- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

He needed a cane to get around the house. He experienced short-term memory problems. He had difficulty bending over to tie his sneakers.

Drew Hixon almost died from a brain injury he suffered during a college football game. But there he was, during a visit to his parents’ house in Leesburg last November, giving his mom and dad a sure sign he was returning to a normal life.

“Had to turn the cell phone back on,” Drew said last week, laughing.

The physical recovery would continue for several months. But Drew’s release from a rehabilitation center two days before last Thanksgiving was the best holiday gift for Stan Hixon, the Washington Redskins’ receivers coach, and his wife, Rebecca.

The Hixons today will gather again for Thanksgiving dinner, 13 months after Drew was hurt while playing for Tennessee Tech. And again, it will be extra special.

“When a person you love dearly nearly loses their life, you appreciate things more and just value everything,” Rebecca said. “The incident definitely took my faith to a new level because I had never been challenged or tested like that before. We’re always grateful he’s alive.”

Drew, a wide receiver, was knocked unconscious after a catch during a game against South Florida on Sept. 11, 2004, in Tampa, Fla. He remained in a coma for nearly a month, spent nearly three months in a hospital and underwent rigorous rehabilitation throughout the 2004-05 school year.

More than a year later, Drew is three weeks from graduating with a finance degree from Tennessee Tech and continues to recover from the freak hit that nearly killed him.

“I’ve come a long way,” said Drew, 23. “From how I was until now — granted, I’m not 100 percent, but I’d say I’m around 90 percent.

“I look at the pictures back when I was like 5 percent, and I’m like, ‘Man, I was in pretty bad shape.’ ”

• • •

Rebecca Hixon was never much of a photographer, but in the days after her son’s injury, she started taking pictures to document his comeback. Last week, she pulled out two thick scrapbooks.

There are pictures from newspapers that show Drew surrounded by trainers and doctors on the Raymond James Stadium field. The rest of the books hold Rebecca’s snapshots, starting with photos of Drew in his hospital room days after the injury, tubes coming out of his mouth and the top of his head.

Drew had high expectations entering that season. He was the team’s No. 3 receiver in 2002-03 with 19 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns. A standout high school receiver in Georgia, Drew committed to play for his dad, an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, but then followed him to LSU, where Stan Hixon served as associate head coach under Nick Saban. But Drew grew frustrated after two years with little playing time, and he transferred to Tennessee Tech, a Division I-AA school.

“I had always wanted to play for him,” Drew said. “He was really against me transferring, but once he knew my mind was made up, he helped me find a school.”

In the 2004 opener, Drew caught a game-winning, 27-yard touchdown pass. The next week, he lined up wide left against South Florida and ran a crossing route, beating his man and catching a pass in stride. He turned up field and was hit from behind, causing him to lose his balance and fall forward. His forehead slammed into the chest of an oncoming South Florida defender. The football and Drew’s purple helmet went flying forward, and he hit his head on the grass field.

“I’m surprised it knocked me out,” said Drew, who has watched the play numerous times on videotape.

Teammates instantly waved for the trainer. Drew already was unconscious.

Rebecca watched from the stands with daughter Avis and several of Stan’s relatives from nearby Lakeland. She has been a football coach’s wife for 26 years and has seen her share of collisions.

“I thought it was just another hit,” she said. “I didn’t even see his helmet come off. I thought he would get up. But he didn’t, and as time ticked on I started to see with each moment that he wasn’t getting up. Then I started to quickly realize it was more than a regular hit.”

Drew was taken by ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa. Rebecca soon arrived with a daughter and other relatives. Around 10 p.m., she called Stan, even though she didn’t know what to tell him.

• • •

Stan Hixon always wanted to coach in the NFL. He was a standout receiver at Iowa State in the late 1970s. He moved up the college coaching ladder, from Morehead State to Appalachian State, Wake Forest, South Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU. He won a national championship with LSU after the 2003 season.

Shortly after Joe Gibbs returned to the Redskins in January 2004, Don Breaux, Gibbs’ old/new offensive coordinator, heard glowing recommendations about Hixon. Gibbs hired him to coach the receivers.

“It was a dream come true for him,” Rebecca said.

On Sept. 11, Stan drove to the Greenbelt Marriott to attend team meetings. His regular season professional coaching debut — the Redskins against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field — was the next day. He was in his room when Rebecca called to tell him Drew had been injured and was in the hospital. Stan thought it was a concussion.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys knocked out who would wake up in the hospital,” he said.

