Each step is slow. And often painful. But Stephen Spradling is thankful for every step that he takes, for every step in his journey.
Just more than three months ago, the Florida State baseball player was enjoying one of his other favorite pursuits — skydiving. Spradling always has had a passion for sports, and beyond baseball he pursued BMX racing, surfing, scuba diving and snowboarding.
On this day, Dec. 30, Spradling was skydiving in Sebastian, Fla., (about an hour and a half north of West Palm Beach) with his brother Matt and others. The winds were stronger than usual, but Stephen had jumped dozens of times and was certified to skydive in the conditions.
As he got closer to the ground, parachuting to the Earth, another skydiver came right into his path. Spradling had few options, as a mid-air collision possibly would have killed both of them. One choice: He could change direction.
He did. Spradling avoided the other skydiver. And an instant later, he hit the ground.
Spradling never lost consciousness. One skydiver in the group was a doctor and another was a paramedic. They gave him immediate attention.
“As soon as I hit, (my) first thought was, ‘I’m alive,’ ” Spradling said. “Second thought was, ‘My lower body is in excruciating pain.’ ”
What followed were surgeries that Spradling doesn’t remember the details of to this day. There were broken bones all over, including his back, ribs and pelvis. He’s just thankful that he was able to leave the hospital three weeks after the accident.
“As soon as I was put back together, it was just wanting to get out of there,” Spradling said. “I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.”
Sometimes, doctors and physical therapists have to push patients harder as they rehabilitate. With Spradling, the athlete kicked in. He was the complete opposite.
“It’s a hard balance to know when I am pushing myself too hard,” Spradling said.
Spradling, 23, has had a number of surgeries. The first was emergency surgery to stop the internal bleeding. He had another surgery to re-attach his groin muscle to his pelvis, a surgery that he didn’t even remember until days later. He had knee surgery, too.
He spent a lot of time initially in a wheelchair, but Spradling also was able to do a variety of physical therapy. He was able to walk in a pool, doing calf raises and marching in place. And he did some leg exercises and upper-body work in the gym.
Spradling was able to walk with the aid of crutches in March. And, over Easter weekend, he walked for the first time without the crutches.
“Each step right now is painful,” Spradling said. “But they are the happiest steps of my life.”
A week before the accident, Spradling had proposed to his girlfriend, Brittany Murray. The holidays were special, but this year more than others. There was so much to look ahead to.
The accident changed everything, but it clearly brought the family together. Spradling’s parents, brother and Murray don’t want to talk about what happened back in December. The emotions are still too strong.
But Spradling is thankful for everything that they have done. And the past three months have brought he and Murray even closer.
“We were both coming off being so happy and talking about plans,” Spradling said. “It just changed. This is not good. She’s stuck with me the whole time. She’s been my biggest supporter every day. I think it made our relationship even stronger.”
Spradling returned to Dick Howser Stadium for the first time on March 22 to watch Florida State play Georgia Tech (Murray drove him there from his home in Boynton Beach). He sat in the stands just a few rows behind the Seminoles’ dugout and cheered on his teammates as they took two of three games from the Yellow Jackets.
And Florida State fans returned the favor by giving Spradling a standing ovation.
“That meant so much to me,” Spradling said. “Since I’ve been back here (rehabilitating), I’ve been wanting to get back up there. When I was finally able to get back up there, I was cleared to walk in crutches, it was just an amazing experience.”
He was reunited with teammates for the first time, going into the locker room to shake hands and receive hugs. Spradling said they’ve all kept up with him through his rehabilitation, and it was an emotional reunion.
Spradling is trying to arrange another trip to Tallahassee, but he also will be in the stands this weekend in Coral Gables when Florida State plays Miami.
There are aspects of the game that Spradling misses. He missed playing the game he loves and the camaraderie that he shares with teammates. Spradling hit .262 with 11 runs and four RBI in 2012, starting 11 games as an outfielder in his junior season in Tallahassee (he transferred from Broward College after two years).
Spradling had helped Florida State reach the College World Series a year ago. Florida State coach Mike Martin wanted to keep Spradling on the roster, but NCAA rules don’t allow it.
“I’d love to put him on the roster but we can’t because he’s not an enrolled student,” Martin said.
Spradling knows that his chances of ever playing baseball again are a long shot.
“I’m not really sure what my future is in baseball,” Spradling said. “It’s been an amazing ride. I’m just trying to get healthy.”
Spradling has gone from nearly dying in a field to emergency surgery to a shorter-than-expected three-week stay in the hospital to walking with crutches to now walking on his own. As far as his rehabilitation has gone so far, he has done far better — and recovered quicker — than anyone expected.
He has plenty of goals ahead of him. Spradling is 11 credits shy of a bachelor’s degree, and he hopes to wrap that up this summer. It’s possible that he could attend class in Tallahassee to complete his degree (major in geography and a minor in psychology), but he also may take the classes online and graduate.
Spradling said he will not skydive again. But he would still like to pursue other sports. He would love to get back into surfing. He has planned to take part in a 1-mile run (walking, of course) in the next few weeks.
After he graduates, Spradling would like to work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a law officer, helping protect native wildlife and fish. He loves fishing and feels like it’s a perfect career choice. And he and Brittany plan to get married either in December or next spring.
The simple fact that he is able to look forward to so much in life, even if the steps are slow, is a miracle to Spradling.
“From where I was to now is incredible,” Spradling said. “God was looking out for me. … I believe God saved me when the accident happened.”