The New York Jets sent a three-man unit to New York Hospital Queens on Tuesday. After a 30-minute car ride and a short wait in the downstairs lobby, they were escorted to Blake Hunt's room. Upon entry, they froze at the end of his bed.
But Blake didn't let the quiet last for long. He began to talk and talk and talk. He brought the room to life with laughter, telling his guests that he was "becoming a pain" for the nurses. And he said he had watched their opener with the Patriots and he instructed them to even their record on Sunday.
"I'll be watching the next game, so you better not lose," he said.
Blake, a 17-year-old Flushing High School student, is in the fight of his life. Just a week before Flushing's first football game of the season, they had a scrimmage against Erasmus Hall on Sept. 1. Blake, a senior, came up to make a tackle on a running back and was struck in the helmet by a knee. His head snapped backward and hit the ground.
"He was on the ground and he could not move," said Flushing head football coach Jim DeSantis. "He never went unconscious and we just kept him there. Your first thought is it's just a stinger, but after a second or so he couldn't move anything. I immediately called for the EMS and got the defibrillator there just in case, but he didn't seem to have any difficulty breathing. We just waited for EMS and turned it over to those guys."
Hunt was rushed to the hospital. The force of the collision resulted in a broken C-5 vertebra in his neck. He was kept in traction until surgery was performed the following morning. The operation to stabilize the spine was a success and Blake has some use of his arms and hands, but he still does not have use of his lower extremities.
"It's a touching situation," said Jets linebacker Victor Hobson. "Anytime you hear about anybody who gets hurt — especially to this extreme — doing something that they love, it just touches you as a person. I just remember meeting them all when they [Flushing] just started the football program and the joy that was on their faces. To have something like that taken away from him, it's just a sad situation."
Hobson, a Jets Heads!Up Ambassador, was at Flushing last October to present the school with a $10,000 check from Jets owner Woody Johnson. Due to family obligations, Hobson wasn't able to attend the hospital visit but his jersey was presented to Blake at the hospital by fullback Stacy Tutt, guard Jacob Bender and practice squad safety Raymond Ventrone, who was since released. All four signed the jersey and Blake was also given a signed team helmet.
During summer school, DeSantis, also a physical education teacher, watched Blake and his friends play some touch football. He saw a gifted athlete and asked him to play for the varsity.
"The coach got me dragged into it," Blake told the Jets with a laugh.
"I happened to see him play touch football and I invited him out," said DeSantis. "But in this short period I've know Blake, he has been a very positive, very intelligent young man who until this summer I don't think had really applied himself in school. He took a couple of summer school courses and got like an 80 and an 85 in those courses. He is just a really good kid. Many kids come out of the huddle and go through the motions, but he really wanted to know what was going on."
Gregory, Blake's father, talked to DeSantis following the injury and he also plans on addressing the team. The message: Blake wants his teammates to play and he wants them to win.
"When you're with people so long, you look at them like family," Blake said.
As of Tuesday, Blake was in intensive care. He had to return there because he had a lung collapse. But his spirits were good despite his situation, which includes tubes in his nose to help his breathing.
"I was so pleased last week when I went in because you know he's having some breathing issues," DeSantis said. "I didn't realize the shivers that you see are electric stim on his back. Basically when I saw him the other day — I think it was Monday — he was really himself. It was the first time I saw him that way. I think he's really accepting the fact that it's going to be a long journey. There are going to be some good days and some bad days. He's OK with that now."
Any journey needs support and Blake was surrounded by his father, his stepmother, Tasha, his grandmother, Dorothy McLean, and a couple classmates.
"The coaches and some of the players on his team have visited. This is the first I have seen of his classmates, so that's good," said Tasha. "They can talk about normal stuff. He is talking like he just went to school the other day."
Teachers have also swung by to drop off DVDs. DeSantis has been there nearly every day and is overcome with guilt when he doesn't see Blake for more than 24 hours.
"Blake is a fighter, so he's going to fight," he said. "He is going to work his butt off because he worked his butt off as a player. This is far greater than getting ready for any game."
Before the Jets departed, they exchanged taps on the left hand with their courageous companion. Walking back to the van on a busy Queens street, Tutt said it was rough seeing a terrific kid in such a difficult situation.
"Seeing him lying there knowing that could be any one of us, any one of my other teammates or anybody, I was just thinking about how hard it was for his family," Tutt said. "He handled it great."
Blake will turn 18 on Nov. 10, the date of a scheduled game for Flushing.He said he can't let his condition "beat me" and he wants to go watch his teammates play, if not that day then on his 19th birthday.
"He was talking about being able to run and walk and things like that," Tutt said. "He seems real motivated and I'd like to see him again sometime. I really liked him."
We have been reminded too much lately how dangerous a sport football can be. Buffalo Bills TE Kevin Everett sustained a spine injury Sunday and actually moved his legs Tuesday evening. That came on the heels of a bedridden Blake offering Everett well wishes.
"It could always be worse," he said. "The same thing happened to a guy with the Bills. I wish him the best of luck."
And that pretty much tells you all you need to know about Blake Hunt. Facing unbelievable adversity and untold physical and emotional hurdles, he was thinking of someone else. His spirit is indomitable and you can only hope now that he gets a little good fortune himself.
The student organization at Flushing High School is setting up a fund in Blake's name. When those details are confirmed, we will provide the information for those interested in supporting this cause.