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Former football player struggles back after leg amputation
WAYNESBURG, Pa. — Kurt Detwiler does not want to talk about his physical limitations. His left leg is gone and his football career is over, but he’s ready to talk about defying the odds and proving the night that changed his life won’t define him.
The underdog mindset was the same when he was an undersized defensive lineman for Waynesburg University, spending countless hours in the weight room to ensure his 5-11 frame would be a strength, rather than a weakness.
Even before he was a team captain for Williamsburg High School in 2011, Detwiler’s improvement was measured by maxing out on the bench press. At Waynesburg, it was measured by the increased amount of plays he participated in during his sophomore and junior seasons.
Detwiler’s improvement now is measured by how many steps he can take without experiencing pain, re-learning to balance while standing up, and accomplishing tasks without the help of his family.
Football and any semblance of normalcy were taken away from Detwiler almost a year ago - roughly 1 a.m. on May 23, 2015. Detwiler and three friends were in a one-car wreck while traveling on Route 22 in Catharine Township, Blair County.
Two of his friends did not survive. Detwiler’s left leg had to be amputated, three feet of his intestines also were removed in a life-saving operation and he tore all four ligaments in his right leg. His cornea in his left eye was damaged.
The physical limitations are not the most difficult part of life for the 22-year-old. It’s the mental anguish.
“That’s been the toughest part,” Detwiler said. “Everything physical is tough, but the mental part of it is so much harder, overcoming everything. It’s so much harder than losing my leg.”
Detwiler does not remember the night of the wreck that happened weeks after completing his junior year of college. When he awoke at the hospital, his father, Tony, told him the news: doctors had to amputate his left leg above the knee to prevent infection from spreading.
“It didn’t seem real,” Detwiler recalled. “My parents told me I was in a wreck and I had no idea what they were talking about. It didn’t hit me until days later when I was just lying there. It was surreal.”
The driver of the Mazda that crashed in a farm field just east of Canoe Mountain, Joshua Fay, and Allison Edwards, another passenger, died the morning of the crash. Fay’s brother, Elijah, suffered injuries to his head, eye and hand.
Detwiler was taken to UPMC Altoona, where emergency surgery was performed to a portion of his intestines after the seat belt sliced through his abdomen. He was then flown to UPMC Presbyterian.
His mother, Tammy, will never forget the call.
“It was a nightmare,” Tammy Detwiler said. “It was surreal. To see your child lying there and not knowing whether he’s going to live or not, it replays in my head many nights.”
Kurt Detwiler has undergone 33 surgeries, including several operations on his right leg. Doctors removed his Achilles tendon - eliminating all feeling from his ankle down. Muscle and nerves were cut away, and doctors have recommended it be amputated.
Detwiler refuses to agree.
He can wear a bulky metal brace the rest of his life, which would make walking with a prosthetic a tedious task. Another option is a knee replacement that could lead to an infection, or doctors can stabilize the leg by repairing ligaments. The latter would allow him to walk, but with pain.
The physical pain is nothing compared to the horror Detwiler has experienced. It wasn’t until several days after the crash that his parents informed him of what happened to his friends.
The wreck and the tragic losses are still difficult for Detwiler to reflect upon. He has found comfort in the friendship forged with Elijah Fay, but there’s no remedy for the inevitable depression - those times when Detwiler thinks about and dwells on what and who was lost.
“I don’t remember the last time I slept well,” Detwiler said. “The mental stuff is the hardest. When you’re alone, that’s the hardest - sitting alone, trying to sleep. That’s when everything comes back.”
Tammy and Tony are ensuring that Kurt isn’t approaching recovery alone. The family’s home has been fitted for Kurt’s wheelchair, but the difficult part for Tammy has been watching her son struggle.
Kurt admits he often grows frustrated when his mother tries to help. He was once a strong defensive lineman who could push bigger opponents out of the way. Transitioning to a life where he must rely on others was an adjustment after nearly four months in the hospital.
Now, he insists on carrying groceries into the house and completing other day-to-day activities without assistance.
“I’ve gotten angry a lot of times at home because she’s just so caring and she’s such a good person,” Detwiler said. “She tries to help me every chance she gets. My whole family does. I like doing everything on my own. Even if I fail, I do it on my own so I can learn.”
As Detwiler was returning home from his extended hospitalization, he was missing his senior football season with Waynesburg. Though he was gone, Waynesburg ensured Detwiler would be a part of the team.
Head coach Rick Shepas and his staff made regular visits to the hospital. In the hours following the crash, Shepas called the hospital several times for updates.
As soon as Shepas heard Detwiler’s condition had improved, he extended an invitation for Senior Day. The ceremony wouldn’t be the same without him, and a fundraiser was organized for to raise money for Kurt’s prosthetic leg.
When his name was announced Oct. 24 at John F. Wiley Stadium, Kurt, with Tammy by his side and Tony looking on, stepped out of his wheelchair and used a walker to reach to his spot on the field. He did so with a large hernia in his abdomen - a result of his organs pushing against his skin.
“Him getting out of that wheelchair and walking was a big goal for him,” Shepas said. “It’s been one of the most impressive things I’ve seen. What he’s achieving is the new normal in his life. It’s been incredible watching his determination.”
“I want to live again”
There was never a moment when Detwiler thought he wouldn’t walk again. He’s been given the grim diagnosis about his right leg, but he’s determined to not allow his physical limitations to prevent him from living a fulfilling life.
That’s what drives him during three physical-therapy sessions each week and the extra time he spends lifting weights. One moment in particular showed him what is possible.
Kurt received his prosthetic leg Jan. 19 and it was a little than a month later when he took his first steps.
“I was so proud of him,” Tammy said. “We always knew he could do it. That first step was like watching him all over again however many years ago when he took his first steps as a toddler.”
Even during the difficult days, Kurt remains optimistic. He’s excited to have a cornea replacement that will cure the blindness in his left eye, and surgery on his stomach went well. He plans to return to Waynesburg this fall to complete his business degree.
He spent three weeks on campus recently with friends and teammates - a vacation to his second home.
The hills on campus might be a challenge this fall, and the future with his right leg remains uncertain, but Kurt plans to do everything he can to ensure that night last May won’t define him or his future.
“I want to get back to a normal life,” he said. “I want to live again.”