet and mentor. You can see that things happened for a reason.
"That’s what I’d visualized, that’s what I’d worked toward, that’s what I wanted it to be," Parry said. "A lot of athletes are really stat-driven, and I didn’t really have a stat. I played in all the games after the Nevada game, but I didn’t have a stat, and I knew if I could make a tackle I’d be in the stat book. That was one thing that really drove me before my injury — I wanted to be the leader on the team in special teams tackles — so I felt like that was my comeback.
"As soon as I made the tackle, I helped the guy up and I just remember yelling," Parry continued. "I pointed up to the stands because I knew my dad was at the game, and I knew my brother was home watching, and when I got into the locker room after the game, I had some text messages. My brother said he punched a hole in the ceiling because he jumped off his couch so high, and it was something that I’ll never forget."
"Me and my wife were watching and the tears were flowing," Josh Parry added. "He got back on the horse and went through it again and was successful, and it’s something that’s always stuck with me."
Once his playing career was over, his goals met, Parry followed his father’s footsteps into coaching, first at Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill, Calif., and then as a graduate assistant at UC Davis. Eventually, Parry returned to San Jose State as a graduate assistant, and throughout his journey he’s used his story to motivate the players he now leads.
"I just felt like that would really be the only way that I’d be happy, to still somehow be involved in the game and to coach," Parry said. "And once I started coaching, I realized how big of an impact a coach can have on somebody. … I want to be involved with helping kids reach their goals, like I had coaches who helped me with mine. The positive support I’ve gotten from coaches helps me to this day, and that’s how I want to be for my players."
And while certainly no one would fault Parry if he wished he could go back and undo everything — the injury, the amputation, the painful recovery — the sense is that he feels things turned out exactly how they were meant to be.
"I’ve thought about what my path might have been like if I’d never been injured, or if I’d recovered like a normal broken leg," Parry said. "But I don’t think I would change. Obviously, I’d like to have both my legs, but I can’t complain about what I’ve been able to do and who I’ve been able to meet and mentor. You can see that things happened for a reason.
"It’s even more special when one of my kids asks me about it and wants to hear about it," added Parry, who has spent the last six months as a stay-at-home dad to his three children. "It sounds silly, but one of my sons once said to me, ‘You know, Daddy, you’re really tough,’ and I think that kind of brought it all into perspective."