On warm summer nights, Porter Hancock ran behind his house to Millrace Road. He followed the ribbon of old asphalt as it cut through hay fields and willow trees and grazing cattle for a mile, before it blended into Democrat Alley, an equally countrified byway. For another mile, and then looping around, he breathed hard, feeling the burn in his legs, pushing himself while taking in the agrarian scents that he remembers but can't quite describe, somehow finding peace in the effort. More than anything, though, he dreamed of playing football.
He did not dream of dislocating his neck.
Of all endeavors, growing up near Oakley, playing linebacker and running back were the two that meant the most to him. He rode horses, played "Modern Warfare," hung out with friends, did baseball and soccer, and ran the 100 meters in track, qualifying for state twice.
But there was something about football that made it worth it to him to lift weights for three hours a day and run those pastoral roads to get stronger and faster, to build up his 5-foot-8, 160-pound body, to help the South Summit High Wildcats win.
"It was the adrenaline," he says. "The hard work. The teamwork. The hitting. It was like a battle, the whole game. I wanted to better myself."
As a freshman and sophomore, Hancock played mostly special teams for the varsity. He got some time at linebacker, too. Through the first seven games of his junior season, he had, in fact, bettered himself, enough to get significant minutes on defense. The day before the eighth game, on Oct. 7, against Emery, Hancock scored four touchdowns in a JV outing against the Spartans.
The following night, at the end of the third quarter of the varsity game, Hancock's world changed.
As he rushed toward Emery's punter, the punter bobbled the ball, then started running. A teammate arrived a split-second ahead, crashing in from the right while Hancock came from the other side. As he made contact, his helmet jarred to the left.
The others got up. Hancock did not.
He stayed on the grass, unable to move. He couldn't feel his torso, his legs, his feet. He couldn't feel the cold air or the snow that drifted down around him.
"I couldn't feel anything," he says.
His mother, Jill, who watched the play real time through a video camera at the top of the stands, at first didn't realize the injured player was her son. Then, she rushed the field, standing helplessly by as paramedics did their work.
"They asked me questions," Hancock says. "They asked if I could feel or move anything. I said, 'No.' I remember my family all around me. I remember them putting me on a board and taking me to the ambulance. Then, I dozed off and on."
Everyone else was wide-awake.
On the field, his coaches and teammates gathered, joined by their stress.
"I just kept thinking, over and over, 'I hope he's OK, I hope he's OK,' " says Breydon Crystal, a sophomore offensive lineman. "Everyone was upset and nervous. It was tough. It hit us all hard."
Jill, riding alongside her son in the ambulance, seemed to channel his teammates. "I was thinking, 'It's going to be OK, it's going to be OK,' " she says.
It was not OK.
The ambulance brought Hancock to the University Hospital. Doctors quickly determined that the 16-year-old had dislocated his fifth and sixth vertebrae, putting serious pressure on his spinal cord. Before commencing with a three-hour surgery to remove the vertebrae, graft bones together, and insert a two-inch metal plate, doctors had to straighten the spine. They laid Hancock out on a bed, put a screw in each side of his head behind his ears that attached to an apparatus with a 150-pound weight hanging from it.
Outside, in the waiting room, Jill, surrounded now by family members, waited, all right, and worried. And hoped.
What's transpired in the subsequent three weeks has brought both despair and hope. While recovering in the Intensive Care Unit, Hancock came down with pneumonia. He has remained paralyzed from the chest down. Physicians have told Jill, with this sort of injury, they must wait six months before really knowing what the outcome will be, whether he'll regain movement, whether he'll be able to stand or walk again.
He currently is working through therapy sessions, which include everything from relearning to brush his teeth to trying to regain strength. So far, his progress is above the normal curve.
Jill, who stays by Porter's side, sleeping in his room, has struggled watching her boy fight this battle. "I am trying to keep my spirits up," she says, "trying to fight hopelessness and succeeding … for the most part."
Both she and Porter have had a lot of support. Fundraisers on their behalf have popped up back at South Summit and all around. Hancock has been visited by hundreds of friends and strangers. His hospital room is draped with well wishes from near and far: a Notre Dame cap signed by coach Brian Kelly, a Texas jersey with Hancock's name and number on it and a Longhorn hat signed by Mack Brown, footballs signed by Utah and BYU players, other treasures from high school teams.
His entire South Summit team, which plays Beaver in the 2A state playoffs Friday, has come by. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham and Utah State's Gary Andersen have visited, eight Utah players and Philadelphia Eagle Stanley Havili dropped in, all to give encouragement.
"That football family out there is big," Jill says. "When I look into Porter's eyes, I see gratitude. His determination helps me and everybody else."
There is no sugarcoating Hancock's challenge: "It's pretty hard," he says, working to get his words out while sitting in a wheelchair next to his bed. "I think a lot about how long it will take before I'll get better. I can't do much right now. But I'm trying. I think I'll walk again. …"
He stops, his eyes rolling around the room.
"I will walk. …"
He stops, again.
"I'm just trying to find peace."
In his mind's eye, he says he can see himself back home, running down Millrace Road, smelling the scents he can't quite describe, feeling the burn in his legs, splitting the hay fields and the willows and the grazing cattle as he flies by.