Two days after performing surgery on Chris Fatilua to fix a fractured spine, Dr. Alexa Smith, a neurosurgeon at the SENTA Clinic in San Diego, informed him that she has never had a patient walk again after undergoing such a procedure.
"I'm going to be your first," Fatilua said.
It was four months ago today that Fatilua suffered a severe spinal injury after a freak swimming accident left him paralyzed. This Saturday, Fatilua will walk – on his own – on to the field at California Memorial Stadium during Cal's football game against UCLA and be honored for his extraordinary demonstration of will, determination and perseverance.
"He's a miracle," Smith said.
It would have been easy to dismiss Fatilua's initial bravado as simply positive self-talk, which would be understandable given what confronted him. But the oddsmakers evidently didn't know Chris Fatilua.
"He's the strongest person I know," said Fatilua's older sister, Kailea. "He inspires me every day."
Consider us all inspired. And humbled. And awed.
Turns out Fatilua's confidence wasn't just a vehicle to convince himself everything was going to be OK. Fatilua possessed something that is literally indescribable, something that made him baffle his own medical team.
"When Chris told me that, I was very hopeful but a little skeptical," Smith said. "With this injury, we would typically see a little recovery, but not this. This is very stunning. We have never seen anyone with this much recovery."
It was two days before his graduation from Madison High School that Fatilua spent the day swimming with friends. He was set to report to Cal the following week and begin his career as a student-athlete on the Golden Bear football team.
The plan changed in an instant when he dove into the pool awkwardly, hyperflexing his neck and putting too much torque on his spinal cord. Suddenly, Fatilua couldn't move.
His friends helped him out of the pool, called 911 and then members of his family. Kailea rushed to be with him and rode in the ambulance with him to the hospital.
"I was so scared," Kailea said. "I was terrified. I think I was more scared than him, and I know it showed."
Apparently, Fatilua had no time for fear. He underwent the surgery and then set the course for his improbable recovery.
"I literally had people come into the room and tell me I wouldn't walk again. There are a lot of emotions that go into that," Fatilua said. "But just talking to God and just coming to rehab and therapy every day and having that mindset that you are going to walk again, that you are going to play football again. I knew it was going to be tough, but hard work doesn't hurt anybody."
Fatilua spent two weeks at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego before being transferred to Craig Hospital near Denver, a world-renowned center that specializes in neuro-rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injuries. He had a team of specialists work on his case, including physical therapist Joe Fangman, a former football player as well who, like Fatilua, played linebacker.
"He kind of knew where I was coming from," Fatilua said. "I told him not to take it easy on me. He said, 'Don't worry, I won't.' Every day was a constant battle between me and him."
It wasn't long after Fatilua made the move to Denver, accompanied by Kailea, that Fatilua took his first steps with the help of a walker. On July 1, less than a month after the accident, Fatilua took what he estimated were 10-15 steps in the hospital.
"(Fangman) just walked in and said, 'OK, get up. We're going to start walking now.' I was like, 'Alright, let's go.' But obviously in my mind, I was a little doubtful," Fatilua said. "I'll never forget it. It's hard to even put into words."
Soon, Fatilua was expanding his ability to move. He started walking up and down stairs while holding on to the railing. Before long, Fangman was putting Fatilua through – you guessed it – linebacker drills.
"He pushed himself further and harder than anyone can push him," said Kailea, who spent every day with him at Craig Hospital. "I was like, 'Are you even human? What are you doing?' Other patients were fascinated by him. They were always asking him questions."
Fatilua returned to San Diego in mid-August able to walk short distances on his own. He continues his recovery at a rehab center near his home and his thoughts have been turning more and more to beginning his new life at Cal.
Two weeks ago, Fatilua surprised his teammates by showing up for the Bears' game against Oregon. Recruiting assistant Benji Palu
picked Fatilua up from the Oakland Airport the day before the game and took him to the football offices at the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance. Astonished coaches came out to greet him before Palu took Fatilua into the locker room, where the team was preparing for practice.
Linebacker Alex Funches
was the first to see him enter the room.
"He looked over and realized it was him and said, "That's Chris! Chris is walking!," Palu said. "Everybody gave him hugs and got around him at the Cal logo in the locker room."
"They all went crazy," Fatilua said. "It was an amazing feeling."
From the moment he was admitted to the hospital in June, Fatilua kept in close contact with Cal's staff, especially Palu. Soon after he initially suffered the injury, Fatilua was paid visits by head coach Justin Wilcox
, associate head coach Peter Sirmon
and head football administrator Andrew McGraw
Palu made sure coaches and players sent Fatilua text messages of support, and Palu also flew down to surprise Fatilua in the hospital. Palu visited Fatilua the same day the team was holding its photo day for the 2018 season, so he arranged FaceTime calls with several of the players.
"He was obviously self-motivated. He set a plan and wanted to meet that goal," Palu said. "I remember just thinking I guess he's optimistic, so I'll be optimistic with him. Then he started sending regular video updates of how well he was doing, and I was just thinking this is nuts."
Fatilua is set to come to Cal for the spring semester and has his sights set on returning to the football field sooner rather than later. And it doesn't appear anyone is going to try to stop him.
"Chris has defied all expectations," Smith said. "I would leave that up to him. I'm not making any predictions about him anymore. You're wasting your time."
Fatilua's family has incurred extraordinary medical expenses to pay for Chris' medical care. To help offset costs, please visit Fatilua's GoFundMe page by clicking here.