SAN JOSE, Calif. — Neil Parry can view the videotape these days without wincing. He has watched himself getting injured several times, and he always has the same thought in the moments before a teammate rolled into his leg and changed his life.
“Man, I should have jumped,” Parry said with a grin.
The severe broken leg and subsequent infections led to the amputation of Parry’s right leg just below his knee. Three years later, Parry can run and jump and do anything he pleases with a new prosthetic leg — and he will be back in action for San Jose State tonight against Nevada.
Parry’s remarkable comeback has brought national interest to an otherwise minor Western Athletic Conference football game between two teams with hopes of a league title. San Jose State, which struggles to draw enough fans to reach Division I mandates, expects a healthy crowd to see something that seemed impossible three years ago.
Parry, a walk-on safety when he was hurt in a game at Texas-El Paso, will play on the Spartans’ special teams. Unless fans watch for his No.32, they probably won’t be able to distinguish him from his teammates: With his sophisticated prosthetic leg covered by socks and pads, he looks like any other player.
“That’s all Neil ever wanted — to be one of the guys and be with his teammates again,” said Parry’s father, Nick. “I can’t say I’m shocked by what he’s done, because ever since he said he wanted to come back, he’s never changed his mind. He has incredible dedication.”
It took nearly three years of hard work to get Parry into playing shape with a prosthetic limb. Parry says he’s tired of looking at Jeb Burns, the San Jose State trainer who amassed a wealth of knowledge about prosthetic limbs and disabled athletes while supervising Parry’s rehabilitation.
Burns found Parry’s newest leg by consulting with a friend who uses the same prosthetic limb for wakeboarding.
“Two years ago, we didn’t have the technology to do everything Neil is capable of doing right now,” Burns said. “But it seems like advances are made all the time. Barriers are falling, and Neil is right at the front of that.”
Parry made a few wrong turns along the way. He originally tried a foot built for sprinting, but found it wasn’t effective for all the various movements necessary for football. Last summer he developed a nerve irritation near the spot of his amputation, and it prevented him from wearing any prosthetics comfortably.
His new leg weighs nearly nothing, and it’s more agile and versatile than anything he’s tried before. The heavily padded prosthetic is held to his leg by suction and a bulky knee brace that doesn’t look out of place among the surgically repaired players on any football field — though after 25 operations, Parry is a bit more experienced in that area.
“Each time I see Neil, my goal is always to improve and upgrade,” said Mike Norell, the president of Mountain View-based Norell Prosthetics, the company that built Parry’s leg. “He’s never complained once about the whole process, never felt sorry for himself. It’s a wonderful story.”
Nick Parry works in an emergency room, and he took over the dressing of Neil’s amputation during the early days at the hospital. Older brother Josh Parry also helped out — by pursuing his football dreams without pausing.
Josh, a talented linebacker, was the Spartans’ captain the year Parry got hurt. After briefly considering quitting the team after Neil’s injury, Josh finished the season with passion.
After two years of trying out for the Philadelphia Eagles as an undrafted free agent, Parry finally made the team this summer as a fullback on the practice squad.
“He told me he was going to play for me,” Neil Parry said. “Now, I feel like we’re playing for each other.”
During the three years of recovery, Parry has drawn inspiration from Lance Armstrong’s comeback from cancer. He has watched inspirational sports films like “Rocky” and “Rudy” more times than he can count.
And he has received a wealth of unbending support from his family, his school, his teammates and the public. Former President Bill Clinton dropped by to offer inspiration, and Parry has received sportsmanship awards in three states in the last year.
Parry is a senior, so his comeback story will end in two months — but only on the field. He would love to start a coaching career as a graduate assistant at San Jose State, and he plans to learn more about the Paralympics and other events.
He’s also playing the best golf of his life, shooting in the mid-80s and regularly trouncing his dad.
“I’m basically back to a normal life, which is what I really wanted,” Parry said. “If I can play football too, well, that’s even better.”