TERRE HAUTE —
This was not the easiest column I ever wrote, but it did send a tingle down my spine in a “wow, that’s amazing” kind of way.
And after interviewing Rockville senior Billy Bettis and Seeger junior Khole Stephen this week, I can’t help but root for them in 2010.
Both almost died too young in 2009 — which I can relate to because of my previously documented battle with cancer — yet both were fiercely determined to return to their teams.
They’ll open their high school football seasons against each other tonight on Seeger’s field in West Lebanon, starting at 7 o’clock.
Stephen, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound starting quarterback for Seeger this season, was driving his mother’s 2005 Cadillac CTS on a blacktop road in rural Warren County on the Saturday night of Oct. 24. One day after his 2009 football season ended with a sectional loss at Rensselaer Central, the vehicle flipped six times and landed “quite a ways off the road, right side up,” he recalled.
Unconscious at the time, Stephen was later told that a man saw part of the one-car accident from a nearby house and called an ambulance.
“I still don’t remember it,” insists Stephen, who was transported to Carle Clinic in Champaign, Ill., after the crash.
His injuries included Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), two collapsed lungs and cuts on the back of his head that required six staples — but no broken bones.
“I was in critical condition for three or four days with brain swelling,” he said. “I was in ICU [intensive care unit] for 11 days. Then the swelling went down and I progressively got a little better … but it was a bad deal.”
Part of that life-or-death experience did make Stephen thankful, however.
“It was amazing that even though I was in a coma on the night of the wreck, three-fourths of the football team and coach [Rob] Beckett were there at 3 o’clock in the morning to see how I was,” he said. “All sorts of people, some I didn’t know, were praying for me. It was awesome.”
Stephen, who estimated that he underwent 11 surgeries during his 25-day hospital stay, said doctors inserted a probe into his head to monitor pressure on his brain.
When Stephen eventually recovered enough to ask questions to doctors and family members, he wondered when he would get back to school, partly so he could play basketball again.
“I didn’t want to let anybody down,” he explained.
Meanwhile, Bettis — who will start at offensive tackle, defensive tackle and placekicker for the Rox tonight — was recovering from his own one-car accident that occurred at about 7 a.m. June 17, 2009.
Heading to Terre Haute on U.S. 41 to run an errand for his father, Bettis and his 2003 Monte Carlo reportedly drifted left across the oncoming lane in the Parke County town of Lyford. Fortunately, there were no other motorists nearby, but his vehicle struck an object, flipped over and slid 80 to 100 feet.
“I was tired, probably from a lack of sleep the night before,” Bettis recalled. “I fell asleep and I didn’t have my seat belt on.
“I remember getting out of the car [after the accident]… I thought it was going to blow up because I saw it smoking, so I wanted to get out as fast as I could.”
Soon afterward, a passing motorist — who happened to be an EMT — checked on Bettis before on-duty Clinton EMTs arrived. He was transported to Union Hospital Clinton, then Lifelined to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis.
“When I woke up in the hospital, I was more worried about football than anything else,” he said. “I didn’t feel too bad at first because I was on so much medicine.”
“Billy was upset because of football,” mentioned Rockville football coach Herb King, who had rushed from Terre Haute to Indianapolis when he received a call from another player about Bettis’ mishap. “He was worried that it would mess up the season.”
King said several concerned Rockville players and members of Bettis’ family waited in the hospital lobby for condition updates. The original news wasn’t good, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
Unlike Stephen later in the year, Bettis didn’t need surgeries. But he did break two vertebrae in the middle of his back, forcing him to wear a back brace for the next 2 1/2 months.
“I had thought I was going to have a good  season,” he reminisced, “then I thought it was all going to go down the drain because of the wreck.”
His season didn’t exactly go “down the drain,” but Bettis knows he wasn’t his old self when he miraculously returned to the lineup in Week 3. The Rox ended up 8-4 overall and 6-1 in the Wabash River Conference in 2009.
“I was pretty tentative at first,” Bettis admitted. “I didn’t want to get hurt again.”
Back to Stephen, he was able to play junior varsity basketball last winter and varsity baseball in the spring. But he doesn’t think he pitched as well as a sophomore as he did when he was a freshman, although he did get better as the season progressed.
“The hardest thing for me [after being released from the hospital] was getting my conditioning back,” Stephen assessed. “I’d lost 40 pounds, but I finally got it all back right before I took my physical [in June].”
Stephen said he got back to “being myself again” this summer. “I truly believe I would not be here right now if I were not in shape from playing three sports,” he maintained.
When preseason football practices began in 2010, coach Beckett would not allow Stephen’s teammates to hit him hard, probably similar to how the Indianapolis Colts treat Peyton Manning every year. Then came last Friday’s scrimmage at West Vigo, where Stephen started behind center.
“I took a few big hits against West Vigo and I popped right back up,” he said. “I was fine.”
Like Stephen, Bettis credits his prior dedication to fitness workouts for keeping him alive.
Again, I can relate.
“I always enjoyed lifting weights,” Bettis emphasized. “I was probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in [when the accident occurred].”
Not surprisingly, Bettis worked out hard over the summer to be in great shape for the upcoming season.
“I don’t have any problems with [the back] anymore,” he pointed out.
“He’s a hard lifter,” King added. “He put up 385 [pounds] in the bench press once. So he’s a very strong kid.”
So how much are Stephen and Bettis looking forward to this football season?
As you might guess, they’re psyched beyond belief.
“I’m super excited,” Bettis proclaimed. “We have a core group of guys that worked hard in the offseason and should be successful if we all do our jobs and work together as a team.”
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Stephen said. “I was pushing as hard as I could to be able to help my team.”
Asked if any long-term effects exist from his October accident, Stephen quickly replied: “Absolutely not.”
Stephen and Bettis said they’ve never met before, but both agreed they might shake hands and exchange a few friendly words before tonight’s clash.
But what about after the game starts? How friendly will they act toward each other then?
“I’ll try to rip his head off,” the 6-foot, 240-pound Bettis said with a chuckle.
King describes Bettis, who was named the Rockville team captain for this season, as “the one who gets everybody going.”
“Billy’s grown up immensely since he was a freshman,” the Rockville coach stressed. “Because he went through this [accident ordeal], he became a better person.”
Near-death experiences tend to do that. I can relate.
David Hughes can be reached by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at (812) 231-4224; by e-mail at email@example.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.