Adam Taliaferro has been a portrait in courage since suffering a severe spinal cord injury as a Penn State freshman safety in 2000 that left him paralyzed, learning how to walk again, and showing grit and determination leading the Nittany Lions on to the field at Beaver Stadium less than a year later.
So despite a health scare a few months ago, the 39-year-old state assemblyman from South Jersey is not going to let it deter him from being an honorary captain for the Lions at Saturday night’s White Out game against Auburn.
After suffering what he called “the worst headache of my life,” Taliaferro was admitted to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on May 25 with a brain hemorrhage that left him in intensive care. Fortunately, he said, they caught the brain bleed early and no surgery was needed, but he remained in the hospital for 34 days.
The long stay in bed affected his legs, which felt the brunt of the trauma from his 2000 injury. So in a poignant twist of fate, Taliaferro found himself once again at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Center City — the same facility where he was taken in early October 2000, a few weeks after being seriously injured in a game at Ohio State — to undergo therapy to be able to walk more freely.
“It was just so ironic,” he said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “My same physical therapist was there and a lot of folks that I’ve gotten to know over the years helped me to get back on me feet again in June. I am just so thankful for Magee because I tell people, ‘They’ve gotten me back twice now in life.’
“Laying in the bed for more than 30 days just did a number on my legs. They got really tight and it made it difficult to walk. So right now it’s just strengthening the legs and getting the walking motion right back. I feel I’m about 70 to 75% of myself at this moment.
“As my parents said and my wife said, ‘Every 20 years you give us a crazy medical scare. You’ve got to stop doing that.’ I have to laugh about it because what are the chances of having a spinal cord injury and then this random brain hemorrhage out of nowhere.”
Taliaferro said he spent a week-and-a-half at Magee and continues therapy twice a week at his home. He said his prognosis is for 100% recovery from the brain hemorrhage.
Soon after Taliaferro’s 2000 injury, doctors told his father than he would have only a 3% chance to walk again. But he fought to do just that, and his resolve grew after he left the hospital on crutches in January 2001 and underwent four hours a day of therapy for the next three months. During that time, an idea struck him.
“I said, ‘You know what? I may be able to actually walk on my own out of the tunnel’ at Beaver Stadium,” he said. “That’s when I really started to get some excitement. I went back to Penn State a few weeks after that and they transferred my therapy there and I started working with our team trainers and our strength coaches. They treated me like a football player and I was getting ready for the game.”
The big day was Sept. 1, 2001, the Nittany Lions’ season opener against Miami. Without his crutches and wearing his blue No. 43 uniform shirt, Taliaferro saw his picture on the Jumbotron from the tunnel entrance, walked out to an incredible roar from the fans, and even took a couple of skips and a brief jog.
“As I start walking out, the roar kept getting louder and louder,” he said, “and something went through me that I never felt before which allowed me to try to take a couple of jogging steps. I’ve never jogged again since that moment, but the adrenaline and the push that crowd provided to me was unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my life.”
Taliaferro will hear another roar Saturday night when he comes out for the coin toss before a packed house of more than 107,000 attending the White Out, which he called “probably the best atmosphere in sports.”
“I told the guys at Penn State, ‘The walk may be a little bit slower this time around but we’re going to try to get it done,’” he added.
A pharmaceutical representative, Taliaferro is married with two young children. He is active in the Adam Taliaferro Foundation, which has raised more than $1.5 million and provides financial support and equipment “to make someone’s life a little bit easier.”
He can’t help but wonder what might have been. He was one of the best football players in South Jersey history at Eastern High in Voorhees, scoring 66 touchdowns in two seasons as a running back. But he only got to play in five collegiate games before the injury put an end to his career.
“I do sometimes sit back and think how far my football career could have gone,” he said. “It kind of irks me not having an answer to that question, but I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to play at Penn State and to have those memories and the high school memories and all those things.
“But I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I’m blessed with two kids now and my wife. I’m thankful for the life that I have now.”