NEW FRANKLIN The Manchester football season ended Nov. 10 with a 34-14 regional semifinal loss to South Range, but the effects of the season will continue for some time for one member of the team.
Junior quarterback Robbie Wagner suffered a fracture in the C-5 vertebrae in his neck during the Panthers’ 26-12 win over Northwest in Week 7 when he was tackled on a scramble along the sideline. In the aftermath of the play, there were those who felt the hit was over the line, but for Wagner and his family, the focus was on getting the medical attention he needed.
"I just remember going out, it was fourth-and-16 I think and we called pass," Wagner said. "I dropped back and felt the rush from the left side, so I took off running, saw the open field and the next thing I know I see kid who hit me and everything went black."
Wagner remembers hearing people talking but not being able to see anything, then when he was able to see what was around him, not being able to move. What transpired next was a blur, but what seemed like an eternity to him was, in his estimation after the fact, only about 30 minutes or so of being tended to and rushed to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed his injury.
"I had no clue … I wanted to get up, but there was screaming and yelling and they told me to stay still," Wagner said. "It was pretty scary. I didn’t know if I was going to need surgery."
Initially, the focus among Wagner’s doctors was on getting him ready for surgery to stabilize his neck. He had feeling in his extremities and didn’t have any paralysis, which were positive signs, but he and his family knew the recovery process wouldn’t be fast or easy.
Following surgery, Wagner knew one thing for certain: his football career was over.
"They said I was good to go and to be able to live normally, but I can’t play football any more," Wagner said. "I also couldn’t eat normally for the first to weeks after I got out of the hospital."
Not being able to sit down and eat a normal meal was one challenge, but it wasn’t the only one. Wearing a neck brace everywhere he went became another part of the routine for Wagner, who hasn’t returned to school since the injury. He has school work sent home and works on it from the comfort of his house, doing his best to keep up even though he can’t sit in class to hear lessons and interact with his teachers on a daily basis.
After spending seven days in the hospital following the injury, being home was a welcome change. Wagner was initially taken to Akron Children’s Hospital before being transferred to Akron City Hospital for the rest of his stay. He heard from plenty of friends, family members and teammates starting the night of the injury and those well wishes continued for the first game he attended after the injury, the Panthers’ regular-season home finale against CVCA.
The game featured Wagner’s jersey number painted on the grass around the stadium, number 2 decals on the Panthers’ helmets and even CVCA coaches wearing t-shirts made in support of the injured quarterback.
"It was very cool. It made me feel good to know that everyone was behind me," Wagner said.
Not being active for the past month-plus has been difficult, but the good news is that Wagner expects to get back to his normal life in the long term. He says doctors have told him he can play baseball, as long as he takes it easy with regards to his neck, and that heavy contact activities such as football are the ones he must avoid.
The neck brace will stay on for about two more months, though, and that means he will have to wait for another activity he loves to do.
"Being able to drive myself again will be great. I can’t drive until I get the brace off," he said.
The entire experience has been surreal in a sense, Wagner admitted. These sorts of severe, life-changing injuries are the kind of thing you see in a sports movie or in a TV show, but having them happen to you makes them all too real. It has taken time for his new reality to sink in and even though he knows it will be odd to be around football but not playing, Wagner plans to support his teammates and be there for them next season.
Through it all, he’s working to maintain a positive attitude and not let the difficulty of what he’s going through get him down.
"God always has a plan for me and when he closes one door, another one opens," Wagner said.
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