At the hospital, Rebecca got sketchy details. The first news she received was that Drew’s spinal cord was not damaged. After spending nearly five hours in the waiting room, she finally met with a neurosurgeon.

Drew had sustained a brain shear injury — the impact of the hit had shifted his brain forward and bounced it off his skull. All four quadrants of his brain were bruised, and his blood pressure and body temperature were dangerously high. Rebecca called Stan in the middle of the night with a second update.

Around 8 a.m. on Sept. 12, Rebecca called Stan again to tell him Drew’s condition was more serious than initially thought. Stan found Breaux and told him he was heading to Florida. He arrived at the hospital in Tampa around 2 p.m. He would miss the Redskins’ first three games.

Stan knew Drew’s injury was serious, but the gravity of the situation hit him hard when he entered Drew’s room.

“We didn’t know when he was going to wake up, if he was going to wake up,” Stan said. “People had been in a coma for months and years and never woke up.”

Thirteen days after he was injured, Sept. 24, Drew remained in a coma but was upgraded from critical to serious condition. His eyes would occasionally flicker, but he was unresponsive other than a reflex squeeze of the hand. That lasted through his move to the University of Virginia Children’s Hospital in Charlottesville on Oct. 6, 2004.

Drew has no memory of beingin the Tampa hospital. The months of August and September have been wiped from his memory, unlikely to come back.

• • •

Following Drew’s transfer to Charlottesville, Stan would go through practice Friday afternoon, then drive two hours south. Father and son would talk about the Redskins, college football and the frustrations of Drew’s recovery. And because Drew’s arm movements were still shaky, Stan would help him shave his face Saturday mornings.

“That was important for me,” Drew said. “I really enjoyed those Friday nights. He would drive all that time after working a lot during the week, and to use his time off to come and see me meant a lot.”

Upon his return to the team, Stan used work as a release of sorts.

“I can’t imagine what Stan was going through,” Breaux said. “But he handled it very, very well. He’s a very grounded, not overly high, not overly low person. He was able to focus.”

Redskins receiver James Thrash said Stan didn’t keep things bottled up during position meetings and at team chapels.

The Hixons, a religious family, didn’t question their faith. Sure, it was tested, but ultimately it grew stronger. The cover of one of Rebecca’s scrapbooks reads: “Drew Hixon: God’s Miracle.” She cites Proverbs 3:5-6 as scripture that is embedded in her mind.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, And he shall direct your paths.”

“It’s easy to be happy and love the Lord when everything is going right,” Thrash said. “But the true test of faith is when something goes wrong. When things look the darkest, that’s when your faith really grows and when you can really depend on it.”

Before returning home last November, Drew went through a wide range of rehabilitation activities, from walking on a treadmill to improve his leg strength to playing pingpong and foosball to improve his eye-hand coordination. While staying with his parents, he continued his rehab at a Mount Vernon facility.

His parents initially resisted his request to return to Tennessee Tech this semester, but they relented when he continued to improve.

Drew is taking two classes. He receives extra time during exams, and teachers provide him with notes because he struggles to listen to the lecture and take notes simultaneously.

“I’ve been pretty determined to come back and graduate [at Tech],” he said.

Drew wasn’t nervous about how he would function on his own in Cookeville, Tenn., but his mom had reservations.

“I was concerned about his basic needs like eating right and getting rest because he was still recovering, and those things are important,” Rebecca said. “This [fall] has almost been harder for me because he’s away and I can’t see him every day. I don’t talk to him daily, and I can’t see his improvement.”

Drew, though, has thrived on his own. He is able to drive around town and has regained most of the 25 pounds he lost during his recovery. He remains on medication for alertness and memory and takes a caffeine pill for energy.

Doctors told the Hixons that recovery takes two years. Wherever Drew is mentally next September likely is where he will remain. He wants to pursue a career in financial or investment planning. Drew worked internships with Bank of America and Nike, making the family confident he can handle a 40-hour work week.

“It’s never been a ‘why me?’ thing,” Drew said. “I never asked why because everything happens for a reason. We don’t always know the reasons. … I don’t freak out when I start to think about it. Something happened to me, and I made it through.

“We’re all trying to stay alive. I just had to work a little harder.”

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